Implications of the CIA Torture Report for Syria

For Syrians, the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, commonly known as the “CIA Torture Report,” are not surprising. They have long known about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program to their country, which resulted in the CIA sending several suspected terrorists to Syria, despite well-founded knowledge of the Assad regime’s widespread use of torture.

A 2013 report by the Open Society Justice Initiative found Syria to be “one of the most common destinations for rendered suspects” with deplorable detention conditions and practices. Nine men – some of whom remain unaccounted for – were extraordinarily rendered to Syria through the program, including Maher Arar, a dual Canadian and Syrian citizen detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in New York City in 2002.

Instead of being handed over to Canadian officials, Arar was accused of ties to Al-Qaeda and sent to Syria where he claims that he was immediately arrested, blindfolded, and sent to a detention center. Repeatedly beaten and tortured, he remained in captivity for over a year. Canada later apologized and settled out of court with Arar, but both Canada and the U.S. continue to insist that Arar’s case was one of deportation and not extraordinary rendition. Since the CIA Torture Report was released, Arar has been active on Twitter, calling for the U.S. to address its moral culpability for the torture violations rather than merely acknowledging their occurrence.

Going forward, the CIA Torture Report will likely have several implications for U.S.-backed transitional justice efforts in Syria:

Loss of Moral Standing

U.S. officials are justifiably critical of many Middle Eastern countries’ human rights records, including Syria’s. However, disclosure of CIA practices without consequence means that any U.S. efforts to support accountability for atrocities committed by Islamist forces or the Assad regime will fall flat, particularly because the Syrian regime now justifies its use of torture with the same counter-terrorism argument employed by the U.S. during the W. Bush administration.

Quite simply, the United States cannot act as a moral compass when it directly or indirectly encouraged torture and inhuman practices; meanwhile, the deterioration of its moral standing in the Middle East and the world has been an ongoing trend that U.S. officials should not take lightly.

Bolstering the Perception that the United States Supports Assad

U.S.-led airstrikes against extremist Islamist groups like ISIS have inadvertently helped the Syrian regime’s efforts to stifle moderate opposition groups within the country, such as the remnants of the Free Syrian Army. Though the Obama administration has made efforts to counter this perception, the CIA Torture Report and the subsequent lack of accountability merely fuel the feeling among Syrians that the U.S. is protecting Assad because of political favors he has provided in the past; equally as troubling, extremists have cited the CIA Torture Report as evidence of a larger “War” perpetrated by the United States against Islam

Transitional Justice in Syria Could Implicate the CIA

If the Assad regime falls, trials and/or truth commissions will likely be established, with charges against Syrian officials almost assuredly including torture; the CIA could also be implicated for its extraordinary rendition program. While the United States would have no obligation to comply with such an inquiry, it would be undermining its own pro-transitional justice efforts by refusing to cooperate.

Neither the interests of  the United States nor Syrians will be served if these perceptions continue unabated, as they only increase anti-American sentiment and extremism in the region.

As the debate over the CIA Torture Report continues, the U.S. and its citizens must carefully consider these implications when debating consequences for those involved with the program. Although the torture depicted in the report ended years ago, its repercussions continue to reverberate across the international community, no where more prominently so than in the Middle East where society is skeptical of the United States’ credibility and intentions in the region. Accepting responsibility and apologizing for its actions under the rendition program, accompanied by a pledge not to repeat such violations in the future, would constitute important first steps for the United States as it seeks to restore its credibility as a proponent of justice in the region as a whole, and seeks paths towards justice and accountability in Syria.

For more information and to provide feedback please email SJAC at [email protected]org.

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