In the last few weeks of July 2018, the Syrian regime updated its prison databases, marking hundreds of government detainees as officially dead. Syria is notorious for detaining anyone who participated in the 2011 uprising or who has opposed the regime of Bashar al-Assad in any way. As of late, however, hundreds of families are discovering that their detained loved ones — mostly men — have died in government custody, some as long ago as 2013.
The increase in death notices has led some to conclude that Assad has won the war. This is superficially true: the pile of updated death notices has the feel of a winner closing the book on a long and drawn out battle. But, we have long known that Assad is winning the war in Syria — the media has been saying so since at least 2016 . So the real story of these death notices is not that Assad has won. Rather, it is the ripple effects of these deaths — effects that will be felt for decades to come.
The depravity of Assad’s prisons is well documented — from international organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to local organizations like the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Violations & Documentation Center . The most conservative estimate puts the number of disappeared Syrians at just over 82,000. Amnesty’s Human Slaughterhouse Report is a particularly jarring account of the vicious sadism and mass killings that happen in Assad’s military prisons.
It is hard to quantify the effects these mass disappearances have on Syrian society. When someone is arrested, their family may never hear from them again. Many Syrians have paid large sums to mafia-like informants, in the hope of learning if their loved ones are dead or alive. To make matters even worse, the government often claims it has no knowledge of the detained person. This information vacuum is part of the torture — a tactic used to imprison those on the outside in a matrix of confusion and insecurity about their loved one’s fate.
The Assad regime’s death notices are part of this strategy of disorientation and injury. With no protocol for informing families about their relatives’ deaths, many people have been discovering the truth through random visits to government and civil registry offices. These scenes of confusion and pain are exacerbated by the fact that their loved ones’ bodies will never be returned to them.
Assad may be closing the book on the war, but thousands upon thousands of unresolved and unaccounted ghosts remain. Some of these ghosts might wither, but others will linger and haunt, perpetuating a normalized cycle of violence in Syria.