Accountability for war crimes and abuses was essential to most Syrians on both sides of the struggle. They foud the idea of “forgive and forget” unacceptable. Regime opponents and supporters agreed that justice needs to be applied to both sides and may serve as a hedge against revenge killings and deter future crimes. While forgiving and forgetting will be very difficult for most, some said that with accountability, moving past the current violence might be possible.
Accountability is Key
Most respondents, whether pro- or anti-regime, insisted that those who committed abuses on both sides must be held accountable, and assumed this will be done by the justice system.
Any side, whoever committed a crime should be held accountable, no matter what. I am not saying that I am the one in charge of holding them accountable. It should be through the judiciary.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 50, refugee in Jordan
He who did something wrong should be held accountable, but at the same time, there should be tolerance between them and us. The important thing is accountability because the people who were harmed had no fault in this.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 58, Damascus
Some respondents wanted official accountability as a hedge against otherwise-inevitable revenge killings. Many expressed concern about Syria’s “culture of revenge.”
Certainly there are some people who should be held accountable. If they are not held accountable by specialized [bodies] or by the country or from the authorized side, there would be revenge between people.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Damascus
There is judiciary of the rebels and judiciary of the government, and of course after the regime falls we have a judiciary and we will work with it. I am against taking revenge with my hands. I hate the shedding of blood.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 55, refugee in Jordan
A few advocated accountability through revenge and violence, particularly in Hama, but respondents from both sides spoke in favour of it.
Everyone who stood with the despicable Bashar should be held accountable and punished. Their fate should be hanging to death or torture to death, because they violated our houses and dignity.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 40, Hama
The child who was killed, the honour which was raped won’t be compensated with money but with killing. We want revenge against them. We want to kill and slaughter those mercenaries.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 34 al-Qamishli
Some saw accountability as a deterrent to the use of violence in the future, to “teach a lesson.” One cited the example of Syria’s recent history:
“If Hafez al-Assad was held accountable for the Hama, Aleppo, Al Shoghor Bridge, and Tadmur massacres, would his son dare to do what he has done? I do not think so.”
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 47, IDP in Raqqah
“Forgive and Forget” Rejected
Very few said “forgive and forget” was a better approach.
What?! Forget the past? What are you talking about?! And leave them wandering among us? They should be held accountable for all their crimes, no matter what side they belong to, because what happened in Syria is very huge. Of course we will not forget the past, and we can’t even if we want to.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Aleppo
The past cannot be forgotten. Anyone who committed a crime from both sides should be prosecuted to the fullest extent.
— Alawite woman (pro-regime), 35, Tartous
A few suggested that forgiving and forgetting is needed to patch Syria’s tattered social fabric, but even they stressed that accountability for serious and intentional abuses would be necessary before it will be possible to put the past behind.
It will be better to forget the past so that the war ends and we live in peace and freedom. Accountability is only necessary for the ones responsible for war.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 40, Hama
Of course those who committed abuses should be held accountable, and even if there were minor excesses from security officers they should be held accountable too, because we want to build a better Syria. At the same time, we should forget the past and tolerate because it is possible that some made mistakes against others without meaning to.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 33, Aleppo
Despite the intense polarization among Syrians in this time of conflict, they are united in their desire for accountability for crimes and other atrocities committed during the war. The demand is the same among both regime opponents and supporters, and both agree that abuses by all parties should be included. Accountability is seen not only as justice but also as an alternative to revenge in a society steeped in it as well as a deterrent to future abuses. Most reject the idea of forgetting the past, and even those who embrace it feel that major and deliberate crimes cannot be ignored.
How to achieve accountability, beyond the assumption that court trials will form its basis, is another matter. The different alternatives for transitional justice, including not only trials but also compensation and truth commissions, have not received much discussion or thought among many Syrians to date.