The Syria Trials/
S1E6: The Regime Today


What position is the Syrian regime really in today? How does it really function? And how, after 11 years of war, and with sanctions placed on the country, is the regime making money? We look at the attempts to stop the normalisation of the Assad regime, and the cases that attempt to hold it accountable for more recent crimes.

The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff. It was produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with editorial support from Mais Katt. The voice over was provided by Maksim Abdul Latif. Translation was by Alaa Hassan. This episode was mixed by Tobias Withers.

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA’s Zivik Funding Programme.

To find out more about our podcast, visit our website Here you'll find an archive of all our episodes with their transcripts, as well as our other productions.


Useful links:

ECCHR Jamil Hassan case -

Der Spiegel Captagon investigation -

Episode Transcript

Rime Allaf: Today, yes, Bashar Assad is in power, but it's a very different kind of power today. So for your average Syrians, of course, you are still terrified even more than before by the intelligence and by the army, because now they're everywhere in your daily life. You're scared because the resources are scarce. There are sanctions on the country. So life has become extremely difficult. Inflation is through the roof. So these are different matters to worry about. 

Ibrahim Olabi: The conflict has changed since a couple of years ago. Right. The front lines are now relatively stable. The country is split and even the amount of crimes that are committed on a daily basis have been severely reduced. A lot of the witnesses and the victims are now abroad, across Europe. A lot of the refugees are getting citizenships, which gives them more rights, also obligations, but also more rights. And so the focus, I think, for the next ten years, if I can say so, is on those abroad because the solution will not come from inside Syria, unfortunately. We moved from an uprising to a civil war to a proxy war to now an international conflict. Now, if a Russian moves they kill a Turk, if a Turk move, they kill an American. It’s no longer Syrians on the battlefield. Right. And so, therefore, it needs an international solution. 

Fritz Streiff: Syria today is different. And as the years since 2011 multiply and the darkest and most violent days of the war recede further into the past, the danger of forgetting what happened in the country grows. And the likelihood of Syria being rehabilitated to some degree into the international community grows stronger too. There are signs of this happening already. In 2021, Syria was readmitted to Interpol, the international policing body, a system sometimes used by autocratic states to pursue political opponents. Denmark has deemed the Damascus region safe for refugees to return to, and official trade records seem to show that amongst others, Spain, Poland and Italy have all begun importing Syrian phosphates, a key component of fertiliser. In January 2022, the U.S. even backed an energy deal between Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Barrister Ibrahim Olabi. 

Ibrahim: The way I see it, if it wasn't for the great human rights work has been done by so many actors and victim groups and NGOs over the years, we would have seen attempts of normalisation five years ago. And so, from a human rights perspective, the regime is not in a good position at all. They're trying to argue the ground as much as they can, but they're struggling. If we talk about accountability, we always have to think about what do the perpetrators care about, right? Can I create a consequence for their actions about things that matter to them so that they cannot benefit from whatever they care about? So, for example, the regime cares about its international legitimacy, being seen as a state, being seen as an actor that is legitimate, that has the ability to enter into legal relations with other states. And that's what we're trying to kind of push against. That, you know, the regime is part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Fritz: Many of the cases that are being built in the justice and accountability for Syria space focus on the past and on past crimes, and rightfully so. From the torture programme to chemical weapons, there's a lot to address when it comes to the regime's criminal record. But with this focus, could it be that the new crimes the Syrian regime is committing are being neglected? Are legal efforts being made to deal with the way the regime is currently operating? 

Welcome to The Syria Trials. Episode Six. The Regime Today. 

Although the country of Syria may have changed dramatically after 11 years of war, has the way the Assad regime functions really changed that much? Has the Syrian regime, in fact, changed at all since the days it was led by Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad? Syrian writer and researcher Rime Allaf.

Rime: From my perspective, that was always the case. That Bashar Assad was just, you know, Assad regime 2.0. It was a continuation, there was no change. 

Fritz: Historian and sociologist Ugur Ungor. 

Ugur Ungor: Take someone like Ali Mamlouk, for example. For a long time, he was Hafez Assad’s right-hand man. Then Hafez Assad died and then Ali Mamlouk became a very important adviser to Bashar al-Assad and really head and lord of the intelligence empire. And when you look at the meetings that Bashar al-Assad had, for example, with the Iranians or with the Russians when he went and he met Vladimir Putin, you know, Ali Mamlouk is always there with him. He’s always there carrying a suitcase. God knows whatever is in that suitcase, what type of documents and files.

Fritz: Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar. 

Faraj Bayrakdar VO: Old guard and new guard are terms that came about with the advent of Bashar al-Assad’s inheritance of power. I don't really know how accurate they are. I know some people from the old guard, as in from the days of his father's rule. The person in the Air Force Intelligence who was my main interrogator was Ali Mamlouk. He was a lieutenant colonel. His assistant lieutenant was Jamil Hassan. These two are still going. Even in the present day, Ali Mamlouk sometimes shows up in Turkey and other times we see him in Iran. So he's still working. Jamil Hassan was laid off and he retired, but after 2011, he was behind the idea of the barrel bombs. So what do we call him, old or new guard? I don't think Assad cares about these labels. He only cares if you are with him or against him. 

Fritz: Jamil Hassan has been one of the most loyal members of the Assad regime - who we could call part of both the old and new guard. Someone who was directly targeted by Hassan is Mazen Darwish, Syrian lawyer and the founder of SCM, the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. 

Mazen Darwish: He’s Jamil Hassan, he is one of the very important security service generals in Syria. He led the Air Force security service. And his department, Air Force Security Service, [are] responsible about a huge number of crime and violence. And they are, I think, the most important player in moving in 2011, the civilian uprising to a civil war. I was arrested in 2011 twice. But the third time, when they attacked the office and arrested all the team of SCM who was inside the office. And they took us to Mezzeh airport, to the investigation branch for the Air Force. 

Fritz: After his imprisonment at the Mezzeh airbase, Mazen was transferred to an underground prison run by Maher Assad's Fourth Armoured Division. He was tortured and suffered abhorrent conditions. In Autumn 2012, Mazen was back in the custody of Jamil Hassan's Air Force Intelligence Directorate. From Sam Dagher’s book, ‘Assad or We Burn the Country’: 

VO: On the outside, the building looked like any government building or police station. Jamil Hassan's office was on one of the top floors. The prison was two floors deep underground. Mazen was led into a tiny cell that was supposed to be for solitary confinement. But there were already five people there. 

Fritz: A prison guard came to see him two days later. 

VO:You are the lawyer, right?” Said the man. “Happy holiday, and His Excellency, the General Jamil Hassan, has sent a special gift. Please come with us.” He was led out to the hallway. There were already seven guards standing there with batons, chains and steel rods. All seven attacked him. He was unconscious minutes later. He woke up in a bathroom with the shower running over him. Blood was coming out of his mouth and nose. 

Fritz: Mazen was one of 200 prisoners, all peaceful protesters who were released by the Assad regime in August 2015, in the framework of a so-called pardon. After his release, Mazen was visited by Maher al-Assad's aides, as well as businessmen close to Ali Mamlouk. The regime wanted to get him to unite and work with them against Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. Mazen decided to flee Syria. 

Once he was in Europe, Mazen met with ECCHR - the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights. They travelled to the town of Karlsruhe, where the German Federal Public Prosecutor's Office is. Here, Mazen gave his testimony. 

Mazen: This is also first time for me to communicate directly in person with the prosecutor in Germany. And this is the first time I'm not who document the violation. I’m the victim. Two days in Karlsruhe talking about what happened to me, all things, as a victim, not as a lawyer or the who document. Yes. So this is also ,mean a lot and learn a lot from it. 

Fritz: What did that mean for you? That you were able to speak as a victim? 

Mazen: You know, to be honest with you, at that time I'm not comfortable... I'm not comfortable to speak about what happened with me. Even for six months, I think I don't say anything. Even to my family, just I'm fine. I'm okay. You need it. To see that you can do something. You are not a victim end point. You can do something. 

Fritz: In June 2018, the German authorities announced they had issued an arrest warrant against Jamil Hassan, the first public warrant Germany had ever issued against a high-ranking Syrian official. This was after ECCHR filed a criminal complaint on behalf of Syrian torture survivors, among them Mazen. The crimes addressed in the complaint, including killing, persecution and torture, were committed between September 2011 and June 2014 in five Air Force Intelligence branches in Damascus, Aleppo and Hama. 

Mazen: It means a lot, to be honest with you this is the first practical result. So for me, it's… I need it. Me personally as Mazen, I need something practical. I need to say that yes, we can. 

Fritz: Joumana Seif, a legal adviser at ECCHR, worked on an additional case against Jamil Hassan. 

Joumana Seif: In 2020, in June, together with my colleague, we filed a criminal complaint and submitted to the German Federal Prosecutor on behalf of seven survivors, in a partner with them and also in a partnership with the Syrian Woman Network and Urnammu, two Syrian NGOs. And the investigation is still ongoing. Our main demand was to add sexual and gender-based crimes as a crime against humanity to the arrest warrant of Jamil Hassan. To prove it was committed systematically and in a widespread manner alongside other international crimes. We all know that especially these crimes, have the long-lasting impact on the survivors and also very harmful, very deep impacts. I think it's important for justice to all these crimes to be also mentioned, to be recognised as a crime against humanity. 

Fritz: But despite the international warrant for his arrest, Jamil Hassan has travelled abroad on at least two occasions since it was issued in 2018. He was admitted to the American University Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon, in June 2018 after suffering a heart attack, just around the time the warrant was issued. And then in early 2019, German officials received information that Hassan was receiving treatment at the same hospital's cardiology department. By the time Germany sent an official extradition request to Lebanon, Hassan was long gone.

The tactics the Assad regime use to stay in power have sometimes been referred to as mafia tactics. One being, for example, the systematic and brutal use of violence. Another mafia tactic the Assads have used has been to always keep it in the family, elevating only close family members and a small number of trusted confidantes to the highest positions of power - and keeping them there. Like Bashar's brother, Maher al-Assad and Jamil Hassan. But the Assads have also shown a very mafia-esque willingness to “eat their own” if necessary. It is rumoured that Bashar may have even had his brother-in-law, Assef, Shawkat, his elder sister Bushra’s husband, assassinated, after he showed signs of opposition. Another member of the Assad's inner circle who has more recently fallen out of favour is Bashar maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf. 

Rime: Just as Bashar took power from his father, you have to also consider that most of the other really big figures in the regime also inherited their positions of privilege from their fathers. And yes, it is, I think 100% fathers in this case, it’s not that we had women in strong positions. So just like Bashar became Hafez 2.0, Rami Makhlouf became the son of his father. 

Fritz: Rami Makhlouf inherited his father, Mohammed Makhlouf’s influence on the Syrian economy. At one point, Rami was rumoured to be the richest man in Syria, reputed to take a commission on every serious business deal in the country. 

Rime: So, Rami Makhlouf, I've always written about him and spoken about him for years as the regime's portfolio manager. He was the person who not only enriched himself, but who was enriching the entire regime and the Assad family, of course. It's very easy to make a lot of money in Syria when you are the only one allowed to have a franchise or an import licence for any product that you wish. And that's how the mobile phone business and the telecommunications, was entirely in Rami Makhlouf’s hands. So instead of belonging to the government, it was immediately in this more or less private corporation, which was Rami Makhlouf. The day I got a mobile phone in Syria, to be able to have a phone, I had to pay the equivalent of $1,200. And that was just for having, you know, a SIM card! 

Fritz: But in 2020, Rami posted videos on social media of him under house arrest. 

Rami Makhlouf Archive clip

Fritz: The regime had accused his companies of owing $180 million in back taxes. Rami was forced to hand over several of these businesses, including Syriatel, Syria's telecommunications company. So if Rami Makhlouf ran the show financially in Syria and he's now been side-lined, has the regime found other ways of making money? 

Christoph Reuter: Well, if you have to resort to producing drugs as your main source of income for the government, for the system, then you have reached a rather low level of governance. 

Fritz: It would appear that the Syrian regime is now employing another mafia tactic - involving itself in the illegal drugs trade. Specifically in the trade of Captagon, an amphetamine that has been banned in most countries since the 1980s. Christoph Reuter is the Middle East correspondent for the German weekly Der SPIEGEL. 

Christoph: It's a very powerful amphetamine invented by a German pharmaceutical company and is considered to boost the fighter so he doesn't feel pain, boost people who party all night that they don't feel tired. 

Fritz: During the conflict in Syria, smugglers and militant groups took advantage of the situation and started to supply Captagon, which is often laced with caffeine to fighters. The idea being to boost their courage and help them stay alert on the front lines. Usually, though, Captagon is mostly used and is found in the Gulf area, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and so on. In April 2020, Romanian Customs officials at the Port of Constanta discovered 2.1 million Captagon pills hidden in a shipment destined for Saudi Arabia, with a street value of €43.5 million. 

Christoph: The fascinating aspect was that the Captagon would not be smuggled to Europe to be sold and consumed in Europe. It was all done for covering the origin for a detour, because if the container would arrive in Saudi Arabia or in Dubai, originating from Latakia, Saudi customs would rip apart this container to the last bolt. So they took all the effort to cover up the origin of the Captagon. 

After 2012 started small scale production on the Syrian side. But what was confiscated now were amounts of several tons. So it was clear this is not a little drug kitchen somewhere in a valley. This must happen on an industrial scale. Plus, the fact that the shipments originated from Latakia port, which is completely controlled by the family of Bashar al-Assad. So it was our working hypothesis that this can only happen with the consent of the Syrian regime. And then we had a number of sources, witnesses who said, yeah, yeah, it's this cousin of Assad, this cousin of Assad who basically has the licence to produce and to export Captagon. 

Fritz: There probably aren't any official licences to produce and export Captagon. It is more likely that these cousins received unofficial but necessary permission from the top members of the Assad family. 

Christoph: It seems it's the most important cash cow. It's the most important source of hard currency income, because at least by the estimations of the UN agency UNODC fighting counternarcotics or the American Drug Enforcement Agency, the value of Syrian produced Captagon exceeds the value of legal exports. Because Syria hardly exports anything legal anymore. But Captagon production, because there is no pressure from counter narcotic investigators, from the police. Basically, Syria has become a narco country, so the production is extremely cheap and it doesn't need to be hidden or covered. So the profit margins are extreme. It is the most important source of hard currency income for Damascus. 

Fritz: Alongside Christoph Reuter and his team's investigation into the Syrian trade of Captagon, a criminal investigation was also underway in Germany. 

Christoph: Finally, we were lucky that in the confiscation seizure operation in the Port of Constanta in Romania, investigators found the contact details of two Syrians who had been in charge of booking the space on various ships for the containers to be shipped from Latakia to Europe and then back from Europe to the Gulf. And those people were investigated by the German police. 

Fritz: The trial took place in Essen, a city in West Germany, and concluded in September 2022. Four men, including three Syrians, were sentenced to up to ten years and nine months in prison. 

Christoph: In the court, one person who had been arrested as well basically became kind of crown witness and spoke out about the connections with Maher al-Assad and with the regime, basically. How all shipments and production and everything would be facilitated by what's left or what could be called authorities in this anarchic dictatorship. 

Fritz: So the court accepted the evidence presented by the prosecution that the defendants had ties to the Syrian regime, specifically to the Fourth Armoured Division of the army headed by the President's brother, Maher al-Assad. 

Christoph: It's the first case where you have court evidence that the regime is involved in this business. So, it's one important step in a much longer process of bringing the regime to justice. 

Fritz: Alongside the cases that deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity, more technical cases like the Captagon trial contribute to putting the pieces of the justice for Syria puzzle together. The evidence in the Captagon trial that points to the involvement of senior members of the Assad family is another hurdle the Assad regime has to overcome in its attempts at legitimacy and normalisation. 

Christoph: In the longer term, it, for example, blocks Damascus’ attempt to get reintegrated into the world order because you have these court cases and no politician can simply ignore them. 

Fritz: All of these efforts that continue to document crimes through case building investigations, trials, journalism and even art installations, they all serve to counter the narrative that Syria is a normal state. They also keep the memory alive of those who have been killed or disappeared by the regime. 

In October 2018, investigative judges in France issued international arrest warrants, including against Ali Mamlouk and Jamil Hassan, for complicity in crimes against humanity. The warrants came out of a criminal complaint filed by the brother of Mazen Dabbagh, who was arrested with his son Patrick in November 2013. They were taken to Mezzeh military airport run by Jamil Hassan's Air Force Intelligence, the same place Mazen Darwish and his colleagues were taken in February 2012. Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh have not been seen since. 

The brutality of the Assad regime is not limited to the torture chambers of its branches and prisons. The torture is passed on and felt indirectly by the families of those who have been taken. As the regime withholds information about their loved one's whereabouts and fate. Huge numbers of the arrested are not heard from again. They're disappeared with no way of their families knowing if they're dead or alive. 

Next time, in Episode Seven of The Syria Trials, we look at how the tentacles of the regime are felt within regular Syrian families and hear from the family members attempting to seek justice. I'm Fritz Streiff. Thank you for listening.