by Filippo Dionigi
More than ten years after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the normalisation of relations with the Syrian government is advancing. Notwithstanding acrimony and severed diplomatic relations, even states such as the UAE are resuming normalcy with Damascus. Up to nine Arab League members have recently expressed their will to re-admit Syria to the regional forum from which it was expelled in 2011. Violence is still ongoing, though to a lesser extent than before, and the country’s economy and infrastructure remain devastated, but some states see normalisation as an opportunity to contain Iranian influence in the region, re-open vital economic gateways, shape the post-war scenario, and seal the return of autocratic states’ regional management. The US and European states remain committed to al-Assad’s isolation, but the wind is changing. Washington has remained eloquently indifferent to the Emirati foreign minister’s visit to Damascus, whereas France and Germany, the main EU opposers to normalisation, are undergoing significant domestic change. Germany has a new government, and the forthcoming French elections may change Paris’ approach to Syria. For the UK too, it is difficult to imagine that Damascus’ isolation will last indefinitely.
Yet, normalisation raises difficult questions. With half of its population domestically and internationally displaced, one key issue is how it will affect the prospects of Syrian refugees. Their conditions – especially in Lebanon, but also in Jordan, Turkey and the KRI – have always been difficult, and have worsened dramatically year after year due to a convergence of factors, including inadequate legal status, punitive policy decisions, host community fatigue, dwindling humanitarian support, and the consequences of the COVID pandemic which aggravated the already difficult economic conditions of host countries. Nevertheless, surveys and reports show that Syrian refugees are unwilling to return to their country in the short term no matter how bad life may get. The security situation in Syria does not allow for return, and many of those who returned have become victims of violence, arbitrary arrest, disappearance, or forced conscription, and the list goes on. This stands as a stark warning for all states hosting Syrians in the West and the region that repatriation is not an option, neither now nor in the near future unless they deliberately intend to breach international law.
But if we look at the long-term scenario the picture may change. Surveys consistently show that most Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries intend to return in the long term, a crucial aspect not to be overlooked. Return for refugees is not only a legitimate desire, nor solely a ‘long-term solution’ – in the words of international organisations – but also a right robustly enshrined in international law. Failing to keep this in mind will be another tort inflicted on a people already paying the highest price of a disastrous conflict.
Yet, Syrian refugees’ return is both a paradox and a dilemma. It is a paradox because practices of refugees’ return task the state of origin with the primary responsibility to create the conditions and then guarantees for repatriation in a voluntary, secure and dignified manner. Until now, however, the Syrian government has pursued policies that create the exact opposite conditions for safe return including, among others, arresting returnees or setting up laws expropriating refugees of their properties. Furthermore, on several occasions, refugees have been vilified and referred to by government representatives as traitors. Administrative and bureaucratic obstacles abound too, including the issue of tens of thousands of children born in displaced families who are at high risk of statelessness due to complex birth registration procedures and the very high cost of renewing Syrian passports. Moreover, should a return process ever begin, international organisations, primarily the UNHCR, will have to monitor the conditions of returned populations. But this is also difficult, with these organisations having little access to territory and having been constantly stifled by the controlling measures of Damascus, including being blackmailed by the threat of expulsion or retaliation. Monitoring return will be a dangerous and tricky operation.
Paradoxical in its premises, return becomes a dilemma in practice for Syrians and for all other actors with stakes in this question. What to do in a situation in which refugees are trapped between harsh conditions in the host country and fundamental insecurity in their country of origin? No good options are on the table, certainly not now. For most Syrian NGOs operating in the region and providing services to refugees, return is something not even to be mentioned. They argue that engaging directly or indirectly with the government to negotiate the conditions for a return process is a trap that will bring the façade of legitimacy Damascus craves. Western governments are eager for the prospect of return, seeing it as a way to stem some of the migratory pressure towards Europe that has polarised domestic and international politics in the past decade, in turn fuelling populism. But for return to happen, some form of engagement with Damascus is inevitable and most European states are not yet ready for that.
This has left a vacuum between refugees’ long-term return aspirations, regional host states pushing for return (even forcing it illegally on some occasions), and the unwillingness of most actors to approach Bashar al-Assad as an interlocutor for this issue.
This vacuum has been exploited by states such as Russia or groups like Hezbollah who have initiated dubious return schemes. For Russia, Syrian refugees’ return is a way to certify the end of a conflict in which it sees itself as winner, thus contributing to its self-styled narrative of resurgent global power. It also marks the beginning of a post-conflict phase which will be more capital intensive than military focussed, wherein Russia will have less to offer. Refugees’ return, then, is a way to leverage the Kremlin’s influence both with Western states and refugee-host countries of particular importance to Russia, such as Turkey.
Hezbollah sees the facilitation of return as a way to build its image of actor operating in the interest of Lebanese society. Pushing for Syrians’ return from Lebanon ticks several boxes of Hezbollah’s domestic agenda especially with its non-Muslim allies, but also in the eyes of the Lebanese public afflicted by a devastating economic crisis. Refugees’ return also attests to the presumed re-establishment of normalcy in Syria after years of Hezbollah’s intervention and cases have been reported in which returns have been used to demographically engineer sectarian and political balances in Syria.
Unsurprisingly, these attempts have failed to achieve anything significant, a comprehensive return process requiring resources and, not least, credibility with refugees themselves. Return rates are low and the conditions for returnees are often so appalling that half of them have had to leave Syria again.
The lesson is, however, that if a vacuum on refugee return policy persists, someone will fill it for objectives that do not align with refugees’ best interests. This is why Syrian civil society’s unwillingness to engage on the question of return is as understandable as it is problematic, thus needing to be reconsidered from a pragmatic perspective.
The unpalatable reality of normalisation with Bashar al-Assad is at an advanced stage and currently driven solely by the strategic calculations and geopolitical interests of regional players. Yet, if compromises must be made as the only possible end to the conflict, these should be in the interest of Syrians and especially those among them holding on to their sacrosanct right to return to a peaceful home.
Note: This text was developed following a closed-doors two-day workshop with Syrian NGOs, scholars and practitioners funded by the Riksbankens Jubileymsfond and hosted by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, Sweden. The views expressed are exclusively those of the author and no one else.