CHTAURA, Lebanon—Sitting on a bench in the shade of giant fir trees at a monastery in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, Yasmin, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee from the town of Daraya, recalled what her father told her back in the spring of 2011 when protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad began. “Why should we use force when we have brains? Let’s resist peacefully,” he would tell Yasmin and her siblings, who were captivated by the promise of the Arab Spring revolts sweeping the region. Inspired by their father, her brother, 20 at the start of the uprising, joined a group committed to a pacifist struggle led by Yahya Shurbaji, a charismatic local activist and organizer. “We want a civil state; Muslims and Christians, Druze and Alawite,” their slogan went. Yasmin watched her brother and his friends hand out roses and bottled water to regime soldiers sent to Daraya to assault them.
Then, starting in mid-2011, Assad began to kill or capture the main protest leaders, while at the same time releasing Islamist extremists and al-Qaeda-linked militants from his prisons. These people pushed the rebellion toward armed confrontation with the regime, providing Assad with the excuse to ratchet up his violence against protesting communities. Yasmin’s father and brother were among dozens of Daraya activists and protesters, including Shurbaji, abducted by the regime. The tortured and brutalized corpse of one of these activists, a 25-year-old tailor nicknamed Little Gandhi, was sent back to Daraya by the regime, while most of the others, including Yasmin’s father and brother, remained missing. Her brother was released in 2012 but then rearrested in 2013.
Last month, almost seven years after her father’s arrest at a regime checkpoint in Daraya and his disappearance into the maw of Syria’s detention system, Yasmin and her family learned through a lawyer in Damascus that he was listed among the dead in the civil registry, a government entity that gathers basic information on citizens. It was the same grim news for families of almost a dozen activists in Daraya, including Yahya Shurbaji and his brother Ma’an. Both had been missing since 2011, and are now listed as having died within 11 months of each other in 2013.
Syrian authorities, including the military police and the National Security Bureau, which oversees the mukhabarat centers where many activists were held and tortured to death, are methodically releasing these so-called death notices to local registration offices across Syria. In a statement last week, the State Department said these death notices serve as a reminder that the Assad regime “systematically arrested, tortured and killed tens of thousands of Syrian civilians” demanding basic freedoms and rights. Yasmin and relatives of the other men are now certain they were all executed at around the same time by a military tribunal at the notorious Saydnaya prison, where Amnesty International estimated at least 13,000 were hanged from 2011 to 2015. Assad called the report “fake news” when it came out last year.
There is no precise estimate of the number of dead on the lists. That’s because many families keep the information to themselves after they receive it from the registry, for fear of retribution by the regime. On July 29, the Syrian Committee for Detainees, an opposition group, said that it had counted some 3,270 names, 1,000 of which were from Daraya alone. Another group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said at the end of July that it was able to cull the names of 532 forcibly disappeared persons from the state records of the deceased. The group estimated that there had been about 82,000 cases of forced disappearance at the hands of the regime alone since March 2011.
Many Syrians have said that Assad was compelled by his Russian patrons to begin releasing the death notices in order to tie up loose ends as Moscow tries to work out deals with European and Middle Eastern states to repatriate Syrian refugees and fund reconstruction in Syria, following regime victories in the Damascus suburbs and southern Syria. The regime is now talking about retaking the last major rebel enclaves in and around the northwestern province of Idlib.
Other Syrians, though, believe the regime wants the lists of the dead to serve as a cruel, macabre epilogue for all those who rose up more than seven years ago to liberate themselves from nearly 50 years of Assad-family rule. Assad’s message to the people of Daraya, a town besieged and bombarded for nearly four years and then emptied of its residents in 2016, is loud and clear: You must lose everything for having challenged me. Nobody is going to hold me accountable for punishing you.
The news of her father’s death devastated Yasmin and her family. Each time they tried to learn whether he was still held at Saydnaya prison, officials in Damascus told them to “forget about him.” On one occasion, they were told her father was accused of owning a tank—a laughable charge given his deep commitment to peaceful resistance, along with the fact that Daraya’s struggle against the regime was still largely a peaceful one at the time he was detained. Assad “killed the icons of the peaceful phase; he’s telling us that these people bothered him a lot more than those who bore arms,” Yasmin told me. Yasmin’s brother is still presumed to be alive in a regime prison (which is why she did not want to use her family’s last name). She’s praying his name won’t surface on the lists of dead.
Mazen Darwish, an award-winning human-rights lawyer, free-speech advocate, and activist leader was imprisoned by the regime from February 2012 until August 2015. Germany granted him and his wife asylum in 2015, and lately he has been dividing his time between Berlin and Paris to represent victims of the Syrian regime in cases brought in local courts. He reminded me that Assad has long been ready to negotiate deals with armed groups that either entail their surrender, reconciliation, or repatriation to Idlib province. “But he’s absolutely unwilling to compromise with those that have a truly patriotic and nonviolent agenda,” Darwish told me from his office in Paris.
The release of the names of the dead activists has been traumatic for Darwish. At least 17 of the names, including the Shurbaji brothers of Daraya, are personal friends and colleagues. “I have known some of them since 2001. We dreamt of the revolution together,” the 44-year-old Darwish told me. He was among the co-founders of the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), a grassroots network of protest organizers that emerged at the start of the uprising. His friend Yahya Shurbaji headed the LCC of Daraya. Darwish recalled how before their arrest in 2011, Shurbaji and his colleagues personally chased out a group of Islamist extremists who had established military-training camps in the farms of Daraya.
The arrest of Shurbaji and most of the peaceful Daraya activists, and the regime’s brutal killing of Little Gandhi empowered those who wanted to fight Assad with weapons, a dynamic that played out in almost all protesting towns and cities. “These young men were the embodiment of the democratic, enlightened, and moderate Syria I yearned for,” Darwish said.
Darwish and a dozen of his colleagues, including his wife Yara Bader, were detained in February 2012 in a raid by the mukhabarat on their Damascus office. Then August 2012 saw a horrific massacre by regime troops and militiamen in Daraya that claimed the lives of almost 500 townspeople. From the fall of 2012 until the town’s surrender in August 2016, Assad and his allies laid siege to Daraya and bombed it with every weapon imaginable. In September 2016, Assad visited a destroyed and deserted Daraya. He mocked the “fake freedom” that its people chanted for, and chuckled while labeling its activists as “revolutionaries for hire.” With the backing of Russia and Iran, a triumphant Assad believes he has become indispensable. He is so confident now that he seems to be telling Daraya: I killed your fathers, husbands, and sons in prison. So what?
Darwish said the only consolation for his fallen friends, the people of Daraya, and Syrians at large is that the lists and death notices being released by Assad will serve as proof in the lawsuits he and others have brought in European courts against key regime figures accused of war crimes. Darwish said he plans to use the lists next month when he goes before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York to make the case for a special international tribunal for war crimes in Syria.
“There is no peace in Syria without accountability, but this is also beyond Syria and Syrians because all of humanity is at risk if it remains silent in the face of all these crimes,” Darwish said.