New York Times

Syria’s refugee crisis has developed into the Middle East’s most pressing humanitarian issue of the last decade. Since the start of the conflict in March 2011, more than half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced. Most refugees found sanctity in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt, and more than 1 million have also migrated to Europe, as terror remains depressingly commonplace in the shattered Syrian territory. Turning a blind eye to the collapse of its economy and blatantly dismissing the horror that awaits Syrian refugees upon their return, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has urged refugees to return home.

The roots of the Syrian civil war can be traced back to 31 January 1973. The moment Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, implemented a new constitution that did not require Syria’s president to be Muslim. This event sparked a national crisis, resulting in violent demonstrations and revolts organised by Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the early 1980s, Hafez al-Assad put down the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in Syria with a counterinsurgency campaign that consisted of selecting the most trusted military units, raising pro-regime militias, and using those forces to eliminate insurgents from urban areas. In 2011 and 2012, Bashar al-Assad attempted to imitate his father’s strategy, but instead displaced entire populations and contributed to the emergence of a sectarian civil conflict.

Framed within the 2011 Arab Spring protests’ pro-democracy wave, the multi-sided civil war in Syria emerged due to pressing discontent with the Syrian government. The tensions escalated into an armed conflict on 15 March 2011, after major peaceful protests in Damascus calling for Bashar-al Assad’s removal were violently suppressed. During the summer of 2012, the conflict in Syria transitioned from an insurgency to civil war, fought between the Syrian Arab Republic (with support from Iran, Russia, Islamist groups, and Lebanese Hezbollah) and various sectarian opposition forces and rebel groups.

While the protests in 2011 were mostly non-sectarian, many new rebel groups have joined the fighting in Syria and have frequently fought one another. These rebel groups include the Free Syrian Army (backed by the US, Turkey, and several Gulf countries), Kurdish rebel fighters and ISIS. In 2015, Russia began to take a more active role in the conflict, providing troops, military equipment and deploying its air force. Initially, Russian officials claimed that their airstrikes targeted “terrorists” and ISIS, but it quickly became apparent that Russia was targeting rebels fighting against Assad. The atrocities and war crimes committed remain simply unparalleled, as both Russian and Syrian forces have not attempted to avoid civilian casualties in their efforts to subdue the rebels.

Western countries have been widely criticised for not doing enough to put an end to the Syrian conflict. In August 2013, civilians in east Ghouta were struck by a deadly chemical attack that caused 1,729 fatalities. Bashar al-Assad´s forces had perpetrated the attack. Yet, the UK parliament voted against military action and the US leader Barack Obama ignored his own red line banning chemical weapons use, declining to intervene. Since then, the US targeted ISIS by occasionally launching air raids in Syria. In 2018, the US -with support of France and the UK- launched an offence in response to Assad’s chemical attack on the town of Douma. However, in October 2019, Trump ordered US forces to pull back from Syria, stating that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria”. Needless to say, his decision was met with widespread condemnation and minimal support.

With regards to the EU, countries suffer from a blatant lack of cohesion. Member States fail to take decisive action and instead accuse one another of the problems with refugees, terrorist attacks, and the continuation of the Syrian war. Nevertheless, the Council of the European Union has placed several sanctions against Syria, including an oil embargo, and restrictions on investments and exports. Furthermore, the EU is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria, allocating over 17 billion euros in aid since the start of the conflict in 2011.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), as of March 2018, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have displaced over 5.6 million refugees from Syria and 6.6 million internally. The regime has used all forms of terror, artillery, airstrikes, sectarian massacres, and chemical weapons to force Syrian populations out of insurgent areas. As the death toll passed 511,000 in March 2018, Mr. Assad has ruled out any peace talks with the rebels, whom he refers to as “enemies of God and puppets of the West.” In Syria, the war continues between the forces of Bashar al-Assad and isolated opposition forces. The influence of Assad’s allies, Iran and Russia, has significantly increased, and Mr. Assad’s forces control more than 70 per cent of the country.

Figure 1: map showing the territory controlled in Syria, by faction, as of 22 October 2019.

During the Conference on refugee return held in Damascus on November 11-12, 2020, Mr. al-Assad quickly pointed fingers at the international community. He blamed international actors for attempting to topple his government through support for terrorist groups. The Syrian president went as far as to thank Russia and Iran for their political and military aid and accused Arab and Western countries of using the refugees as a “lucrative source of income for their corrupt officials” and preventing them from returning to Syria.

Interestingly, the UNHCR and the European Union countries refused to take part in the Conference. In a statement, the EU referred to the Conference as “premature,” arguing that the safety and dignity conditions inside Syria are not in line with international law and do not lend themselves to promoting large-scale voluntary return.

It is impossible to fully grasp the unimaginable atrocities that returning refugees experience in Syria. Returning civilians have been subjected to forced conscription, interrogations, indiscriminate detentions, forced disappearances, torture, physical and sexual violence, and discrimination. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, two thousand people had been detained after returning to Syria in the past two years. What is more, 11.7 million Syrians need urgent humanitarian assistance in the country.

“If the Syrian government has called us to come back, will they give me any guarantee that I won’t be arrested for military service?” asked Muhanned al-Ahmad, who fled to Lebanon at the start of the war. “Can the government guarantee that I’ll have a home, food, and work in Syria?”

Figure 2: Civilians wait to be evacuated at the Amiriyah district, Syria.

Most worryingly, Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey face precarious living conditions and limited work rights. It has become increasingly difficult to obtain the necessary paperwork to stay there legally. As a result, many Syrian refugees are at high risk of exploitation and abuse, whilst many lack healthcare and education. For many refugees, help has had to come from their own initiatives, existing family, and social networks, as humanitarian organisations struggle to provide assistance. Many Syrian refugees resort to the informal sector and become victims of exploitation, including long work hours, denial of leave or pay and insignificant wages.

Nevertheless, Turkey, the leading supporter of Syrian opposition forces, was not invited to the Conference, and the neighbouring Jordan also did not take part. Some analysts argue that the Conference appeared to have been motivated less for the refugees than by Russian and Syrian political and economic calculations. Joel Rayburn, the US representative for Syria, said the Conference was “just a dog and pony show meant to distract from the fact that Russia and the Assad regime have not done what the international community has been pressing them to do. End the war and move to a political solution”.

The on-going devastation and horror caused by the Syrian war profoundly affect the civil population and the Syrian economy. These tremendous effects extend beyond the country’s borders, with many Syrians being forced to leave their homes to seek safety elsewhere. Whilst Bashar al-Assad has falsely claimed that Syria is now safe for refugees to return, the reality is that there cannot be meaningful discussions around refugee returns until there are accountability and justice for the atrocities committed. It is time Bashar al-Assad’s regime endorses the roadmap for a peace process in Syria, in line with the UN Security Council resolution. This resolution encourages a nationwide ceasefire to begin as soon as the Syrian government takes the necessary steps towards a political transition. Until then, what remains clear is that the cost of the conflict will mark Syria for years, if not decades, to come.