When Germany announced last April that it was seeking the arrest of Jamil Hassan, head of Syria’s feared Air Force Intelligence Directorate, many dismissed it as a well-meaning piece of theatre.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is alleged by international authorities and monitors to have committed war crimes and the evidence of such crimes is vast. Hassan’s organisation is suspected to have been directly involved in many of them. It would not be unreasonable to expect him to answer such charges.
However, the idea that one of the Assad regime’s most influential functionaries could be surrendered to a foreign state, one that has little direct involvement in Syria’s multifaceted conflict and few cards to play in imposing its will, seemed unlikely.
Assad was more and more secure in Damascus; his rule had been tolerated for so long by the rest of the world that any idea that it could be threatened by international outrage ceased to hold real power. The regime’s backers, in Iran and Russia, continued to stand four-square behind Assad and his internal allies. Nothing looked likely to interrupt the pro-regime coalition’s consolidation.
The German legal case continued to be made, with restatements of the case against Hassan and the continuation of pan-European sanctions levied against people and organisations within the Assad fold, which had sought to profit from Syria’s drawn-out reconstruction. Other, smaller-scale legal actions were undertaken on parallel lines against alleged war criminals and profiteers associated with the regime.
Though this policy is far from achieving its stated aims, it is having an effect.
‘Germany’s attempt to have Hassan arrested and extradited to Germany to face trial is significant because of how powerful Hassan is and the magnitude of the crimes he is accused of perpetrating against Syrians’, said Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha Centre.
‘Several trials in Germany and elsewhere in Europe have targeted alleged Syrian perpetrators who are either of a lower rank than Hassan or were members of [the Islamic State] ISIS charged with terrorism.’
These cases have their own significance.
‘The crimes that Hassan is implicated in are on a much larger scale and reflect the Syrian state’s policy of systematic torture, which has affected – and continues to be inflicted upon – tens of thousands of Syrians. The arrest warrant for Hassan is the closest one yet to top Syrian regime officials, which sends a strong message to other Syrian regime leaders that they may very well be next,’ Aboueldahab said.
Though Hassan is unlikely to face international prosecution if he remains in regime-controlled Syria, his broader movements cannot be undertaken with the same certainty. The rumour, first reported by the pro-regime newspaper Al-Masdar, that Hassan was in Lebanon seeking medical treatment, offered an opportunity for Germany to restate and press the case for his extradition.
Hassan’s apparent location is worth noting. The Lebanese Hezbollah has not only supported the Assad regime in Syria, it has sent thousands of men to fight alongside the regime, in concert with other Iran-aligned proxy forces. With Hezbollah in government, Syria’s and Iran’s position in Lebanon is strong and certain. Assad’s men are safe from the reach of international justice there.
‘If it’s true that he’s being treated in Beirut, that would require an OK and protection from Hezbollah’, said Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ‘What’s more, during his tenure as head of Syrian [Air Force Intelligence] – the most loyal to Assad and powerful intel organisation – tens of thousands of foreign Shia jihadists were allowed to come and fight in Syria.’
This included Hezbollah fighters, who entered Syria at the behest of the people now likely guarding Hassan closely as he inhabits Lebanese hospital wards.
‘Of course’, Smyth noted, ‘that would require a close relationship between top Syrian intel chiefs and Tehran’.
Hassan’s position seems sufficiently stable that pro-regime papers can give out his location without fear that his movements may result in extradition and indictment. Hassan’s own close relationship with Iran guarantees his safety, at least for now.
‘I would be very surprised if Lebanon arrests Hassan and transfers him to Germany to face prosecution’, Aboueldahab said
And the demand for justice is not dying down.
‘It would be important … for Syrians to have access to other forms of justice, such as truth commissions, reparations, public apologies and so on. Given the continued brutality of the Syrian regime, these mechanisms are unlikely to take shape any time soon but that doesn’t mean they cannot be pursued in the future.’ Aboueldahab added.
A falling out between the Assad regime and its broader axis seems unlikely but it is not impossible. Iran-affiliated militias and Iranian-aligned states could prove less friendly to regime functionaries when their strategic ambitions diverge and, if that happens, Assad’s placemen could find prosecution becomes a more pressing threat.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.