TUE 16 - 7 - 2019
Date: Aug 14, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Return of the Syrian refugees? Not so fast
Riad Tabbarah

The Helsinki summit that took place, in private, between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on July 16 was received with a wave of condemnations by the U.S. media and by both houses of Congress on a bipartisan basis. Interestingly, while Trump had to list the subjects discussed, no news came out about any decisions made during the meeting. None of Trump’s senior associates seems to know anything substantial about possible decisions, which gave a wide impression that no decisions were indeed made.

But two days after the summit, the Russians declared that an accord was reached to return the Syrian refugees to Syria, including some who are already in Europe. This was followed by a Russian announcement that a proposed road map for this return was presented by the Russian Defense Ministry to its American counterpart. On Aug. 2, the Russians asked the U.S. to “back its efforts” in this domain. No reaction from the United States has been registered until now, which, of course, caused skepticism about the existence of such an accord. Besides, why ask the Americans to back Russia’s efforts to return the refugees if there was an accord between the two parties to do so?

There are many more important reasons for this skepticism.

To begin with, in spite of the recent successes of the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian allies, with the help of Russia, Daesh (ISIS) is still entrenched in several pockets in the south, the east and the northeast of country from where it conducts brutal attacks. On July 25, it attacked the town and suburbs of Swaida, in the south of Syria, killing over 200 people and kidnapping dozens, mostly women and children.

Furthermore, most of the land east of the Euphrates is still in the hands of the Kurds. The various groups that constitute the armed opposition still hold land in the south, and around Homs and Aleppo, as well as practically all the Idlib province in the northwest of the country. The government forces are itching for a battle to retake Idlib and, if this happens, it will result in an additional 2 million refugees, according to the United Nations. Finally, the Free Syrian Army still dominates a large swath of land on the border of Turkey, with the help of the Turkish army.

Consultations with the groups on the ground, regarding the return of the refugees, did not apparently take place prior to the Russian announcement.

Instead, the Russian foreign minister and the chief of staff of the Russian army have, after the announcement, begun consultations with the French, the Germans and the Israelis on the subject.

They told the Europeans that the important conditions for the return of the refugees, including those in Europe of course, were lifting the sanctions on Syria and the rehabilitation of the Syrian economy. In other words, as recently reported by the Economist, one precondition for the return of refugees is that the Americans and Europeans pay for the reconstruction of Syria, “which could cost as much as $250 billion, a sum Russia and the Assad regime cannot afford.” The fulfillment of this condition is obviously neither short-term or realistic.

Late last month, a high-level Russian delegation, composed of a special representative of Putin and a senior member of the Russian Defense Ministry, arrived in Lebanon to discuss the return of Syrian refugees. All sides of the Lebanese political spectrum were united in their excitement about the visit. A Russian Lebanese committee was formed, headed respectively by the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin and the Lebanese Director of General Security Gen. Abbas Ibrahim to follow up on the initiative.

According to various local news agencies the conditions imposed on Lebanon for the implementation of the initiative were, first and foremost, “the preparation of a complete and comprehensive file containing clear and accurate data on the real number of refugees, [word taken out] an accurate determination of the number of refugees for security reasons and the number of refugees for economic and other reasons, and to determine the place from which came each refugee.”

In addition, Lebanon must give accurate numbers of registered refugees who cross the borders back and forth.

To all these conditions imposed by the Russians, subsequent to the original announcement, and the unstable situation on the ground, should be added Decree No. 10 that was recently issued by the Syrian regime. The decree allows the regime to confiscate the property of refugees, unless they can prove ownership within a short period of time, which is impossible for most of them, either because they cannot safely return (some who did have been arrested and tortured) or because they have lost the deeds.

“Many Sunni homes have already been given to regime loyalists,” according to the Economist. In this context, Assad has said that Syria has won “a healthier and more homogeneous society,” according to the same source.

The question remains: Why did the Russians make this hasty announcement in the first place?

Some observers saw it as an attempt by Putin to rescue his friend Trump from the fierce attack he received from the American media and polity immediately after the summit (and which continues to this day). Another reason cited is the desire of Putin to show that Assad has won the contest and that Syria is near stable and ready for reconstruction. But the most important reason, perhaps, is to solicit the support of Europe and the United States for Russia’s role in Syria and its presumed importance to them. The choice of the refugee issue is telling. France, Germany and Israel, which were visited by the high-level Russian delegation, are countries especially concerned with ending the refugee crisis before it reaches their shores. Indeed, Hezbollah in Lebanon had already declared, for apparently similar reasons, and to the acclaim of various factions in the country, that they were working on the return of refugees, and that they had opened centers in the Bekaa and the south to receive applications. Hopes were raised when Hezbollah announced late in July that 1,200 refugees were returned in one month (at this rate, it would take about 70 years to return the more than 1 million refugees in Lebanon).

Many of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon who can safely return are actually returning. The data on the site of UNHCR confirm this. But this is only a trickle. The mass return has not yet begun and, given the conditions already explained, will probably not begin anytime soon.

Riad Tabbarah is former ambassador of Lebanon to the United States.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 14, 2018, on page 7.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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