Catharsis and Justice in a Post-Assad Syria

9 Jan

For one of my final papers last semester, I wrote an essay that touched on conceptions of post-revolutionary catharsis.  This issue is playing out in many countries around the globe, but the one the world will be watching most closely is Syria.  I’m not the only one thinking about post-conflict justice in Syria.  The Syrian Support Group (SSG), an NGO that supports moderate factions within the FSA, has come up with a post-conflict plan for Syria (as explained by David Ignatius).  The plan seeks to target one hundred of Assad’s closest allies for defection in exchange for partial amnesty.  However, if they do not defect before Assad falls, it would be these one hundred that face prosecution in a post-conflict scenario.  By granting amnesty to most of the Alawite community, the report establishes a legal framework to prevent retaliatory killings.

The plan is definitely a good step forward, as it opens the door for solutions not solely rooted in retributive justice.  Firstly, it explicitly includes the Alawites in a post-conflict Syria, an action for which there is a real need.  By presenting a post-conflict justice process, the report helps to insure that legal protections for Syria’s Alawite community will exist.    Theorists like Frantz Fanon (in his book Wretched of the Earth) argue that revolutions require cleansing and the making of a new society.  The complexity of the current conflict in Syria demonstrate that this is not the case.  Though the conflict is largely split along sectarian lines, regime supporters and opponents are not monolithic in their support for their supposed representatives, exemplified by many the defections to the opposition.  Because Fanon envisions revolutions as existing between two diametrically opposed sides, his conception of post-revolutionary catharsis is totally simplistic.  It is impossible to simply politically dispose of the revolution’s opponents if revolutionaries wish to create an inclusive, non-repressive government.  In Syria, the Alawite community must be safeguarded from retributive violence not only because of humanitarian and international law reasons, but also for the health of the future Syrian state.

Getting back to SSG’s proposal, its choice to focus on Assad’s top one hundred associates is a largely positive step (especially in such an elite-driven regime).  Cambodia post-Khmer Rouge took an alternative route, choosing to prosecute only five of the KR’s top brass.  Though the trials were also plagued by problems, the choice to focus on such a small group prevented the public from feeling that any real justice had been done.  It also allowed people like Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, to stay in politics (despite his Khmer Rouge affiliation) without so much as a public inquiry into his activities during the Khmer Rouge’s rule.  Focusing on such a small number of individuals creates a very artificial division between those who are guilty and those who aren’t, when many more individuals were directly supporting the atrocities committed by the regime.  This approach simultaneously discourages any investigation of others’ crimes.

While the SSG’s proposal has many positives, it also contains shortcomings.  The proposed post-conflict justice process is totally top-down and does not look as if it will allow ordinary citizens to participate in administering justice.  For restorative justice attempts, participation is crucial if individuals are to feel that justice was done (as was largely the feeling in South Africa post-Truth and Reconciliation Committee, an approach that allowed for huge amounts of citizen participation).  If individuals from all backgrounds are not given the opportunity to tell their stories in an official setting, confidence in post-conflict justice will drop.  A lack of confidence in state-led justice will lead to a rise in lawlessness and retributive killings, endangering Syrian civilians.  Another issue with the plan is the rather arbitrary number of individuals that are up for prosecution.  While choosing one hundred is a comparative strength of the plan, it is also problematic.  It is still quite likely that individuals closely involved with atrocities against civilians will escape any sort of formal trial, a fact that will not be lost on Syrians.  The plan is a positive step in establishing a post-conflict justice mechanism, but the Washington-based SSG would have been better off creating a framework while allowing Syrians to figure out the details themselves.

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