BEIRUT: As Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his opening remarks at the Syria peace talks in Switzerland on Wednesday, he expressed outrage at new revelations of the brutal tactics perpetrated by President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Evidence of the execution of thousands of Syrians in Assad’s prisons, Kerry said, represented “an appalling assault, not only on human lives, but on human dignity and on every standard by which the international community tries to organise itself.”
Kerry was referring to a report released this week based on the testimony of a defector within the Syrian military police, which seems to provide evidence of the systematic torture of thousands of detainees in Assad’s prisons.
The defector, known only by the code name Caesar, provided roughly 55,000 images showing dead prisoners bearing the tell-tale signs of strangulation, brutal beatings, and starvation.
The Assad regime’s enforcers had obsessively photographed the murdered men and kept track of them by reference numbers.
Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian telecommunications engineer, has not been able to look at these images, or the other pictures and videos streaming out of his native country over the past three years.
They brought with them flashbacks from his own experience: in 2002 and 2003, he was Prisoner No. 2 in an underground cell at Syrian military intelligence’s Palestine Branch in Damascus, where he was beaten and whipped with two-inch thick electrical cables until he gave into his interrogators’ demands and falsely confessed to having been trained at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan.
The only mystery for Arar is why Americans are shocked at reports of torture in Syrian prisons. “What surprises me is the reaction of some people in the West, as if it’s news to them,” he told Foreign Policy. “As far back as the early 1990s ... the State Department reports on Syria have been very blunt — the fact is, Syria tortures people.”
It’s history that the US government knows all too well — because, at times, it has exploited the Assad regime’s brutality for its own ends. Arar was sent to Assad’s prisons by the US: in Sept 2002, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detained him during a layover at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. US officials believed, partially on the basis of inaccurate information provided by Canada, that Arar was a member of Al Qaeda.
After his detention in New York, Arar was flown to Amman, Jordan, where he was driven across the border into Syria.
“Successive US administrations may not agree with the politics of Bashar al-Assad, but when you have a common enemy called Al Qaeda — that changes everything,” Arar said. “[S]ince 9/11, Assad’s regime has been used for what the media now calls ‘torture by proxy.’”
In Arar’s case, however, he had no actual ties to Al Qaeda to confess. He was eventually released in Oct 2003, and both Syria and Canada admitted that they had no evidence tying him to terrorism.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a former apology to Arar, and announced that the government would pay him a settlement of almost $10 million for his ordeal. Arar currently resides in Canada.
After the 9/11 attacks, the CIA’s use of extraordinary rendition — the practice of sending terrorism suspects to a third country for interrogation, including the use of methods that may be illegal in the US — “expanded beyond recognition,” journalist Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker.
“Globalizing Torture,” a report published by the Open Society Justice Initiative, provides the names of 136 detainees who were subjected to extraordinary rendition or secret detention. Of those detainees, at least eight were sent by the CIA to Assad’s jails.
Despite the wide range of disagreements between the Bush administration and Assad, US-Syrian intelligence cooperation in pursuit of Al Qaeda represented a détente of sorts between the two governments.
When ties soured in 2006, a parliamentarian close to Assad’s feared domestic enforcer, Assad Shawkat, told US diplomats that Shawkat “still considered himself a friend of the United States.
” In Feb 2010, when US officials were trying to persuade Assad to stem the flow of jihadists into Iraq, intelligence chief Gen Ali Mamlouk told a US delegation in Damascus: “President Assad wants cooperation, [and] we should take the lead on that cooperation.”
The Syrian regime is once again trying to repair its relationship with the US and Europe by invoking their shared intelligence goals: before the Syria peace talks began, Assad said that their main objective should be “the fight against terrorism”.
The US government has never apologised to Arar for rendering him to Syria, or admitted that he was tortured in Assad’s jails. So it’s no surprise, perhaps, that Arar believes US officials’ surprise at the latest revelation is more than a little hypocritical.
“Of course, the US government will always ask for assurances for people not to be tortured,” he said. “But they know that those assurances are not worth the ink they’re written with. They know that once a person gets there — they know what’s going to happen.”
—By arrangement with Foreign Policy-Washington Post