Death notices in Syria

The aftermath of an Assad regime air attack in Idlib.

Tamim Mobayed discusses the recent issuing of death notices by the Bashar Al-Assad regime of those who have died in custody.

Thousands of Syrian families have these past few months been receiving the horrid news that their previously detained loved ones are now deceased. Starting in the spring of this year, the Assad regime began publishing death lists of detainees who had died in custody.


The timing of the release of these notices has been interpreted as an indication of the confidence of the Assad regime as the Syrian war seems to be winding down. Many of the notices relate that detainees have been dead since the early days of the war, going back to 2012 and 2013; had reports of thousands of deaths been released then, it would have piled pressure on Assad at a time when his fate was still unknown. Coupled with incidents such as the Ghouta chemical weapons attack of 2013, confirmation that the Assad government had been executing thousands of prisoners might have proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and forced the international community to act.

Assad, proving himself to be ever shrewd, held off from making any such disclosures until the tide of opinion harboured by countries such as the G5 had firmly turned. As distant a possibility as it might seem now, during the early days of the conflict, foreign intervention once seemed like a likely outcome, and one that would have removed Assad from power. Highlighting this change, the response of the U.S. to the death lists was a muted condemnation from the State Department.


The Syrian Human Rights Network puts the number of those detained since 2011 at over 104,000. Most of these detainees were denied any kind of due process, with their “crimes” being as light as having attended a peaceful protest. Others would not even have taken part in any such act, having merely been fingered by a fellow citizen, a practice that harks back to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Syrians in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Sexual violence against detainees is common practice, as are other forms of torture. The photographs smuggled out of the country by “Cesar”, a former employee of the Assad government, provide hard evidence for many of the claims that have been made about Assad’s prisons

The cruelty of this aspect of the Syrian war is amplified when considering the many voices who accuse Assad of targeting peaceful civil society activists, particularly in the early years of the uprising, while simultaneously clearing his prisons of advocates of violence.

The death notices commonly list the cause as being heart attacks and strokes. In one case, Mazen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, both French citizens, and both detained for attending a peaceful protest in 2013, were reported to have died of heart attacks. The death notice stated the Patrick had died in 2014 while Mazen passed in 2017.

Further highlighting the calibre of those who’ve been murdered, Yahya Surbaji, the so called “man with the roses”, who would give roses to Assad’s soldiers during the early days of protests, was among the listed dead.

Interrupted closure

Notice of death, ending a torrid wait for the bereaved families brings with it an interrupted closure; while confirmation of death might have arrived, families are still denied bodies and the closure that can come from praying over the body and burying it. Grief will be further complicated by knowing that their loved ones spent their last years, months, and days, being tortured and humiliated in one of Syria’s dungeons. Processing death in the best of circumstances can be trying for the bereaved; the complexities of the grief being experienced by Syrians now will add to, and prolong, the pain.

Berlin based Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni has documented a few thousand names that have thus far been released, but he believes the real figure to be incredibly higher than that. In one case, the date of deaths from those who came from the Damascus suburb of Daraya were all identical, leading families to conclude that they were all executed together. Of the 3,270 names released by the government on the 29th of July, 1,000 of them were once residents of Daraya.

Amnesty International reported that 13,000 detainees were hanged in the notorious Saydnaya prison between 2011 and 2015. Former detainees have reported the presence of incinerators at certain prisons, used to burn the bodies, and evidence of mass killings. The parallels with the crimes of the Nazis should not go unnoticed. It comes as no surprise that locations of burials are not disclosed to grieving families.

The unaccounted 

Some believe the death notices will eventually number more than 50,000. Most families remain in limbo about the fates of their loved ones. Despite the recent release of information, most families have still not received word on the fates of their imprisoned family members. The anxieties and heartache they are experiencing would undoubtedly have deepened with the latest release of death notices. And yet, the wait goes on, as their deepest worries continue to drift in the air, conflicted as they allow themselves to hope that just maybe their beloved will be coming home.

This whole affair; the mass detention of civil rights activists without due-process, the horrid conditions inside, the deaths due to torture, and the complete ill-regard for the families of the detained, marks one of the most gruesome chapters within the gruesome narrative of the Syrian conflict.

History is indeed repeating itself, as Assad’s father subjected tens of thousands of families to the same treatment a mere 3 decades ago. Many of us grew up telling ourselves that had the world known about the goings on in Syria at that time, something would have been done to stop the barbarity. This time round, the conflict has been documented and broadcast the world over, with all its gruesome details, in full view of the world. And we have been proven wrong; nobody has done a thing. History will tell of Assad and his morbid success in exterminating an entire generation of Syrians who rose up to demand freedom, equality, and an existence free of corruption.

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