True peace in Syria is a mirage until returnees can be guaranteed a safe haven

The arrests of refugees leaving Rukban camp are a worrying indication of the Assad regime failing to keep its promises yet again

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 1, 2017, Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups. In a desert camp along Syria's border with Jordan, nearly 50,000 displaced people struggle to eke out a living. There are no clinics, no nappies and little food -- welcome to Rukban. / AFP / KHALIL MAZRAAWI

The arrests this month of 174 Syrians who had returned to government-controlled areas, after being urged to do so by the Assad regime, are a chilling development. The detained had been residents of the besieged Rukban camp, once a 40,000-strong settlement housing families displaced when they fled from ISIS years ago. The camp sits close to a US military base in the desert where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet and had been under siege since October last year, its residents being slowly starved to death as aid supplies were cut off. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad promised a "humanitarian corridor" for returnees – then promptly arrested them when they took him up on his offer.

Confirmation of the arrests was made by a grassroots organisation called the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity that campaigns for the rights of displaced Syrians. Most of those arrested were military-age men who had defected from the army or evaded the draft and who had been given guarantees that they would be left alone if they agreed to surrender.

The camp, where just a few thousand people remain, has been cut off from the outside world. Dozens of babies have died since the regime first stopped the flow of crucial supplies, and US forces nearby have refused to intervene to end an unfolding humanitarian tragedy in the desert of eastern Syria.

The world cannot ignore any longer the mounting evidence of the regime's targeting of returnees who want to live in peace after nine years of war

The people arrested have been sent to government terrorism courts, which have been known to carry out summary executions. The episode highlights the Assad regime's untrustworthiness – further evidence, if any were needed, that it can never be a real partner in peace. But it should also serve as a warning to countries in the Middle East and farther afield who are contemplating encouraging the return of Syrian refugees because they have convinced themselves that the conflict is over. Those who do will have blood on their hands.

The issue of sending refugees home has been at the forefront of political debates among Syria’s neighbours this year, particularly as the Assad regime has consolidated its military victory over the rebels. As some semblance of normality has returned to parts of the country reclaimed by the government, countries that hosted refugees have sought to appease voters at home by arguing that they should be sent back because Syria is now safe.

In Lebanon, hundreds of Syrians have been returned after years of having their lives made increasingly miserable by the Lebanese authorities and assorted non-state actors. In Turkey, which hosts more than three million refugees, human rights groups say the government has forcibly repatriated Syrians to so-called “safe zones” controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian proxy fighters, who have shown a penchant for looting, committing atrocities and filming them during military campaigns.

The drive to send refugees home has been fuelled by the scapegoating of Syrians by the government in Ankara, which has profoundly mismanaged its economy and contributed to rising inflation and a collapse in the national currency.

Right-wing populists in Europe have also argued that Syrians should be encouraged or forced to return home, seeking to capitalise on rising xenophobic sentiment.

The residents of Rukban have a different status as IDPs, or internally displaced persons, but the principle is the same. The government has repeatedly encouraged those living in opposition-controlled areas to surrender and rejoin the fold of an Assad-led society, often with the added coercion of relentless bombardment and the wanton killing of civilians.

Sporadic reports have emerged over the past year-and-a-half of returnees being taken in for questioning or facing detention and torture due to their ties to rebels, but it has been difficult to confirm such details or to establish whether the practice was systematic as many who went home, for various reasons, were often fearful of speaking to journalists.

However, the world can no longer ignore the mounting evidence of the regime’s targeting of returnees who simply want to live in peace after nine years of war. For a regime that used chemical weapons on its own people, dropped barrel bombs on schools and markets and starved civilians to death, it is simply a return to form.

But the broader tragedy is that arrests and the impunity they belie offer a glimpse at the real prospects of peace and reform in Syria. That hope is impossible as long as the Assad regime survives. Reconstruction aid and the lifting of sanctions on its acolytes by the European Union, the US and other countries is supposed to be tied to real and measurable progress on political reforms and reconciliation. With every passing day, the regime's actions concerning the Rukban detainees shows that its promises are empty.

epa07142941 A handout photo made available by Syrian Arabic Red Crescent (SARC) showing displaced Syrians gather as SARC personnel conduct a vaccination campaign to immunize children against measles, polio and hepatitis at al-Rukban Camp near the Jordanian border, south-east Syria, 05 November 2018. According to the UN, an operation to deliver humanitarian assistance to 50,000 people in need at Rukban camp in south-east Syria started on 04 November and is expected to take up to four days, the first of kind since the last UN delivery in January 2018, delivered through Jordan.  EPA/SARC HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

For real and lasting peace, the fate of tens of thousands of detainees and of those arbitrarily disappeared, including from Rukban, must be resolved. No country should force refugees to go back home when that home is still not safe. Regime supporters such as Russia must play a greater role in enforcing the guarantees it has provided to the regime’s opponents if they hope to bring an end to the conflict and relief for Syria’s economy.

Without even this lowest of bars, true peace in Syria will stay a mirage.

Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada