The Significance of Apologies and Truth-Telling in the Syrian Conflict
On June 27, former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, 85, died in Paris. Tlass – who served as defense minister from 1972 to 2004 – was a close aide to former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and his son, current president Bashar al-Assad. While defense minister, Tlass ordered up to 150 deaths per week by hanging in Damascus alone. He was also accused of coordinating the 1982 massacre of Hama, wherein soldiers reportedly committed crimes against humanity and killed between 10,000 to 40,000 individuals. Tlassnever publicly apologized for his actions as defense minister. Figures on all sides of the conflict have refused to issue public apologies for wrongdoings, undermining their significance in facilitating accountability and healing for individuals and society and “white-washing” human rights abuses.
Former Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi has also failed to correct statements made while representing the Syrian government. During his tenure, Makdissi denied government responsibility for the 2012 Houla massacre in Homs, which killed 108 people – mostly women and children. The United Nations, eyewitnesses, and human rights groups claim government forces perpetrated the attack. Makdissi confirmed leaving the government in a 2013 statement, in which he apologized to those who trusted his credibility but did not offer true accounts of government atrocities – claiming to “know no more than” ordinary citizens. Makdissi’s apology failed to affirm the reality of government crimes, acknowledge the experiences of victims, or foster public dialogue to reexamine norms under the current regime.
Mustafa Tlass’ eldest son Firas Tlass, a wealthy opposition financier, has capitalized on war-time events and even his apology itself. Before defecting, Firas Tlass ran the MAS Group, which supplied the Syrian army with clothes, food, and medicine. He is also believed to have maintained close business ties with members of the Assad family. After defecting, Firas Tlass created (and now leads) The Syrian Promise, an anti-regime political movement. He claimed in a YouTube video to have apologized numerous times for his role in supporting the Assad government but stated that this is not enough without “compensation” – which he achieves by supporting opposition entities. Despite his apology, many Syrians consider his words and actions as mere ploys to establish political power in post-conflict Syria. Moreover, Firas Tlass’ political recruits have reportedly attacked individuals who criticize his late father’s legacy. These violent tactics and vies for political influence only repeat the wrongdoings of the Assad regime. They fail to convey true remorse to victims and perpetuate the very actions Firas Tlass has verbally denounced, undermining the apology’s significance.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is a Syrian-led and multilaterally supported nonprofit that envisions a Syria where people live in a state defined by justice, respect for human rights, and rule of law. SJAC collects, analyzes, and preserves human rights law violations by all parties in the conflict — creating a central repository to strengthen accountability and support transitional justice and peace-building efforts. SJAC also conducts research to better understand Syrian opinions and perspectives, provides expertise and resources, conducts awareness-raising activities, and contributes to the development of locally appropriate transitional justice and accountability mechanisms. Contact us at email@example.com.