Survivors of chemical weapons attacks and relatives of those disappeared by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime have shared their outrage that the red carpet is being rolled out for him at Cop28 in Dubai.
Assad, who has visited the United Arab Emirates twice in the past year, has presided over a brutal and ongoing civil war leading to countless war crimes against his own people over the past 12 years.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and 14 million people displaced, half of Syria’s population, causing the world’s largest refugee crisis.
Assad has been sanctioned by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Earlier this month, France issued an arrest warrant for him over the alleged use of banned chemical weapons against civilians in Syria.
The further normalising of Assad’s presence at the international climate has disgusted Syrians who have suffered devastating losses and harm.
Nevin Al-Mousa, whose brother Hamza Al-Mousa has not been seen since he was detained by Syrian authorities in 2014, said that inviting Assad to Cop28 is an “insult” to victims and survivors of Assad’s war crimes.
Inviting him is “like our lives don’t matter,” she told The Independent.
“Assad’s very presence at a summit on the future of our earth is absurd. It is an insult to the thousands who have lost their loved ones, and the millions who have fled their homeland,” she said.
“Assad has no place deciding the future of our planet when he has committed countless war crimes with impunity and continues to attack the Syrian people.”
Ms Mousa, an English teacher, was forced to flee her home in Hama City in 2013 with her mother after being accused of writing critically of Assad online.
“We had been threatened by the Syrian forces, my father was wanted and my brothers as well. Then they arrested one of my brothers who lived in Aleppo,” she said. Ms Mousa has been living in exile for the past decade.
Others recounted similar horrors.
Khaloud, a former journalist who declined to use her full name due to safety concerns, said her city was “fully besieged” by tanks in 2011 when she was forced to flee the country.
“I was part of planning and organising the peaceful demonstrations,” she said.
Khaloud’s 21-year-old brother, who she did not wish to name, was arrested by Syrian government forces in 2012.
“The regime forces broke into my home and they forcefully detained my brother. They threatened my mom that they would chop him into pieces when they took him downstairs,” she recalled.
To this day, his family do not know if he is alive.
Khaloud is “appalled” at how quickly the war crimes of Assad’s government appear to be being forgotten.
“He’s the one who used chemical weapons against his own people to suffocate them to death, what can the Assad regime add to a climate conference?” she said.
She compared welcoming Assad to Cop28 to “inviting the Nazis to lecture people about human rights”.
She added: “Assad has been killing human lives and destroying their habitats, same as an oil company does.”
Human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported on widespread and systematic use of chemical weapons in Syria by Assad’s regime. The rampant use of torture and forced disappearances of protestors have also been documented.
Earlier this month, Syrians living in exile in the UK gathered outside of the Syrian Embassy in London to demand that Mr Assad’s Cop28 invitation be revoked. The Syrian leader’s Cop invite comes a few months after Syria was welcomed back into the Arab League after a decade-long ostracisation. He is now regularly attending regional summits and diplomatic meetings.
“Seeing everyone normalising relations with the Assad regime as if nothing has happened and forgetting that all these crimes against humanity have been committed, turning a blind eye against everything that happened, was appalling,” Khaloud said.
What message is Assad’s invitation to Cop28 sending to dictators worldwide?
Bayan Sharbaj, who survived a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta city, Syria
“But to invite him to participate in particular in a climate change conference in the United Arab Emirates is something that I can call a black comedy.”
Syria’s government forces are now in control of much of the country with the help of Russia and Iran. While some parts of Syria remain under the control of anti-government rebel groups, heavy fighting has largely ceased.
In a statement to The Independent, a spokesperson for the Cop28 presidency said: “All member states of the United Nations are invited to participate in Cop28, and we are proud of the role we are playing in bringing the world together to help solve humanity’s greatest challenge.
“As this is a UNFCCC process, it is not Cop28’s position to comment on any individual UN member state or prevent any delegations from attending the event.
“The climate crisis requires collaboration amongst all stakeholders and we don’t want anyone to sit on the sidelines. We expect everyone who comes to come to ready to ratchet up our collective ambition to meet the urgency of the moment.”
Families For Freedom, an organisation led by survivors of Syrian war crimes, noted how the Assad regimes bombardments have led to widespread environmental damage across the country including to forests, and water and waste management systems. The war has left Syria’s once-fertile farmlands in a state of extreme drought.
“Assad regime’s apathy towards its people changed [the country] into a barren desert,” Khaloud said.
The majority of Syria’s population depended on farming before the war. Last year, the country’s wheat harvests totaled 1 million tonnes, 75 per cent less than before the war broke out.
Assad has not publicly confirmed his attendance at Cop28. Syria’s delegation to Cop28 will be headed by its Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, an unnamed delegate told Reuters this week.
Those who lived through chemical attacks said that if the UAE does not revoke Mr Assad’s invitation, then other world leaders should “push [Syrian government] for accountability and to stand up for humanity”.
“What message is Assad’s invitation to Cop28 sending to dictators worldwide?” Bayan Sharbaj, who survived a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta city, told The Independent.
“This conference is about protecting the environment and providing a better world for the next generation. Those invited are there to think about human safety and how to protect and preserve our planet.”
“Assad has destroyed the Syrian environment, he has robbed the future of the next generation. We ask leaders to speak up for our loved ones, the survivors and victims of his countless crimes against humanity.”