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With the Syrian civil war winding down, the Arab world opened its arms to President Bashar al-Assad, and Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey made plans for a return home. But in recent months, returning refugees have been detained or disappeared. And the word is getting out to Syrian refugee communities: Not all are welcome home.
According to a March survey by the U.N.’s refugee agency, the vast majority, 75.2%, of Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt say they desire to return one day. However, only 5.9% expressed willingness to return within the next year – citing violence, targeted reprisals, and forced conscription into the Syrian army.
With the refugee populations a burden to their host countries, observers say Damascus is leveraging its position to return to the Arab stage not only as an actor, but as a major player. “It was always clear that the regime would try to use refugees as leverage as the regime has few cards in its hands,” says Michael Young, senior editor at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.
But some hold out hope that the historically practical Assad regime will return to reconciliation as the most profitable path forward.
When President Bashar al-Assad of Syria cemented his victory after a long civil war in late 2018, Arab states were quick to welcome him back into the fold.
De-escalation zones were enforced with Russia, reconciliation pacts were signed with rebel forces across the country at Gulf Arabs’ urging, and borders were reopened.
Gulf countries lined up to invest in Syria, Jordanians and Lebanese pledged to help with the country’s rebuild, and Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey made plans for a return home.
Along the way, something went horribly wrong.
In recent months, refugees have been detained or disappeared since returning home.
Syrians in Jordan tell the Monitor that relatives who made the journey home – having allegedly been forced to give their family members’ names and contacts to Syrian intelligence under interrogation and torture – have warned them not to follow.
If the word “return” stirred hope just a few months ago, Ghazi Hamad and his Syrian refugee compatriots now shudder at its mention.
“When the borders opened, our hearts soared because we thought we had the chance to go home again,” Mr. Hamad, a retired carpenter from Homs, says from the Jordanian border town of Mafraq, a few miles south of Syria.
The few neighbors and friends who have made the return journey to Syria and reported back tell the same story.
“They welcome you warmly at the border and stamp your passport, but once you walk a few yards into Syria, you disappear.”
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 2,000 refugees have been detained since returning to Syria over the past two years. Activists say thousands more have disappeared from areas reclaimed by the regime.
The message, they say, is clear: Not all are welcome back to Syria.
With the Assad regime essentially holding millions of refugees hostage and rejecting diplomacy, Arab states and the international community are struggling with how to engage a regime that is firmly in control of a devastated nation, but seemingly in no mood for reconciliation.
According to the United Nations, 25,000 Syrians have returned home from Jordan since the reopening of borders in October 2018 – around 2% of the 1.2 million Syrian refugees in the kingdom.
Lebanese authorities said 172,000 of the 1.5 million estimated Syrians in their country have returned to their homeland since December 2017.
According to a March survey by the U.N.’s refugee agency, the vast majority, 75.2%, of Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt say they desire to return one day.
However, only 5.9% expressed willingness to return within the next year – citing violence, targeted reprisals, and forced conscription into the Syrian army.
Further complicating matters, Damascus has blocked the return of thousands of refugees on security grounds.
Observers say it is all by design.
“It was always clear that the regime would try to use refugees as leverage, as the regime has few cards in its hands,” says Michael Young, senior editor at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.
Regional observers, officials, and Western diplomats say they believe the regime is deliberately targeting, arresting, and torturing refugees to discourage large-scale returns.
It is a potent pressure point for neighbors burdened by the refugee populations.
In Lebanon, where unemployment is 15% and infrastructure has been strained, anti-refugee sentiment is at fever pitch and pressure is mounting on the government to expel Syrians.
Although such anti-refugee sentiment has not emerged in Jordan, the country is struggling with 20% unemployment and a debt crisis that forced Amman to raise taxes and end subsidies.
Damascus sees this as a chance not only to punish neighbors that did not stand by Mr. Assad, but also to strengthen its position at the negotiation table.
“The neighboring states where [the refugees] fled to are at best lukewarm to the Assad regime,” says Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. “I think this is a regime that … will not hesitate to use any bargaining chip – whether to get aid, or recognition, or reduce pressure in any situation.”
Security and smuggling
Refugees are not the only target in Mr. Assad’s scramble for advantage.
Jordanians, who have been flocking to Damascus in the thousands to explore business opportunities and import goods since the reopening of the Jordan-Syria border in October 2018, have increasingly become leverage.
In recent months, dozens of Jordanians have been detained by Syrian authorities and disappeared without notification, and as many as 30 Jordanians remain in prison, according to Jordan’s Foreign Ministry.
Damascus has refused to respond to Jordanian officials’ inquiries, raising frustrations in Amman.
Jordanian officials complain too that the amount of cheap and counterfeit Syrian goods flowing into Jordanian markets has grown exponentially since President Assad cemented his control on the border region, harming Jordanian manufacturers and robbing cash-strapped Jordan of tax revenue.
In Lebanon, contraband gasoline, tobacco, and agricultural goods are costing the treasury up to $600 million each year in lost revenues and hurting local farmers, according to official estimates.
Officials privately refer to Syrian complicity in the smuggling as “economic warfare.”
Officials and Western diplomats also expect Mr. Assad to bill himself as a linchpin of regional security, backed by the thinly veiled threat of lifting the lid on the turmoil still brewing in his country to spill over to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and allowing the remnants of Islamic State to regroup, gather, and attack the West.
“You expect Syria to use every weapon they can lay their hands on, whether it is smuggling, refugees, or instigating any other type of unrest at its borders,” says Fares Braizat, chairman at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, an Amman-based geopolitical think tank.
What Syria – and Iran – want
Observers say Damascus is leveraging its position to gain international recognition in Western capitals, and to return to the Arab stage not only as an actor, but as a major player.
Moreover, the Syrian regime wants access to financing and materials to rebuild the country on its terms – to funnel humanitarian aid and reconstruction funds to its allies, regime-linked companies, and communities loyal to Mr. Assad.
In Lebanon, where Syria dominated with its security presence for decades until 2005, when nationwide protests forced it to pull out of the country, Mr. Assad is eyeing a chance to turn back the clock and once again have influence in his neighbor.
“Essentially, they want a say in Lebanese government policy and who becomes prime minister,” says Mr. Young, the Carnegie analyst.
Also driving Mr. Assad’s defiance is Iran’s influence in Syria.
With enmity toward the Gulf, and viewing states such as Jordan as interlocutors for the United States, Tehran is sabotaging reconciliation between Syria and the Arab world.
“Iran is making sure that its allies are blocking every single step that is taken by any Arab country to improve relations with Syria – especially Jordan,” says Mr. Braizat, the Jordanian analyst.
“Iran does not want Jordan to have normal relationship with these countries, unless Jordan pays a political price with Iran by being sympathetic to its position.”
Vengeance or pragmatism?
The question remains: What to do with a regime like Mr. Assad’s?
Arab states are keeping their hands outstretched for potential reciprocation, but have put on hold all previous plans to offer money and investments in Syria.
The international community too is in a holding pattern, waiting for a breakthrough on humanitarian access within Syria as the first step toward forging a final political solution in the country.
This has created a cycle: The Assad regime remains defiant to pressure the international community for concessions, while this very defiance makes reconciling with Damascus politically toxic for most Western and Arab states.
But hope remains that, as often in the Middle East, conditions may suddenly change to bring Damascus to the table.
“I see this regime as somewhat vengeful and still having a lot of unfinished business, but at the same time this is a weak regime that has been historically pragmatic,” says Mr. Byman, the Brookings fellow.
“We may see external changes or a recognition from the regime that they have gained as much as they can from defiance and that reconciliation will be a more profitable path.”
In the meantime, Mr. Hamad and others wonder what price they must pay until that day comes.
“Deals will be struck, but our lives are the currency,” Mr. Hamad says.