The turn of the diplomatic tide in Syria now seems irreversible.
“During this round, the opposition never once demanded the immediate resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the legitimate Syrian government" said Russia’s ambassador to Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, at the conclusion of the seventh round of the Geneva talks.
Although the exact terms of the ceasefire remain secret, it is widely believed that the recent agreement in the south of Syria between Russia, the United States, and Jordan ensures the Assad regime’s survival. Days later, reports emerged that President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm Syrian rebels. Even France, once a staunch opponent of the Syrian regime that threatened to strike after the chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, no longer insists on removing Assad.
Apparently accepting that he will not be defeated, regional and international powers are now focusing on de-escalating the conflict to reduce levels of violence and create the conditions in which the displaced can begin returning to their homes. By the end of June, the UN estimated that as many as half a million Syrian refugees had returned. In July, Hezbollah orchestrated a deal with the Syrian group Saraya Ahl al-Sham that involved returning hundreds of refugees to Syria.
Indeed, the desire for refugees to return is a growing priority for beleaguered host countries. Although some in neighbouring countries have shown extraordinary generosity with Syrian refugees, for many, patience is wearing thin. Jordan hopes that the ceasefire deal in southern Syria will encourage Syrians living in its territory to return. Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri blamed host country fatigue for rising tensions between Syrians and Lebanese. A video that was widely circulated on social media showed Lebanese security forces verbally and physically abusing a Syrian refugee. A protest in support of Syrians due to be held in Beirut was subsequently cancelled due to security concerns, and Lebanon has since banned all protests in the country.
Although pockets of relative stability and security exist in Syria, returning refugees face many challenges. Some return to find their homes destroyed, damaged, or ransacked. Other returning families find their homes occupied by new inhabitants. With an estimated 6 million people displaced internally in Syria, many properties have changed hands multiple times as people have taken shelter wherever they can by occupying abandoned buildings. Arbitrating disputes over house ownership is highly contentious and made even more difficult by the fact that many people have lost documents proving possession during the turmoil of the conflict.
The Assad regime has been keen to capitalize on images of the displaced returning to their homes. Throughout the conflict, the regime has attempted to portray itself as the only legitimate government and a force for stability. Creating a spectacle of the returns, state media has shown refugees declaring their loyalty to Bashar al-Assad while brandishing the Syrian flag.
For many refugees in neighbouring countries, the idea of participating in such a show is unimaginable. “My whole heart yearns to go back to Syria and feel Syrian soil beneath my feet” said a 24-year-old Syrian from Dera’a currently living in Jordan. “But how could I possibly do that when the man who killed my family and destroyed my country is still in power?”
Indeed, many of the factors that pushed Syrians to flee in the first place remain. For men of military age, the threat of being forcibly conscripted into the army is an enduring fear. Other dangers have been exacerbated during the conflict. Many of the pro-regime gangs that terrorized and exploited civilians before the conflict broke out have grown more powerful and act with even greater impunity. Therefore, the idea of returning to Syria is simply not an option for many refugees.
Although the ceasefire in the south appears to be holding, the fact that guns have fallen silent must not be equated with a belief that the conditions are right for refugees to return home. Tragically, for some Syrians, those conditions may never come.
* / Will Todman is an associate fellow in the CSIS Middle East Program and a fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.