When the regime of Bashar al-Assad is destroyed or pushed out of Damascus, it will leave behind a wrecked capital and unparalleled record of supporting terrorist groups and covert deals with Russia, Iran and North Korea. What we understand of that record will be shaped by the documents that are preserved and analyzed. What Syrians will understand about forty years of rule by the fascist Baath party and its crimes against the Syrian people also depends on preserving something vital yet almost out of sight: the regime's archives and files.
The Assad regime's internal repression is understood but poorly documented. The destruction of the city of Hama in 1982 that killed perhaps twenty-five thousand people with explosives, bulldozers and poison gas is the best-known example. But human-rights organizations and Syrian dissidents have far longer lists of crimes. Who ordered and executed these? Who were the middle managers and field agents?
The Syrian record of support for terrorism is equally long but also does not rise to the level necessary for legal proceedings or historical accountability. Palestinian terror groups were based in Syria for decades—who permitted this, and what support were they given? Syria has long supplied Hezbollah with weapons, but what role did that country take in Hezbollah's attacks on Israel and against Lebanese opponents? What was the role in of the Assad regime in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, or the attempted bombing of an Israeli airliner, or the murders of Syrian journalists and Lebanese politicians, including Kamal Jumblatt and Rafik Hariri? How did Syria work with Iran and North Korea to skirt sanctions and built a covert nuclear facility? Without official Syrian files precisely documenting these and other incidents, how will justice or history be addressed?
In recent conflicts even the United States has secured records haphazardly. In Iraq, entire ministries burned as American troops rolled into Baghdad, including the intelligence and security agencies. It was the secrets locked up in those files—Saddam's international terror apparatus, weapons of mass destruction and murderous internal repression—that were the rationale for the American invasion in the first place. And it was the remnants of these agencies that took the lead in the bloody insurgency against U.S. forces.
In Egypt, members of the internal-security agency shredded files to sanitize the Mubarak regime and themselves and to create gaps in the historical record. In Libya, the legal and historical questions were equally profound. Did Qaddafi himself order the bombing of Pan Am 103? What were his relations with the PLO and the IRA during the 1980s? Who ordered the killing of U.S. servicemen in Germany in the 1980s? And what were the secret deals between the British, Scottish and Libyan governments that secured the release of imprisoned Libyan agent Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi? These questions prompted Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the former lord advocate who oversaw the Lockerbie case, to call for a "snatch squad" of British operatives to secure the Qaddafi regime's documents on the crime. It is likely too late.
Documents were once a prime military target. As the Allies swept across Europe during World War II, they seized hundreds of tons of Nazi documents that are still being studied today. Among other things, these provided the documentary record of the Holocaust and were introduced as evidence at Nuremberg and other war-crimes trials. They also form the basis for our understanding of that dark period of history. But such materials have slipped from view as a military priority. Actionable intelligence has been the primary focus of military "document exploitation" in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as Saddam's and Osama bin Laden's files have yielded vital historical and legal insights.
Such files also yield revelations vital for societies coming to grips with themselves. In East Germany, the notorious Stasi kept millions of files on every citizen. By carefully preserving and exploring those files since the fall of East Germany in 1989, some of the ugly truth has been exposed. Neighbors, friends and families informed on one another at the demand of the state, officials got away with murder, and communist spies penetrated deeply into the political echelons of West Germany.
As a result, some amount of justice has been meted out, and over two million Germans have examined their Stasi files. Compare that with Russia, where there has been no such accounting and where most secret files remain locked up today. No justice has been handed down on communist-era criminals, Stalinism remains a fetish and in the West it remains all too easy to whitewash or dismiss the bloodthirsty history of the Soviet era.
Demanding that mere paperwork be preserved seems strange when people are dying. But Syrian rebels, Egyptian revolutionaries and the next group fighting against repression need to be taught that files are a key to the future. The U.S. government and military must relearn the lessons of World War II—that the future depends in part on securing the past. Specialized skills are involved in document recovery and exploitation, more familiar to U.S. attorneys than U.S. Special Forces. Forensic accountants and computer geeks need to be at or near the front line supporting U.S. and friendly forces. Archivists, lawyers and historians need to follow up quickly, to utilize materials for criminal prosecutions and to correct the first draft of history provided by journalists and propagandists.
Preserving the past for the future can be an empty phrase. It should mean documenting crimes and introducing evidence in the courts of public opinion, history and justice. Syria is merely the latest in a long line of outlaw states where this imperative should be a prime consideration. Otherwise, what is pieced together will satisfy few.
Alex Joffe is a New York-based writer on international affairs. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.