The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law

Syrian War Criminals in Holland: Afterlives of Violence

Conversation with Ugur Ümit Üngör (Utrecht University, History; NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam).

The Syrian revolution began as a fairly non-violent uprising in March 2011, but quickly escalated into a civil war due to the Syrian government’s increasingly violent response. Within eight years, the war had devastated economic and civic life, killed over 500,000 people, and reached military and political stalemate. Syrian territory and society became fragmented into roughly four parts: Assad, the rebels, the Kurds, and ISIS. Atrocities and war crimes were committed by all of these actors, albeit with significant differences in their quality and quantity.

The brutality of the conflict produced an unprecedented flow of mostly civilian refugees who mostly landed in neighboring countries, whereas about one million migrated onward to Western Europe. Among this population, an unknown number of former combatants and war criminals took up residence in the Netherlands. How did these men fare in the aftermath of the war? And how did the Dutch government respond to the influx of Syrian war criminals?

Based on 7 years of ethnographic fieldwork including interviews with Syrian war criminals, their victims, and Dutch police officers and lawyers, I argue that a combination of European policy preoccupations and Syrian war dynamics has provided impunity for a range of war criminals.

Uğur Ümit Üngör is Associate Professor at the Department of History at Utrecht University and Research Fellow at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. His main area of interest is mass violence in the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is an editor of the Journal of Perpetrator Research, and coordinator of the Syrian Oral History Project. His publications include Genocide: New Perspectives on its Causes, Courses and Consequences (Amsterdam University Press, 2016, ed.), Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property (Continuum, 2011), the award-winning The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950 (Oxford University Press, 2011), and the monograph Paramilitarism: Mass Violence in the Shadow of the State (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is currently working on his forthcoming monograph Shabbiha: Assad’s Militias and Mass Violence in Syria (forthcoming).

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Sponsor(s): Center for European and Russian Studies, Center for Study of International Migration, Center for Near Eastern Studies, Promise Institute for Human Rights