BEIRUT — The Syrian government has begun issuing death notices for political detainees at an unprecedented rate, according to groups that monitor the prisons, in an effort to resolve the fate of thousands of missing Syrians as the regime prevails in its civil war.
Although officials have not publicly explained the increase, it could offer a rare window into the mind-set of Syrian leaders, who are notoriously hard to read, at a pivotal point in the war.
Human rights experts and other observers say the disclosures reflect the growing confidence of President Bashar al-Assad’s government as his forces overrun final pockets of rebel-held territory. Authorities no longer fear they will provoke fiercer resistance by revealing the multitude of deaths in regime custody, experts say.
They also suggest that Assad feels secure enough that he is starting to close the book on the seven-year war, with the death notices signaling to Syrians that it is time to move on while underscoring in grim fashion that he is firmly in control.
The message is that “the war never happened, the regime is back in charge, and everything will be processed through the system,” said Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I think the word that encapsulates this best is normalization — the Syrian version of it, at any rate.”
The Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, has made dramatic gains in recent months, clearing some of the most stubborn pockets of opposition resistance and raising the national flag earlier this month above the southern town known as the uprising’s birthplace. Aside from a couple of isolated rebel positions, only a single province remains in the hands of the resistance.
Since Syria’s uprising began in 2011, more than 104,000 people have been detained or forcibly disappeared, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. As many as 90 percent are believed to have been held in government custody, across a network of prisons where torture, starvation and other forms of lethal neglect are systematically used to kill. The remaining 10 percent are thought to be held by rebel and other armed groups.
Lawyers familiar with the process said the Syrian Defense Ministry has sent the names of hundreds of detainees to civil registry offices across the country in recent months and instructed that these prisoners be registered as dead. The deaths have been registered across the provinces of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Latakia in recent weeks.
The civil registry offices issue notices that are essentially executive summaries listing few details about the deceased. Other death notices are issued by military hospitals, which release formal certificates and medical reports. These routinely list the cause of death as heart attack or stroke.
Sema Nassar, founder of Urnammu for Justice and Human Rights, which monitors Syrian prisons, said the group had documented more death notifications in recent months than in all previous years combined. The group’s staff has identified more than 300 cases in which families received death notices during a 10-day period earlier this month, including 96 at a government office in the Damascus suburb of Darayya, where Syria’s nonviolent protest movement began.
Separately, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said earlier this month it had documented 161 death notices nationwide since May, a figure it said is probably very conservative.
“Things are going better now for the regime. As the security emergency eases and the regime reconsolidates, the priority is to bring back some normalcy — some predictability and clarity — to people’s lives,” Itani said. “. . . The bureaucracy has to operate — I wouldn’t underestimate how important that is.”
Most documents reviewed by The Washington Post said the detainees had died between 2013 and 2015, with a lag of up to two years before military doctors signed and stamped an official certificate and medical report. Bodies have not been returned to family members, and burial locations are not shared.
Death notices issued in the central city of Hama state they were written in a Damascus military court at night. That timing suggests the prisoners were executed, according to groups monitoring Syria’s detention network.
Former prisoners, some released from Sednaya military prison near Damascus as recently as May, described regular executions, physical abuse, the withholding of urgent medical care and rations so paltry that cellmates died of starvation or malnutrition.
Accurate figures for the total number who have died in government custody are hard to come by because of government secrecy and the reticence of many Syrians to publicize their family members’ cases.
As part of a U.N.-sponsored peace process, officials from Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Russia, a key Assad ally, have been pressing the Syrian government to resolve the issue of missing political prisoners, according to opposition representatives at the talks and a Western diplomat.
“They want to close the detainees file, and the first stage is to tell all those families that their relatives have been dead a long time,” said Nassar, of Urnammu. “In practice, this means dealing a hammer blow. People are learning that they held on to false hope for years.”
Hassan, a software engineer from the central city of Homs, said his brother Bashir was arrested in the summer of 2014 as he walked to class. Friends later said plainclothes officers pulled him into a vehicle, and then he vanished.
“We knocked on every door. Sometimes there were rumors — someone has heard that he was in this prison or that prison. But there was nothing concrete,” said Hassan, who asked that his family name be withheld for fear of reprisal. “The only thing we knew for sure is that he was out there somewhere and in pain.”
After a former detainee said he had seen Bashir in Sednaya prison, more than 100 miles away, Bashir’s elderly mother began making monthly visits, leaving clothes and money at the gates for guards who assured her he would receive them.
She was folding fresh sweaters for her next trip one day in April when the phone rang with news that his death certificate was ready for collection. It reported that he had died of a heart attack.
“We found my mother sitting in between his clothes, just sobbing. She couldn’t even stand,” Hassan said. “We’d all had different feelings about whether he was dead, but she had always held the line. She used to tell us that we had to hope because hope was all we had.”
Noura Ghazi, a lawyer whose husband, Bassel — a prominent pro-democracy activist — was executed in Syrian custody in 2015, said families of the deceased had the “right to know” the truth about how they perished.
“As families, we demand to know the causes of death of our loved ones and where they are buried. We will not accept the regime’s cover for its brutal treatment of our loved ones by presenting fake causes,” she said.
But others, fearing government retribution, said they would be grieving in silence. “Our son was the most precious thing in the world, and we lost him,” said one woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The regime is back, and we’re back to square one. If I speak out today, will I lose my husband tomorrow? Will they take me instead?”
“I used to think of my boy every night as I went to bed, imagining what he was doing, hoping he was fine,” she added. “He was in a grave all that time.”
Zakaria reported from Istanbul.