When the peaceful revolution stormed Syrian cities and villages in 2011, the essential demand of the very first protests was undoubtedly the release of political prisoners. The demands that escalated had been fuming for many years striving for dignity, justice, and freedom. Syrians took to the streets to demand their salvation and release. 

However, the regime implemented its inherited dictatorship method to squash the civil rights upheaval. Hundreds got killed during the protests and thousands of others disappeared by state-affiliated security intelligence across the country. 

The Syrian regime has always used enforced disappearances and torture as part of a systematic terrorizing policy against civilians before and after 2011. More than 100.000 men, women, and children have been forcibly disappeared in Syria since March 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SN4HR) and other human rights groups last year.

Terrorizing tactics

Thousands of people in Syria have gone missing without a trace and continue to disappear throughout the raging war. The victims of enforced disappearances who had cut off from the outside world, crammed into overcrowded, covert cells where torture is a daily practice, diseases are prevalent, and death is a dream.

Ahmed Mana’an, a brother of a disappeared person in the Damascus 215 branch since 2012 said that the victim’s families are forcibly living in turmoil with risky leeways of finding their beloved fate. Through those channels, they dream and hope to see them in the future.

“This has been used the regime relentlessly to instill anxiety and suffering among the revolting population, which was not simultaneous,”

It was an organized tactic fostered by the Syrian regime to undermine the democratic upheaval and to intimidate, terrorize and tear apart society,

Ahmed Mana’an, a brother of a disappeared person in the Damascus 215 branch since 2012

Enforced Disappearance VS Detention

With the overwhelming number of protests during the revolution, the security apparatus shored up its arrests, as thousands got detained.

Though, how enforced disappearance differs from regular detention? 

According to the law, both concepts differ from one another. Conditionality of the arresting side and the circumstances of the arrests play out a significant role in the distinction.

According to the Ahmad Khseem, a lawyer based in Idlib; in the Syrian context, such distinctions evaporate given the enormous magnitude of arrest scale and consistent regime affiliated, unofficial, operation outside the formal legal system of arrest where legal constraints; though theoretically in a state where the rule of law is respected and followed.

On the one hand, detention is the process whereby a state or private citizen lawfully holds a person by removing their freedom or liberty at that time.

Disappearance applies when a person is detained, abducted, or arrested by a state or state proxies operating, who then-the state-denies the person is being detained or conceal their location, placing them outside the protection of the law. 

“It is the detention of persons without a legitimate reason or with no legal fair procedures, usually preceding disappearance. This is how most of the Syrian detention occurs. 

Although many disappeared families do know that the regime or their unofficial arms kidnapped their relatives, they wouldn’t know anything about whereabouts. They subsequently can not take legal actions, such as appointing lawyers and so on.

Ahmad Khseem, a lawyer based in Idlib

Hence, arrests in Syria are almost equal to enforced disappearance. The lack of information provided by the state apparatus about arrests, the detention centers, and the detainees where about is unknown vicinity. 

Haleem Kawa, an Advocacy Manager at Kesh Malek, explains since victims’ disappearance or dentition, their relative connection channels with them and lacks information on the person.

Authorities intentionally refuse to disclose that a person was forcibly removed from public view and or give any helpful information to the victim’s family about his or her whereabouts amid blackmailing them financially. As a result, victims are placed outside the protection of the law. 

“In most cases, the only verifiable information provided will relate to the circumstances in which the victim was last seen alive and free,”

Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law and places individuals at serious risk of extrajudicial execution, torture, and other gross human rights violations,

Haleem Kawa, an Advocacy Manager at Kesh Malek

Who & Where the Abduction is Taking Place?

The ways in which the Syrian regime fought to conspire its state-terrorizing plan to squash the protestors, was through wide-scale arrests aimed to instill fear and hold back the uprising expansion.

Kawas explains that in Aleppo and other provinces across Syria, Assad’s security branches scattered their security-intel personals across the city districts, namely where the demonstrations erupted. 

Male and female were being asked to present their ID cards and military-notebook (male only) to be checked on a daily basis. 

The checkpoints that were under the command of local “Shabiha” (Armed Civilians who were recruited and followed the intelligence orders) were a cornerstone to the regime. They arrested hundreds of people whom they suspected to partake in the anti-regime protests

The abduction, according to Kawas, was conducted via the checkpoints also allocated between Syria’s cities and countryside and did not even exclude neutral civilians seeking ransoms in exchange for their release.

“Pilot Checkpoints also were a horrifying nightmare to pro-revolution activists at the onset of the uprising by the security intelligence,” Kawas adds.

A cash bull for the regime

Family members who seek knowledge about their loved ones asking about their destiny are often at risk of arrest themselves just because they are asking about their disappeared relatives. 

The lawyer explains that many men and women went to Damascus to look for their disappeared sons at checkpoints or security branches. Many disappeared ever since until now.

“Enforced Disappearance family do not have even the leverage to ask or seek the legal channels to learn about what happened to their loved once,” 

“The risk of querying about a relative detained in the detention centers of secret intel cells gives them little choice but to resort to using black-market backchannels,” he said.

The Syrian regime is employing a strategy of subjecting thousands of their own people, whether involved in anti-regime deeds or not, to enforced disappearance as both a means to crush the revolution and to fund its paramilitary militants.

“The authorities are using enforced disappearances to generate money. These illicit acts amount to a war crime or crimes against humanity,” Khaseem adds.

He explains that using the black market to sabotage desperate families who were being given false information after paying thousands of dollars, only to find out the fate of their disappeared relatives remains uncertain.

“While thousands are trapped in the death detention centers, the security intelligence continue to exploit these families seeking dirty-cash,”

“They continue their human rights breaches without holding preparators accountability nor justice to the victims,” Khaseem adds.

Laborious Operation

In the black market, usually, mediators affiliated to the intelligence are paid bribes ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars by family members. Some families have given up their homes and sold it to use what was their entire life savings to pay bribes to learn the fate of their relatives. 

In 2015 Mana’an said that he had borrowed around 10.000 USD in an endeavor to find out his brother’s whereabouts. The source told me that he was alive and was being held in the 215 branches in the capital.

“This information made me feel hopeful that my brother was alive. Despite paying a large sum of money, but receiving the news that he was alive made it worthwhile,”

However, he found out through a survivor who was freed last year, that he was dead in 2015. 

“It was a scheme, It was devastating.” He added.

International Negligence of Peace Prerequisite  

The UN continues to ineffectively tackle the continued crime of enforced disappearances in Syria.

Apart from the UN Security Council 2474 in 2019 and 2139 Resolutions in 2020 and 2014 respectively, which called for an end to enforced disappearances, no further steps have been implemented to ensure it actually happens. 

Kawa asserts that if words that are not coupled with concrete action, they will not help the victims of enforced disappearances nor the victims themselves.

“The UN Security Council must make more effective actions and execute more pressure on the Syrian regime and its allies in Mosco to end enforced disappearances and clear its prisons from unlawful detention,” 

“Forced disappearances have already crushed and turned the Syrian people’s lives upside down. The perpetrators should no longer escape with having their crimes open-ended,” he adds.

The devastating and recurred crimes and their devastating physical and psychological scars of detention, deepen, and shatter the community if they remain open. 

For Syria to overcome the devastating aftermath of the authoritarian regime’s war against its own people and the terror and trauma of detentions, it needs to be awarded justice and acknowledgment.

“No country can be rebuilt on top of such pain and suffering,” Mana’an said.  

“We will not rest until justice is delivered. The international community must understand this and act accordingly to save Syria’s disappeared and accelerate its recovery.”