The mass return of refugees is not part of the Syrian regime’s survival plan

Many issues at the heart of the years-long conflict are misunderstood, writes Alan Philps, not the least of which is the subject of refugee returns

A medic runs for cover during reported regime shelling on the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 7, 2018.  / AFP PHOTO / Abdulmonam EASSA
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At a time when 800 people are believed to have died in the regime's three-week assault on the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta it seems odd that Syrian refugees are now under increasing pressure to return home to an uncertain fate. Yet that is what is happening: there is a perception in countries that host refugees that the regime has stabilised, the conflict is winding down and it is time to discuss an orderly return.

In Turkey, host to 3.5 million refugees and where child beggars are a common sight in big cities, public opinion is turning against the Syrian guests whom the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, welcomed so generously. In Lebanon, where one in four of the population is Syrian, such a large number of refugees is seen as an intolerable economic burden.

Last year 66,000 refugees returned to Syria, usually as a result of "some degree of force", according to Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. In the same period, he reckons, about 300,000 wanted to flee the country but found the borders closed.

There are well documented practical problems in the way of refugee returns. It is estimated that Syria needs $250 billion in reconstruction funds to rebuild shattered towns and cities. But donors will not reach for their wallets until there is a “political transition” – variously understood to mean the stepping down of Bashar Al Assad or a peace agreement to end the war.

But there is another issue that is less widely understood. A conference at Chatham House in London, Demystifying the Syrian Conflict, heard that the mass return of refugees was not part of the Syrian regime’s survival plan.

Though it is true that the territory formally under regime control has expanded as the rebels are defeated, the Syrian state outside Damascus is often no more than a phantom, unable to provide services, sometimes even as simple as bread delivery. What services are available are provided by militias, regime-connected businessmen who have profited from the war and charities they have founded.

In such circumstances, the regime is looking for a two to three-year period to establish itself more securely and, it hopes, achieve international recognition. Though it wants to control the territory which is most economically and militarily significant, it cannot re-establish Syria within its prewar borders and with the same demographic mix. In essence this means that the territory it controls should not have a population whose loyalty is suspect in the eye of the regime.

Jihad Yazigi, editor of The Syria Report and an expert on Syria's war economy, told the conference that poor Sunni refugees – who are the majority – will not be coming back any time soon. "The Iranians and Bashar do not want them," he said.


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While the refugees all yearn to return to their beloved homeland, there is a huge gap between desire and reality. As regards to the one million Syrians who fled the conflict to find sanctuary in the European Union, Wael Sawah, an author and researcher into Syrian civil society, said most refugees would not return. “At most 10 to 20 per cent will go home from Europe. For them the damage is done – they see no way to mend their country at the moment.”

With the refugees fearful of what may happen to them if they return and the regime suspicious of the loyalty of returning families, the situation looks set for impasse.

The onus is on the donor countries to use their financial heft to try to change the situation. The donors are effectively the Gulf countries, the Europeans and the Americans. Russia, for all its military support to the Syrian army, has made clear it does not have spare cash for reconstruction.

Already the Syrian government, as part of its drive to regain legitimacy, has asked the United Nations to switch its huge programme of humanitarian aid to development. This would mean stopping handing out food and other goods in kind to individuals and channelling funds to Syrian state institutions.

This is impossible while the war is still in progress – it would be seen as the UN supporting the regime war effort. At a time when Donald Trump wants to drastically cut US funding to the UN, this would be a gift to American opponents of the UN system.

But it is not fair just to do nothing while the refugees feel increasingly uncomfortable in neighbouring states and in some cases are subject to abuse.

The mood has changed too in Europe. Members of the opposition anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, with 94 seats in the federal Parliament, have been touring Syria in support of its plan to deport half a million Syrians. This will never be German policy, but the party is intent on using its electoral success to change public opinion by "breaking taboos" about migration.

Instead of a grand reconstruction plan that will get nowhere, one suggestion is that the donors should offer funds for a model scheme to rebuild a ruined town, against strict conditions.

Mr Yazigi, the editor, suggested the towns of Qusayr, which lies south of Homs and was destroyed in battle in 2013, and Derayya, close to Damascus which was evacuated by the rebels in 2016 after a bitter siege.

“The conditions should be that everyone, without exception, is allowed back to their homes, that they are given political and security guarantees, that they recover their properties and that the money is not controlled by the government,” Mr Yazigi said.

The government would not accept these terms. But it would show that its goal of international recognition as the legitimate government of Syria, which the president is desperate to achieve, will have costs. In essence, if Mr Al Assad wants to be seen as legitimate, he must act in way that is recognised internationally as legitimate. This would clarify the refugee situation more starkly than any number of photo opportunities of visiting right-wing politicians in the presidential palace.