In their meeting in December 2020, German interior ministers decided not to prolong the general ban on deportation to Syria in place since 2012, which makes Germany among the first European countries to take this controversial move. Refugees with a criminal record and suspects of planning terrorist attacks, the so-called ‘Gefährder’, are facing possible deportation to Syria. Building up on a discussion of Syria’s ambiguous historical relationships with militant Islamists, this blog post argues that sending suspected ‘terrorists’ back to Syria does not serve a long-term goal of countering violent extremism.
Since 2015, Germany has welcomed 790,000 Syrian refugees, who were given different kinds of legal protection statuses. Since the Cologne New Year Eve mass sexual assaults in 2016, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) along with a fraction of the ruling coalition, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), have been actively pushing for a change in the laws to facilitate deporting criminals and suspected terrorists to their home countries.
We argue that the de-facto removal of the ban would imply a direct or indirect cooperation between German and Syrian agencies if deportations are in fact executed. Apart from the absence of diplomatic relations between the Syrian and the German governments, and the fragmented nature of the Syrian state apparatus, this is first and foremost problematic because of the legacy of the Syrian regime as an enabler of terrorist organizations. Against this backdrop, deportations to Syria would not help to mitigate the dangers of terrorism, but rather fuel them even more.
Islamists and the Syrian regime: a complicated relationship
The Syrian Baathist regime has had an intricate relationship with violent Islamist groups in Syria and the region since it came to power in 1963. From the beginning, it has faced opposition by the traditional Sunni elites, Sunni clerics and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) for its radical social and economic policies, and its anti-religious stance. The Islamic opposition became more militant since Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970, partly in reaction to the increasingly Alawi nature of the new regime. Since 1976, the Fighting Vanguard, an extremist offshoot on the MB’s fringes, led a series of bombings and assassinations against a number of Syrian officers and government civil servants, most of them Alawis. This was accompanied by protests and strikes in different Syrian cities. The Syrian government reacted by mass arrests, executions and military operations. Furthermore, in July 1980, Law 49 was enacted, making the membership in or the association with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria a capital offence. The confrontation escalated in in the battle of Hama in February 1982 during which the army and special forces killed thousands of people and caused thousands more to flee the country. This meant the end of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
While fighting Islamists at home, the Syrian regime developed strong relationships with regional non-state actors that are or have been listed as terrorist organizations by foreign states and the European Union, such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad of whom the latter two were allowed to open offices in Syria during the 1990s.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Syria first cooperated with the US in the fight against suspected terrorists. According to former CIA agent Robert Baer: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.” Furthermore, the Syrian government infiltrated jihadist networks. According to a WikiLeaked US State Department cable, the director of one of Syria’s intelligence services told visiting US officials: “‘we have a lot of experience and know these groups.’ ‘We don’t attack or kill them … We embed ourselves … and only at the opportune moment do we move.’” Although it was directed against one of its greatest regional enemies, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a threat for the Syrian regime which feared to be next.
During the Iraq War in 2003, Syria became a passage for foreign fighters to reach the ‘land of the Iraqi Jihad.’ A sophisticated network of intermediaries, safe houses, weapons depots, and smuggling routes was established inside the country. According to terrorism expert Peter Neumann, “less than a year after it had been set up, the Syrian pipeline was so well established that it started attracting jihadists from countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, who flew into Damascus or travelled via one of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In 2007, the US government estimated that 90 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were foreigners, and that 85-90 per cent of the foreign fighters had entered Iraq through Syria.” It is hard to imagine that these networks operated without the knowledge of the Syrian Government.
The US invasion also presented an opportunity for the Syrian government to get rid of Syrian Salafists willing to fight in Iraq who had the potential to threaten the country in the future. Mahmud al-Aghasi (Abo Al-Qaqa) and his Ghuraba al-Sham group in Aleppo became a hub for providing al-Qaida in Iraq with Syrian fighters, all under the eyes of the Syrian authorities.
In 2005, Syria was blamed for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Subsequently, Syria was put under regional and international pressure which forced it to change its open-door policy for foreign fighters to enter Iraq. The pressure also resulted in a rapprochement with the US. Since then, supporters of the Iraqi insurgency were arrested en masse throughout the country. Some of the foreign jihadists also returned to the Palestinian camps near Sidon and Tripoli in Lebanon where they had started their journey. Syria maintained ambiguous relations with groups such as Fatah al-Islam in order to destabilize its neighbor. However, not all jihadist returnees decided to stay away from Syria. Since 2004, the country has experienced a number of high-profile terrorist attacks for which returnees and jihadists with links to al-Qaida were blamed. Reportedly, there were also hundreds of smaller and failed attacks which the government kept secret.
Many of the Syrian supporters and returnees were detained in the Sednaya prison close to Damascus, which was notorious for torture and inhumane conditions of imprisonment. In this context, Sunni militants, suspects and sympathizers who were arrested in the 1970’s and 80’s met with jihadist returnees from the Iraq War. A series of Aljumhuriya blog-articles have highlighted the dynamics and the ideological exchange between different extremist groups, utilizing testimonials from ex-prisoners. A riot broke out in 2008 and led to the announcement of the first Islamic State in Syria, inside Sednaya, which was harshly suppressed. A couple of months after the outbreak of mass protests in the course of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, more than 1500 prisoners, mainly extremist Islamists, were released from Sednaya. In 2012/13, three of them were leading major Islamist insurgent groups, including the well-known Islam Army.
Counter-Terrorism: From Research to Politics
Although the ban on deportations to Syria has not been renewed in the latest meeting of the German ministers of the interior, it is doubtful whether anything will change in practice. Germany has no diplomatic relations with the Syrian authorities. Thus, in practice, the implementation of any deportation would be next to impossible. Still, the decision is a troubling sign for the rule of law due to the Syrian regime’s record of massive human rights violations and war crimes.
Deporting criminals and suspected terrorists is also in sharp contrast to Germany’s latest effort to achieve international justice and accountability by applying the principle of universal jurisdiction in German courts. Recently, two cases, deeply related to terrorism, have raised public attention: 57-years old Anwar R. and Eyad A. who worked at Branch 251 in the Syrian Secret Service are both facing charges of human rights violations. In another case, Alla M., a Syrian doctor who worked in Hesse until June 2020, is allegedly involved in torturing detained protesters between 2011 and 2012, which has led to the death of at least one person, while he was on duty as a doctor in a Syrian military hospital. There is a certain level of contradiction with this approach of dealing with suspected criminals from the same country, with the same legal status, and high threat potentiality for both refugees and German citizens. The definition of threat follows a trend which aims to protect the “Western self” from the threat of the “Muslim other,” while taking legal and moral responsibility when the threat or crime is not related to “Islamism.”
Due to the Syrian regime’s history of repression and its role as an enabler of terrorist groups when its suits its purposes, the German government should not cooperate with the Syrian regime even for counter-terrorism purposes. Researchers generally locate the causes of terrorism on three levels: (1) macro, (2) meso, and (3) micro. Sending suspected terrorists back to Syria feeds almost every level: (1) structural, as it places them in a country where they will not undergo a fair trial and where their basic human rights are not protected while in custody; (2) organizational, as they will interact with different generations of Islamists and exchange experiences and ideologies; and (3) psychological, by experiencing torture. There will be no guarantee that suspects will not be released again for one reason or another, or even worse: sponsored. Cooperating with the Syrian authorities will not mitigate the dangers of terrorism but rather radicalize suspected individuals further and lead to further cycles of domestic and international violence and counter-violence.