HomePoliticsAnalysisThe disappeared

The disappeared

With countless people missing from Lebanon and Syria over the span of half a century, the UN voted to establish a body to search for information on those who have been disappeared in Syria, even as Syria and its allies push back against such plans.

A protester places portraits of Syrians suspected of being detained or disappeared by the Syrian government on the pavement during a demonstration in front of Berlin's Brandenburg gate on May 7, 2022. Photo: John MacDougall, AFP

It was around two or three in the morning around the summer of 1985 and darkness filled the streets of Tripoli.

Hanadi Fawal, who was 14 at the time, was asleep in her bed when she and her family heard a banging on the door. At this hour, it could not mean good news.

Upon answering the door, the family was met by members of the Syrian military, which had been occupying Lebanon since then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ordered his troops into Lebanon to intervene in the Lebanese Civil War that started in 1975. The men barged their way in, demanding that the family turn over Fawal’s older brother, Toufic.

Toufic, who was 20 at the time, was accused of being involved in the killing of a prominent Syrian officer. To make matters worse, their other brother, Nabil, had been killed the previous year after his car was pulled over by a group of Alawites loyal to the Syrian government.

“He did not do anything; he was not involved in the crime,” Fawal told NOW. “His friends took his car, and killed this guy (a general in the Syrian army). They accused Toufic of being involved since it was his car, and his brother Nabil was killed at the hands of the Syrians so he had a motive – although he is innocent.”

Toufic was then taken to Syria, where he was imprisoned.

His parents were able to visit him twice, once in 1989 and a second time in 1991, where they were told that they should not worry and that he would be released soon.

“They did not tell my parents when he will be released, but an officer in the Syrian army promised them to release him as soon as possible, but unfortunately it did not work out,” Fawal recalled.

“They started telling my parents that he is not there. We asked around a lot, several sources, no one gave us a definite answer and some did not even respond. At the end, we were assured from several sources that he is missing,” she added.

Fawal has not seen or heard anything about her brother since.

This is a story that is too familiar to countless Lebanese and Syrians who had friends and family who were forcibly disappeared in Syria, a tactic used by the government for decades to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who would seek to challenge them.

However, now, there is a chance for people to finally get some answers about the fate of their loved ones after the United Nations voted to approve the creation of an institution that would be tasked with finding information on those who have been disappeared in both government and opposition-held areas.

“​​People have been arrested for years and suffered serious injuries and have been forced into exile, therefore the problems are always there but we are hopeful that the establishment will help the families and the missing victims,” Mazen Darwish, a Syrian human rights lawyer and activist in exile after he was himself disappeared in Syria, told NOW.

Searching for answers

The establishment of this new body was a long time coming.

According to Darwish, he had been pushing the UN to create the institution for around seven years with mixed results.

“Mainly it took that much time because there wasn’t a lot of pressure on the countries for this matter,” he explained. “Also there was a group of politicians that did not want to go through this.”

Despite how long it took for the UN to finally put the issue to a vote and actually create the institution, Darwish still views this vote as a victory, no matter how small, that has the potential to have a significant impact – most importantly for the families and friends of those who have been missing for years and, in some cases, decades.

“Without a doubt, the decision taken by the UN is an excellent and a major step towards achievement,” he stated. “It is a start for a new chapter to work on this important file. There’s going to be a lot of work, it also needs the cooperation of parties in Syria, and also cooperation from all in order to succeed in this mission.”

Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, agreed with Darwish’s sentiments that this has the potential of having an impact, even if it does not change the situation on the ground for people in Syria.

“It won’t change anything on the ground, but with this regime, a good deal of documentation would help,” Hage Ali told NOW.

For Darwish, the fact that there is no specific timeframe set, which would have limited the scope of a search, is one of the most important details of this new body.

This means that anyone who has gone missing before the start of the civil war in 2011 will also be included.

Darwish says that this will help both Syrian and Lebanese families hopefully find some answers and, in the best-case scenario, some closure.

Despite all of this optimism, Darwish is well aware of the amount of work that still remains ahead, and that it is anything but certain that the new institution will be able to properly carry out its task.

What is likely the most daunting task ahead is getting the Syrian government to cooperate with the search.

In the past, the government has not only refused to cooperate but actively stonewalled international investigations in the country, most notably the Organization for the Proliferation of Chemical Weapons’ search for evidence to support claims that chemical weapons had been used to target civilian populations in the war.

The issue of what happened with those people in Syria is not just about one person or religion or sect, it’s about all of them as a whole. We wish that the families of the missing victims pressure them in order for them to cooperate.

Hage Ali also has no illusions about the search for answers, saying that the Syrian government will “try to obstruct as much as they can,” given that such findings  – in particular mass graves – could further implicate the government in war crimes.

“This is a link to two things. First, during the conflict, war crimes that occurred when they went into certain neighborhoods and had collective punishment and they killed so many of the adversaries, POWs or political adversaries and they kind of punished them en masse,” he explained.

He also noted the killing of prisoners who were then transported to mass graves; something that was extensively documented by “Caesar,” the name given to the informant.

“The second part is that this is a regime that plays a waiting game,” Hage Ali added. “That’s a waiting game that not only the regime has played but Lebanese warlords in which many of the families of the disappeared are dying – the mothers specifically are dying – so we’re losing track of what really happened.”

Darwish is also aware that the Syrian government will push back against any fact-finding attempts, but hopes that people will not stay silent and will push for them to cooperate.

“The issue of what happened with those people in Syria is not just about one person or religion or sect, it’s about all of them as a whole,” he said. “We wish that the families of the missing victims pressure them in order for them to cooperate.”

Even though the vote passed with 83 votes, nearly as many countries voted against or abstained from voting altogether. Syria, Iran, Russia, and China were among the 11 that flat-out rejected the proposal. 

What comes as more of a surprise, though, is that Lebanon, which has its own missing in Syria, was one of the 62 countries that chose to abstain and not take any concrete position on the plan.

Playing politics

When it came out after the vote that Lebanon had chosen to abstain from supporting the plan to search for the disappeared in Syria, the blowback in Lebanon was almost instantaneous.

Many Lebanese could not comprehend how Lebanon could abstain from the vote when so many of its own citizens were still missing. Even after the Syrian occupation of Lebanon ended, people continued to disappear, such as in 2013, when Lebanese journalist and Sky News Arabia cameraman Samir Kassab was kidnapped. His whereabouts and health are still unknown.

Fawal was outraged by her government’s lack of action.

“I am disappointed that my country did not vote for this establishment, they should be the first ones to vote since their own citizens have gone missing,” she stated. “There are a lot of people like us. They do not know anything about their parents, children and so on.”

For many analysts, though, it was clear that politics was the main culprit for Lebanon’s abstention in the UN vote.

According to Hage Ali, one only needs to look at Lebanon’s foreign ministry as to why Lebanon did not take a position on a topic that hits close to home for many Lebanese families.

“Lebanon’s foreign policy has been mismanaged, it no longer reflects the country’s interest to a certain extent it is also linked to the juxtaposition of most is the political parties in the country vis-á-vis Syria and they want to have a stronger rapprochement with Syria, the Arab states are normalizing their relationships with Syria so it’s a different ball game,” he said.

This mismanagement of the country’s foreign policy, in part, has to do with Hezbollah exerting pressure on the government to ensure that its ally Bashar al-Assad and his government are protected, but also has to do with the current trend in the region of countries restarting and bettering diplomatic relations with Syria.

The FPM has been trying to use its relationship with Syria as a negotiation tactic with its adversaries and its allies as well, Hezbollah as well. Michel Aoun went to Syria and visited Assad and they are trying to position themselves closely to the Syrian regime in the next phase.

The United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and many other nations have all agreed to re-engage with Syria after cutting off ties following the start of the civil war in 2011 and the government’s brutal crackdown on its people.

In the past, Lebanon’s anti-Syria parties were able to take up a stronger position when other countries in the region were also taking up the same view. But, given the increased rapprochement sweeping through the region, their position has been severely weakened as they can no longer apply as much pressure as they might have been able to several years ago.

The Free Patriotic Movement, which was once a staunch anti-Syrian party and played a major role in the 2005 protests that helped to force Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, also appears to be looking at forming better relations with Syria.

As the FPM increasingly distances itself from its longtime ally Hezbollah, they need to find a new way to prop themselves up and give themselves more negotiating power in the future.

“The FPM has been trying to use its relationship with Syria as a negotiation tactic with its adversaries and its allies as well, Hezbollah as well. Michel Aoun went to Syria and visited Assad and they are trying to position themselves closely to the Syrian regime in the next phase,” Hage Ali stated.

Lebanon is also thinking in financial terms and looking to the future when it comes to Syria’s rebuilding following years of war.

By taking a more neutral stance towards Syria, the Lebanese state is hoping that when the time comes for Syria to rebuild, it could mean lucrative contracts for Lebanese companies and contractors.

Lebanon has also historically served as a multitool for Syria that was able to provide a use for whatever the government might need – such as banks or an airport.

Hage Ali argues that this has led to the thinking in Lebanon that if Lebanon has a good relationship with Syria and does not anger Syria, then it could yield fruitful and profitable results in the future.

This comes at the cost of getting answers for people like Fawal, who have waited decades for definitive information as to the whereabouts of their family and friends.

While Darwish says that he does not want to be “romantic” or “poetic” about the road ahead, he says that no matter what happens, they cannot back down.

“We either get justice or we keep trying so our country would not suffer from distraction and corruption,” he stated.

Following the vote, the new body now has three months for UN officials to create the institution’s structure and begin recruiting staff.

After that, it could take years before they start to find any information – if they are able to at all.

In the meantime, Fawal and hundreds of thousands of others can only wait to see what happens, all the while becoming more and more certain that their loved ones are dead with every day that goes by without any news.

Nicholas Frakes is a senior reporter with @NOW_leb. He tweets  @nicfrakesjourno.