Political Settlement First, Refugee Return Second
By Malik al-Abdeh and Lars Hauch
A camp for displaced people in Jindairis in northwestern Syria. Credit: UN News/Shirin Yaseen. Syrians whose lives have been upended by a 12-year civil war and a catastrophic earthquake are looking to return home and rebuild their lives. Shirin Yaseen from the Office of the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General visited northwestern Syria as part of an interagency mission to assess the situation there. 1 April 2023
Europe’s current approach to facilitating refugee returns and containing new arrivals from Syria is based on wishful thinking. Europeans have come to terms with the fact that a political settlement for Syria’s 12-year conflict is not on the horizon.
In conversations with diplomats, one hears a reoccurring theme these days: Syria is not a priority anymore. Notoriously hesitant to lead and busy with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europeans want to keep things as calm as possible.
But what stands in the way of this old-fashioned wait-and-see approach is the issue of refugees. Not only are significant numbers not returning to Syria, but tens of thousands more continue to set out to the EU each year.
Against this background, Europeans have indicated to president Bashar al-Assad that concessions on the ‘refugee issue’ could prompt them to re-think their policy of ostracising the Syrian dictator and his regime.
Notably, discussions on refugee return have almost exclusively been about their return to regime-held Syria. Much of the official thinking on the matter, which includes that of the UN envoy, envisages Assad conceding to taking back refugees in return for the normalisation of relations with other Arab countries and Western political and financial inducements.
Putting refugee return on the negotiating table with Assad makes sense from a diplomatic expediency angle. And it is certainly attractive: if voluntary and dignified returns can be realised, this would please the domestic audience in Europe and foreign ministries as well as EU institutions could sell it as an indicator that political progress is being achieved.
However, Europe’s current approach to facilitating refugee returns and containing new arrivals is based on wishful thinking.
Assad’s ‘population warfare’
First of all, Europe falsely assumes that Assad wants his people back. Apart from the crippling pressures that any sizeable refugee return would place on resources in regime areas – water, electricity, fuel, food, etc. – there is the more important matter of security.
The regime considers all Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries to be at best cowards and at worst traitors. By placing themselves out of the reach of the regime’s military conscriptors, they are seen as having voted with their feet in Syria’s civil war.
‘We will never forgive or forget’ echoes a longstanding view among regime supporters of those perceived to have skipped the war but now want to return once the fighting is over.
The testimonies of those who have returned only to see their loved ones arrested and killed suggest that it is not an empty threat. Those connected to rebels or their families by blood or marriage, or those that have been reported as having anti-Assad views by informants, immediately fail the regime’s security check for returning refugees, as will most that hail from former rebel strongholds.
Additionally, living in a neighbouring country for many years and establishing roots there, as most refugees have done, enables the regime to brand them as ‘politically suspect’. Syria’s Foreign Minister claims that refugees can return ‘without any condition’, but this magnanimity is only voiced when around Western reporters.
‘Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Syrian regime’s discourse on refugees is that there barely is one’, a study on the matter finds. This should not come at all as a surprise.
Syria’s mass population displacement has for too long been seen as an unfortunate secondary effect of the war rather than an intended goal. But in civil wars that take on an ethnic or sectarian nature, de-population becomes a strategic goal in itself.
According to one study, ‘combatants displace not only to expel undesirable populations but also to identify the undesirables in the first place by forcing people to send signals of loyalty and affiliation based on whether, and to where, they flee.’
In Syria, population displacement was at the heart of Assad’s counter-insurgency strategy. Moreover, Assad’s use of chemical weapons and its wider war effort are inextricably linked – tactically, operationally and strategically.
Whether it be artillery strikes, barrel bombs, or sarin gas, the overall war strategy was collective punishment of the population in opposition-held areas.
Assad’s ‘population warfare’ doctrine aims to ensure the population balance of pre-war Syria – so nearly fatal to his family and clan – cannot be recreated. ‘Two-thirds of the population [of Syria] was Sunni and half of it has been scattered to the winds, as refugees or internal exiles’, writes one observer – a favourable outcome for the Alawite president.
Working with Turkey
Does this mean that Europeans should remove the ‘refugee file’ from the negotiating table? Not quite. But they would be well advised to be sober about their goals. If they try to utilise the refugee file as an entry point for advancing a moribund political process, it would be ethically irresponsible.
In fact, EU diplomats have already signalled that credible steps allowing refugee returns could pave the way for gradual engagement with the Assad regime. This is concerning given that turning refugees into a diplomatic currency to trade concessions with Assad hardly passes the ‘do no harm’ test.
If the goal is to get results where refugees actually return to Syria in large numbers and fewer people leave the country, Europeans should be talking not with Damascus but with Ankara.
The inconvenient truth about refugee return is that it will only work if enough refugees are willing to return voluntarily, given realistic conditions and a serious partner on the ground with an active interest in seeing returns happen.
Right now, only Turkey and a share of its Syrian refugees can tick both boxes, given the connectivity between populations on both sides of the border and Turkey’s ability to assure relative security.
According to UNHCR figures, about 800 Syrian refugees are returning to Syria from Turkey every week despite the UN agency’s assessment that conditions are not suitable for a large number of voluntary returns.
Moreover, of the nearly 750,000 refugees that have returned to Syria since 2016, most of them (500,000) have returned from Turkey to opposition-controlled areas in the north and northwest of Syria. In contrast, only 10,766 refugees returned to regime-controlled areas between January and October 2022. A greater number have fled Assad’s Syria in the same period.
The absence of security hurdles to return and compulsory military conscription (both major push factors in regime areas and those controlled by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces) and the fact that Sunni internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees feel relatively safe under Turkey’s protection are solid foundations on which to build a realistic returns policy.
Perhaps most important for European policymakers, Turkey controls the territory in northern Syria through which large numbers from regime and SDF areas are passing through to enter Turkey and continue to Europe, all for vast sums of money.
Dealing with Ankara on a programme for voluntary refugee return would create a firebreak in the logistical chain of the people traffickers that ends in Berlin and Amsterdam but begins at the M4 Highway.
In sum, Europeans should recognise that significant refugee returns to areas currently controlled by the Assad regime cannot precede a political settlement. Talk of ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ and investments in local development labelled as ‘Early Recovery assistance’ will not change that fact.
This also applies to limiting new refugee movements. Any sort of minor concession from the regime has the purpose of maintaining the momentum of normalisation, but it cannot alter the calculus of Syrians who have no illusions about the regime’s unalterable nature.
The facts support the case for European engagement with Turkey both on returns and border security. Europeans are of course entitled to take a critical stance on Ankara’s Syria policy. Notwithstanding their condemnation of Turkey’s incursions into Syria, new realities have emerged that require a nuanced position rather than blissful ignorance.
Unless Europeans adapt to the reality that Syria is now a de facto divided country, their policy response will remain poor. If areas outside of the regime’s control continue to be seen as not being part of Syria proper, and therefore not integral to any credible nationwide refugee return programme, there will be much more talk but no delivery.
Individual diplomats may be very much aware of this reality, but as long as this realisation does not translate into actual policy, the EU will continue to deceive itself.
Malik al-Abdeh is a conflict resolution expert focused on Syria. He is managing director of Conflict Mediation Solutions, a consultancy specialized in Track II work.
Lars Hauch works as a researcher and policy advisor for Conflict Mediation Solutions, a London-based consultancy specialising in Track II diplomacy.
Source: International Politics and Society (IPS) Journal published by the International Political Analysis Unit of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Hiroshimastrasse 28, D-10785 Berlin
IPS UN Bureau
This post first appeared on IPS News.