Rogue State: Assad’s Syria

The Assad regime is the culmination of a multi-generational record of human rights violations and violence against the Syrian people stretching over more than half a century, from the time of Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad. Since he came to power, Bashar has only increased the criminality of the state. From torture, rape, indiscriminate murder of civilians, destruction of cities, and a complete disregard for international law and conventions of war, the Assad regime has used all forms of repression and violence against the people of Syria, including chemical weapons.

Following the Ukrainian invasion, the European Union (EU) designated Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, making official what has been a reality in Syria since late 2015. Assad’s regime, Russia, and Iran all share this designation, alongside longtime ally Hezbollah. The Assad-aligned axis is composed entirely of terrorist entities.

[REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo]
Under this regime, thousands have disappeared into the vast network of secret and public prisons. The last few years have seen the exportation of drugs and war abroad, including the implementation of a state-run narcotics trade and “private military contractors.” Given this reality and the decades-long violations of international law and human rights by Assad and his allies, it raises the question, can such a rogue state be treated as other nations?

A Long History of Violation and Abuse

The Assad regime, dating back to the days of Hafez Assad, has a long track record of oppression and authoritarian abuse, which Bashar continued after taking power following his father’s death. According to a 2022 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Despite the government’s record of human rights abuses against its citizens, this year also saw several countries normalize relations with the Syrian government, including the UAE and Jordan, and make commitments to cooperate, leading to concerns about a premature return of refugees and the potential facilitation of rights abuse.”

The report went on to describe the dire situation of the Syrian population due to Assad and his allies. “Prohibited attacks by the Syrian-Russian military alliance continue to be used in Idlib, where, despite a tenuous ceasefire, the alliance still poses a threat to over three million civilians trapped there.” Some attacks by the Syrian-Russian alliance may constitute “war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.”

[LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images]

According to HRW and UN reports, 13.1 million Syrians need humanitarian aid, with 90% of the population below the poverty line. 12.4 million civilians out of 16 million are food insecure, and 600,000 children are chronically malnourished. Reports indicate that the Assad regime weaponized humanitarian aid by withholding it from dissenters or selling it for profit. The crimes committed by the Assad regime include 15,000 confirmed cases of deaths due to torture since 2011, and over 100,000 missing.

The UN documented systemic abuse “including rape, assault, and sexual humiliation against women, men, girls, and boys as young as 11 years old” in Assad regime detention centers. The regime also systematically confiscates the land and property of internally displaced persons who fled the regime areas and sells them at public auction.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that “Syria’s government forces have repeatedly used chlorine and the nerve agent sarin against men, women, and children over the course of the war.” All of these indicate a state with no regard for the well-being of its people and no respect for international norms and the fundamental principles of basic human rights and dignity. In recent years, the regime has sought to expand its influence beyond its borders, inflicting harm on its neighbors and the rest of the world.

Birth of the Narco and Mercenary State

Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, informed L24 about the lucrative drug trade in Syria, particularly the production and distribution of Captagon. She said that the Assad regime uses the narcotics industry “as an alternative revenue stream amidst economic challenges in the country. The drug’s estimated market value in 2021 was just under $6 billion.”

According to Rose, the regime also relies on the drug to “sustain recruitment within armed factions…as it’s been used as a method to stave hunger and sleep for soldiers amidst low resources and compensation rates,” which also benefits another revenue stream for the regime: providing mercenaries.

Since Russia’s 2015 “intervention,” the Assad regime has collaborated with Russia, and both countries have sent more than 45,000 Syrian fighters from the Syrian regular army and pro-Assad militias to places like Libya, Armenia, and Ukraine. Syrian fighters can make between $150 and $2,000 a month depending on experience and contract.

Rose mentioned that like the Captagon trade, the regime uses mercenaries “as a mechanism for revenue amidst economic struggle, a method to improve forces’ combat experience, and as a way to show support and loyalty to great-power backers such as [Russia].”

“These activities,” says Rose, “demonstrate how the regime is seeking out alternative sources to sustain control, influence, and survival within Syria, even amidst international sanctions.”

Normalization Amounts to Approval of Criminality

The movement towards normalization with the Assad regime is equivalent to giving the regime a “free pass” regarding its decades-long history of domestic and international abuses of international and humanitarian law.

[Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times]

Rose comments, “I think that the gridlocked nature of the Syrian conflict has prompted some regional actors to explore normalization opportunities with the regime; however, it is flawed for these actors to assume that normalization can lead to a change in regime behavior.”

Without any mechanisms in place to force change or hold the regime accountable for its numerous violations, there is no reason for the regime to change its behavior. Of greater risk is the fact that such actions could embolden other authoritarian regimes to likewise abandon accepted conventions and rule of law.

As long as Assad remains in power, his regime will only continue to expand its criminal alliances and pursuits, such as the drug trade and providing fighters to other conflicts, further destabilizing regional and global security.


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