4 min read

The Significance of Apologies and Truth-Telling in the Syrian Conflict

Mustafa Tlass (left), photo from Wikipedia and
Jihad Makdissi, photo from UN Geneva

On June 27, former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, 85, died in Paris. Tlass – who served as defense minister from 1972 to 2004 – was a close aide to former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and his son, current president Bashar al-Assad. While defense minister, Tlass ordered up to 150 deaths per week by hanging in Damascus alone. He was also accused of coordinating the 1982 massacre of Hama, wherein soldiers reportedly committed crimes against humanity and killed between 10,000 to 40,000 individuals. Tlass never publicly apologized for his actions as defense minister. Figures on all sides of the conflict have refused to issue public apologies for wrongdoings, undermining their significance in facilitating accountability and healing for individuals and society and “white-washing” human rights abuses.

Former Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi has also failed to correct statements made while representing the Syrian government. During his tenure, Makdissi denied government responsibility for the 2012 Houla massacre in Homs, which killed 108 people – mostly women and children. The United Nations, eyewitnesses, and human rights groups claim government forces perpetrated the attack. Makdissi confirmed leaving the government in a 2013 statement, in which he apologized to those who trusted his credibility but did not offer true accounts of government atrocities – claiming to “know no more than” ordinary citizens. Makdissi’s apology failed to affirm the reality of government crimes, acknowledge the experiences of victims, or foster public dialogue to reexamine norms under the current regime.

Mustafa Tlass’ eldest son Firas Tlass, a wealthy opposition financier, has capitalized on war-time events and even his apology itself. Before defecting, Firas Tlass ran the MAS Group, which supplied the Syrian army with clothes, food, and medicine. He is also believed to have maintained close business ties with members of the Assad family. After defecting, Firas Tlass created (and now leads) The Syrian Promise, an anti-regime political movement. He claimed in a YouTube video to have apologized numerous times for his role in supporting the Assad government but stated that this is not enough without “compensation” – which he achieves by supporting opposition entities. Despite his apology, many Syrians consider his words and actions as mere ploys to establish political power in post-conflict Syria. Moreover, Firas Tlass’ political recruits have reportedly attacked individuals who criticize his late father’s legacy. These violent tactics and vies for political influence only repeat the wrongdoings of the Assad regime. They fail to convey true remorse to victims and perpetuate the very actions Firas Tlass has verbally denounced, undermining the apology’s significance.

Several other former high-ranking regime officials have defected since the Syrian war began, subsequently acquiring key positions in the opposition movement. Many of these figures still forego publicly apologizing for human rights abuses they committed or for their involvement in government corruption as regime actors, perpetuating the mentality that defection and resistance negate past injustices committed against the Syrian people. However, this notion ignores the function of an apology as a truth-telling mechanism vital to the reconciliation process. Supporting the opposition does not correct the historical record, recognize the value and dignity of victims, or promote societal change – and it should not serve as a “clean slate” rendering penance unnecessary.

The Syrian government likewise rejects public apologies in maintaining control – despite its broad use of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets – and also capitalizes on war-time events by making highly publicized attempts to re-writing history. One such civilian attack, reportedly the work of government or Russian forces, captured the world’s attention when images of a blood- and dirt-covered child, Omran Daqneesh, went viral as a symbol of Syrian suffering. Daqneesh – who’s family home was destroyed in the attack – resurfaced in June 2017 appearing healthy, happy, and clean. He was accompanied by his father, who told reporters that the opposition was responsible for Syrian suffering and displacement. The interviews were disseminated on carefully scripted pro-government news outlets and were viewed by many as a calculated public relations campaign by the Assad government. The regime continues to forego similar opportunities wherein an apology would serve to meaningfully advance the reconciliation efforts, instead using them to re-write history and further entrench division and mistrust.

Public apologies have substantial significance in the acknowledgement and memorialization of atrocities committed during conflict periods. The use of apologies in the reconciliation process has increased in the last half-century. In 2000, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for wrongs committed by the church against indigenous women and the poor. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was widely criticized in 2016 for failing to issue a new apology for Japan’s wartime victims on the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s WWII surrender. Truth commissions in post-conflict states have likewise been utilized to afford war criminals the opportunity to express remorse to their victims.

Apologies by state actors or other public figures generally contain three components: an acknowledgement or account of the offense, an admission of wrongdoing (mea culpa), and an explicit or implicit pledge to not repeat the offense(s). They are beneficial to the reconciliation process in several ways. First, they provide a “recording” of truth for history. Acknowledgement of what really happened helps to document the victims’ stories and prevents suppression by distorted or inaccurate accounts of the truth – providing a sense of vindication for the victim and their narrative. Apologies also facilitate acknowledgement or recognition of a victim’s human worth and dignity. As one’s identity is partially based on recognition by others, an apology can help avoid or mitigate the deleterious effects experienced by victims when society mirrors back a distorted view of the person’s past upon them. Additionally, an apology can foster public reexamination and deliberation of social norms. As such, the act of apology touches not only the immediate victim but the wider community.

The United Nations recognize four pillars of transitional justice: truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence. Public apologies contribute to the goal of truth-telling by advancing historical accuracy and acknowledging the suffering of victims, as well as non-recurrence by demonstrating perpetrator reform and encouraging societal contemplation of current norms.  SJAC continues to stress that, while actors complicit in wrongdoing may be wary of prosecution or reprisals upon admitting their actions, the benefits of a public apology serve to advance reconciliation and transitional justice in war-torn regions and should be issued by all parties to the conflict seeking to rebuild Syrian society. So significant are apologies to transitional justice that several states have adopted truth-telling mechanisms post-conflict, cajoling truth and apologies from human rights violators and/or war criminals in exchange for reduced sentences or immunity. Such measures help to foster reconciliation, and should be considered in post-conflict Syria. However, clemency must have a basis in truth and accountability. Defection and/or resistance activities should not preclude justice.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].