MAASTRICHT/The NETHERLANDS. Did the Dutch government supply goods to terrorist groups in Syria between 2015 and 2018? And how did the decision to support the Syrian opposition come about? A committee, set up by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is going to look into these questions from April this year until October 2022. Rector Rianne Letschert is one of the four members.
For three years, the Dutch government supported the moderate-minded armed opposition in Syria; at least, that was the idea of the Non-Lethal Assistance programme (non-lethal goods such as pick-up trucks, uniforms, satellite telephones, cameras, laptops). In this way, they hoped to prevent moderate powers from being oppressed between extremist groups and the Assad regime, and to help them get firmly established in a ‘new’ Syria.
The NLA programme was discredited when Nieuwsuur and Trouw discovered in September 2018 that support was also going to the armed forces of Jabhat al-Shamiya, which was classified as a terrorist group by the Public Prosecutor. Video images showed the type of truck delivered by the Netherlands with machine guns mounted on top. Moreover, supervision of the aid was said to be inadequate and the House of Representatives received hardly any information.
Subsequently, two motions were submitted in the House of Representatives: one by Pieter Omtzigt (CDA) at the end of 2018, which was only partly implemented, and – building on Omtzigt’s motion – one by Martijn van Helvert (CDA) at the end of 2020. The latter asked for a committee to be set up to carry out an independent investigation into the NLA programme and to be given complete co-operation by the government. This motion was passed by the House last January. The ‘complete co-operation‘ explicitly means that no information may be withheld, not even if it was marked as ‘secret’.
Major General of the Marines
The chairman of the committee is Patrick Cammaert, retired Major General of the Marines; someone with a lot of experience in conflict areas, also in UN contexts. He set up a committee consisting of rector Rianne Letschert, who has carried out a lot of research into victims (victimology) in Africa, among others, journalist, writer and former UM student, Marcia Luijten, and professor Uğur Ümit Üngör, professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
Why did Letschert say yes to Cammaert’s request? “It takes me back, to some extent, to my field of specialisation: a combination of international public law and victimology. In addition, it is socially relevant that there is a thorough investigation into the deliberations and information on the basis of which decisions were taken in a very sensitive context.”
The committee’s task is to take a close look at the political decision-making process, as well as the legal risks relating to the project, the degree in which the conditions were met that were connected to the support, and what went wrong with the supply of information to the House of Representatives. Aside from that, they were asked what can be learned from this for the future.
Weekend reading material
The investigation will take place between 1 April and 1 October and will take on average one day a week. Is that doable alongside the rectorship? “As far as the work involved is concerned, there will be busy and less busy times. Most of it is reading and that is exactly what I find interesting, in order to also follow relevant developments in my field. So, mostly weekend reading material!”