There may be some justice after all for Steven Sotloff, the journalist whose gruesome killing at the hands of an ISIS executioner was seen around the world in a propaganda video in 2014.
Sotfloff’s family has filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court against the government of Syria, which it holds responsible for his death. The central premise of the suit is that the Syrian government, led by President Bashar Al-Assad, actually has been propping up ISIS with money and weapons.
That’s an eye-catching claim, not least because ISIS is committed to overthrowing the Syrian regime and is actively fighting it on the battlefields of Syria.
The Sotloffs alleged that Syria’s “security apparatus helped create and thereafter greatly assisted Daesh [the Arabic name for ISIS], which was nothing more than its sham opponent in the Syrian civil war, to bolster Syria’s negotiating power vis-a-vis the Western powers that had been seeking the end of the Assad regime. Assad’s plan was to cooperate with Daesh to destroy the moderate opposition leaving Daesh as his only opponent in the Syrian civil war.”
“At all times relevant to this complaint,” the lawsuit continued, “Syria provided material support to Daesh, such as financial support, provision of materiel, and military air support.”
That narrative is a deeply controversial one. Yes, there are researchers and analysts who believe that the links between Assad and the zealots who want to replace him with a self-annointed religious ruler have never been fully appreciated. (Some of them are cited in the Sotloffs’ complaint, filed in the District Court in Washington, DC.)
But more experts regard the idea that Assad is propping up his avowed enemy as an overly simplistic reduction that relies on scant evidence.
“I hold no brief for Bashar al Assad or his regime, but Assad is not sponsoring ISIS,” Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Beast.
Most analysts agree that Syria aided ISIS’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, when it fought and killed U.S. troops, providing support and free travel across its border. And there are significant instances where the two sides have interacted to each other’s benefit, such as Syria’s purchase of oil through ISIS’ illicit network. Or when Russian aircraft began bombing more moderate rebels—the common enemies of ISIS and Assad—during the Fall of 2015.
But Joscelyn and many other analysts see these transactions as symbiotic moments of opportunity in the chaos of war, not a grand collusion.
The regime’s forces have fought ISIS most recently in the Syrian town of Palmyra, which Assad’s forces liberated from ISIS’ clutches after the group destroyed priceless artifacts. They have fought bloody battles in several other Syrian towns, as well as along key supply routes that the group needs to survive.
“ISIS has launched suicide attacks against the regime throughout Syria,” said Joscelyn, who edits the terror-tracking Long War Journal. “In fact, ISIS claims to have carried out 62 ‘martyrdom operations’ against Syrian regime forces during the first three months of this year.”
So why would the Sotloff family hinge their loved one’s justice on a set of allegations that are refuted by experts and seem to fly in the face of the facts on the ground? Perhaps because they’ll never have to prove their theories in court.
The Syrian government, as the named defendant in the case, has the right to send a representative to federal court in Washington, DC, and defend itself. It probably won’t.
In the vast majority of cases brought by family members of terrorist victims against sovereign governments who are, like Syria, on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, the defendant simply never shows up, said Peter Margulies, a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law. In that case, the judge may find the defendant in default and rule in favor of the plaintiff.
That’s just what happened in one famous case brought against the government of Iran by the family of an exchange student, Alisa Flatow, who was killed in a terrorist bombing in Israel in 1995 carried out by a proxy of the regime in Tehran.
Iranian officials, including the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were served with summonses through the embassy of Switzerland in Tehran. The Iranians returned the court papers through the mail with “Do Not USA” written on the back of the original, unopened envelope. The judge in the case, Royce Lamberth, awarded Flatow’s family $247 million in damages.
That lesson won’t be lost on the Sotloff family’s lawyer, Steven Perles. He represented the Flatows, as well as other families who’ve successfully sued the government of Iran for their role in terrorist attacks that killed their loved ones, including the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that claimed the lives of 241 service members.
Courts have awarded the families of Iranian terror victims billions of dollars in damages. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that an Iranian bank must pay terror victims, a significant legal victory that’s likely to encourage other families who want to bring lawsuits for monetary damages. (A law pending in Congress would also give families of victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia.)
A representative of Perles’ law firm in Washington, DC declined to comment on the Sotloff case, saying that “as a matter of policy” the attorneys don’t discuss pending litigation. But Perles will almost certainly follow the well-worn pattern of earlier cases, and he’s obviously an expert in how to try them.
Don’t expect high courtroom drama, though. If the Syrian government doesn’t show up to refute the allegations that it supports ISIS, the Sotloff family’s attorney need not prove every claim in the complaint.
“You basically just have to show a colorable claim and some evidence to back it up,” Margulies said. It’s not the same as a trial in which the plaintiff must call witnesses, who can be cross-examined by the defense, which also would have a chance to call its own experts to the stand.
To support its allegations, the Sotloff lawsuit relies almost entirely on news articles by journalists and ISIS chroniclers, including the work of Michael Weiss, a senior editor at The Daily Beast and the co-author of a book on ISIS cited in the complaint.
Presuming that Syria sends no one to court to tell Assad’s side of the story, and the judge rules for the Sotloffs, he could then award monetary damages. At that point, the family would have to find a pool of money from which it could be paid.
There, too, they could follow a well-established pattern. Victims of terrorist attacks linked to foreign governments may recoup damages from assets that have been blocked by the U.S. government.
And there’s Syrian money to be had. According to the most recent report from the Treasury Department, the U.S. has blocked some $78 million in assets belonging to the Syrian government. Margulies said that pool of money is the obvious “target” for anyone seeking to claim damages for terrorist attacks linked to the Syrian government.
Most families only recover a fraction of the money that courts have awarded them. But that can still add up to millions of dollars. And for many, the legal victories represent both a measure of justice for their loved ones as well as a warning against terror-sponsoring regimes that they will be held to account.
If the Sotloffs can win in court, that may motivate other ISIS victims to follow suit, including the families of James Foley, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller, who all died at the hands of the terror group.
“I think the path was there” before the Sotloffs brought their lawsuit, Margulies said. “But this no doubt will encourage other families to explore these options to get compensation for their loss.”