Plan to tempt refugees back to Syria unlikely to succeed
A half-century of Assad family rule in Syria was marked on Nov. 13. Between father Hafez and son Bashar, most Syrians have known only one name as leader. It is a bitter indictment of Assad rule that the country lies in ruins, is divided, its economy shattered, much of its urban centers reduced to rubble, and its society smashed. Since 2011, at least 500,000 people have been killed and countless injured.
Of all the gruesome statistics, perhaps the most telling is that nearly 11.5 million Syrians have either fled the country or become internally displaced. This was out of a 2011 population of 23 million.
So just what were the Russian and Syrian regimes up to in holding a major two-day conference in Damascus last week? Rows and rows of largely elderly men dutifully listened for hours. Do these regimes really want to see the return of millions of Syrian refugees, the majority of whom would not be sympathetic to their agendas? The Syrian authorities can hardly feed the Syrians inside Syria right now. Look at the huge bread queues. Food prices are 90 percent higher than six months ago and 236 percent up from this time last year. The health system is in tatters and cannot cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week’s conference was all about messaging, not content: A non-stop blame game on steroids. Bashar Assad blamed Western sanctions for causing the crisis. Western countries, he claimed, were preventing refugees from returning, as were international nongovernmental organizations. The international media was apparently spreading fake news. In regime speak, the war on terrorism is over, even though the US, Israel and Turkey are still fomenting extremism, according to the deputy Syrian foreign minister.
Determining what this conference was about is an exercise in calculated guesswork because taking the Russian or Syrian regimes’ statements at face value is pointless. They need to be deciphered. However, one thing is clear: This was a Russian initiative that Assad was almost compelled to get behind. Russia was sending a signal that Vladimir Putin can push the Damascus regime around and that the refugee file can only be solved if Moscow is included. Iran was not present.
The Syrian regime and its backers, including Russia, want to portray a sense of normalcy — that the conflict is over. To do that they have to retake all the outstanding territory and also resolve the refugee issue, bringing back a fair portion of the 5.6 million UN-registered refugees. But normalcy is a fantasy, even if much of the fighting is over and the lines of control between the competing powers have barely altered since March. Many Syrians living in regime-controlled areas openly say that the current situation amid the pandemic and economic meltdown is worse than at any point since 2011.
Funds are a clear goal. Russia wants donor countries to stump up billions of dollars for reconstruction and refugee return. It cannot afford to do so itself. Moscow is eying the huge tranches of donor aid that goes into looking after refugees in host states; indicating that it would be preferable for such states to encourage refugee return and spend the money inside Syria.
Did the international community play ball? Not at all. Only 27 countries sent representatives. The reaction outside of the conference ranged from hostile to negative to nonplussed. Given the record of the regime, most countries — including, crucially, likely donor countries — do not think it is safe for refugees to return. They would not accept any regime guarantees, not least before there is serious political change. Donors are also wary of allowing the Syrian regime to benefit financially from reconstruction.
The UN did send their country coordinator, as did the International Committee of the Red Cross, but, given the delicate diplomacy, they had little choice. They were at least able to deliver the message rarely heard in Damascus that international law is clear on refugee return: That it must be voluntary, safe and dignified.
Only a credible political process with international guarantees could see a safe return for a sizable number of refugees.
Of course, the refugee-hosting countries may have different views. Some Lebanese factions would like to see Syrians return. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains intent on returning refugees to northern Syria, which many fear will be forced, not voluntary, and will involve being moved to an entirely different area of Syria to where most originated. This is all part of Erdogan’s plan to alter the demographics in northern Syria in a bid to diminish the Kurdish presence along its 565-mile border with Syria.
What about the refugees themselves? The head of the Russian National Defense Management Center, Mikhail Mezentsev, estimated that 1.3 million refugees would like to return, though quite how that figure was arrived at we do not know. Few refugees are going to be impressed by the guarantees of a repressive regime that has detained hundreds of thousands and disappeared many others. Their rationale for any return would depend on their circumstances. For those with a political record of opposing the regime, returning while it remains in power is not going to be an option. Others fear being forcibly conscripted into the Syrian army. Some consider housing and economic opportunity a factor.
However, slowly but quietly, some Syrians are returning. How many more freezing winters do they wish to be stuck in Arsal in northern Lebanon, where the temperature drops to -10 degrees Celsius on occasions? This is not an appetizing prospect, and some may feel they might be better off inside Syria, particularly if they have no political record. The atmosphere in host countries is also less welcoming than it was a few years ago. This brings into question the notion of a voluntary return — if Lebanon, for example, induced a coercive environment that pressured refugees to go back.
Ultimately, only a credible political process with international guarantees could see a safe return for a sizable number of refugees.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech