Foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict can be traced to every corner of the globe, including Russia, Turkey, the United States, and neighboring countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran. Although the Syrian government is responsible for the largest portion of violations, those committed or supported by foreign states should not be ignored. The recent killing of Iran’s commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, has brought renewed attention to Syrians victimized by Iran. With the current political climate, it is difficult to envisage a situation where Iran willingly supports justice for Syrian victims. Nonetheless, financial compensation for victims of Iranian violations could be added to the list of demands in negotiations to lift economic sanctions against Iran, providing victims and their families with a measure of justice.
Iran’s violations in Syria were largely orchestrated by Soleimani as he directed interventions by Hezbollah, a Lebanese political and militant group founded to be a steadfast ally of Iran and its allies, including the Syrian government. Since the start of the conflict, Iran and Hezbollah have provided loans, oil, financial assistance, weapons, battlefield training, and fighters to the Syrian government at the direction of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Solemani was seen in the streets and frontlines of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, and Deir ez-Zur, directly overseeing countless battles and ensuring a continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s rule while perpetrating wide-scale demographic change throughout many areas in Syria to preserve Iranian control and influence. In almost nine years, Soleimani was responsible for the killing of thousands of Syrians and the displacement of millions, aiding Assad in conducting bombing operations, destroying dozens of cities and towns, and carrying out chemical weapons attacks, starvation sieges, and mass murder of Syrian civilians. Such acts amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Syrian people, for which Soleimani will never face the gavel of justice.
What justice is available for Syrian victims of Soleimani’s crimes?
In the absence of an international tribunal for Syria, non-prosecutorial mechanisms of justice and accountability must be considered for victims of crimes perpetrated by Soleimani and Iran. Two historical examples are instructive.
On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland after a bomb was detonated by Libyan intelligence agents, killing all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground. Crippling international sanctions eventually forced Gaddafi to extradite the suspected bombers to the newly created a Scottish court in the Netherlands for prosecution and to financially compensate the families of the Lockerbie victims. These concessions were seen as acceptance of responsibility for the bombing by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and the Libyan government; although Libyan officials downplayed the significance. Nearly two decades after the bombing, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, Libya established a $2.7 billion fund for victims’ families, including a payment plan of up to $10 million for each victim. The families of the Lockerbie victims viewed such reparation payments as the sole yet significant means of achieving justice where a foreign government is the perpetrator of the crime.
The recent downing of Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752 by an Iranian missile defense system, apparently accidentally, recalls the Lockerbie precedent. To date, intensified U.S. sanctions following U.S. withdrawal from the Obama-era Iran Nuclear Deal have cost the country $100 billion in oil revenue and another $100 billion of investment money. In December 2019, Congress authorized additional sanctions on Syria, Russia, and Iran to go into effect in six months in what is known as the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act of 2019. Iran could be compelled to provide comparable financial compensation to victims of flight 752, as well as Syrian victims of crimes perpetrated by Soleimani, Hezbollah, and the Iranian-backed Syrian government army as a part of renewed negotiations to lift economic sanctions. Moreover, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian government have promised $25,000 to families of the crash victims, Trudeau declared his expectation that Iran must compensate these families, thus commencing international pressure on Iran, which can be leveraged to return the country to the bargaining table. However, given that the focus of such negotiations is on eliminating Iran’s nuclear program, it may be seen as a distraction to focus on Syrian war crimes victims.
Another model are claims tribunals such as the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal (IUSCT), as well as the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) and the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission, which allow for monetary compensation for victims through the settlement of claims arising out of human rights violations. Established in 1981 under the Algiers Accords, the IUSCT was born out of unique political circumstances which forced both the United States and Iran to the table in order to provide compensation for large-scale injuries. Namely, in an attempt to free American hostages being held in Tehran, the U.S. froze Iranian assets in the United States, forcing both parties to come to the negotiating table. Awards of the Tribunal against Iran are paid from a Security Account funded initially by those same Iranian assets. At present there are no Iranian government funds to freeze in the United States. This would pose an obstacle to funding a renewed or reinvigorated IUSCT for Syrian victims of Iranian crimes.
Ultimately, as many citizens across Syria celebrate Soleimani’s death with the distribution of baklava in the streets, the severity of responsibility demands more, namely the equitable assignment of accountability and justice from all responsible parties, including Iran. While there are significant obstacles to international justice for Iranian crimes in Syria, non-prosecutorial accountability mechanisms may be more achievable in the near term. Therefore, international negotiators might consider whether compensation for Syrian victims of Iran’s violations could be made part of good faith efforts to restart negotiations to lift economic sanctions on Iran.