An opinion piece
The Arab Spring protests reached Syria in March 2011, the pro-democracy uprising, initially demanding reforms, soon turned into a civil war and violence escalated as a result of the government forces utilizing brutality to suppress the civil movement. More than seven years of conflict lead to the deaths of over 400,000 Syrians; millions were forcibly displaced, and the country is devastated economically. Since the beginning of the conflict, more than four million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and an estimated 6.1 million people have been displaced within Syria, bringing the total number of expelled Syrians to a staggering 11.5 million (UNHCR 2017).
Now that the Syrian conflict is “coming to an end” according to many countries, the following question arises: can all Syrians return home? Some Western countries have started sending Syrian refugees back to Syria or forcing their hand to return by rejecting their families’ asylum applications. Return might sound like a possible scenario now that the country is no longer the site of a proxy war, reality is much more complex. Unfortunately, the concept of return is often discussed and decided upon without consulting Syrian refugees themselves. Policies encouraging Syrians to return home could have catastrophic impacts on the lives of many innocent people.
Before deciding whether Syrian refugees should return home, the international community must answer the following questions: Who would guarantee the safety of the millions of displaced Syrians as international human rights laws aren’t respected in their home country? The fear of detention, torture and death prevents many Syrians from even considering the idea of homecoming. Will the regime tolerate their “‘betrayal”’? Will they be able to live with fear and oppression after experiencing the freedom and security offered in other countries? Will they be able to join the compulsory loyalist marches cheering al-Assad and showing support for him and his regime after all the crimes he has committed against them? Will they want to go live in Syria where their basic life needs aren’t met? Such questions and many more can’t be ignored when discussing the concept of return.
What these countries aren’t taking into consideration is the fact that the al-Assad regime has secured his ruling of the country and simply will not tolerate having these refugees back. Nonetheless, the regime was indulging an illusion by inviting Syrians to come back and participate in rebuilding the country. It is what world leaders want to hear but this couldn’t be true and history has shown that this regime can’t be trusted.
The sad reality is that Syria is no longer a home for all Syrians; it has become a country for ‘certain’ Syrians, Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah fighters and supporters. What most people neglect to recognize is that the Russian/Iranian interference in Syria is a kind of an invasion. These countries are not just “helping” the Syrian regime to restore order and peace, they are there to stay and subdue any attempt to overthrow al-Assad and his regime. In fact, the regime’s dominance over Syria could be considered a case of internal occupation, since the al-Assad administration invited his allies in arms into the country to suppress and control the Syrian population and its prominent opposition figures.
RECONSTRUCTION – BUT FOR WHOM?
Regrettably, Syria is well known for its corrupt system; the country is based on favoritism and an inequality of wealth distribution. The regime’s family and their relatives and friends share the country’s fortune and resources, with no laws to restrain their power and influence; their control over Syria’s capital and investments has no limits.
Seven years of war have had its tragic toll on Syria’s economy, but the loss of military investment could be turned into profit, by using the destruction of the country to promote reconstruction projects. Militarized reconstruction is a new term that is used nowadays when discussing the Syrian case, and, more specifically, the reconstruction of the city of Aleppo. The regime is desperately trying to show the world the gains it has achieved in the city and how great the economic opportunity is. The reconstruction is merely for propaganda to promote a false story of a fake victory.
Since Aleppo and many other cities fell to the Syrian regime, many governmental campaigns to promote reconstruction projects have begun. Daily updates from Aleppo are emerging, and the government is serious when it comes to the topic of rebuilding, but we should ask the critical question: reconstructing for whom and how? Who is going to invest and at what cost? The rebuilding process is biased and selective. One could argue that the UN involvement should limit the Russian and Iranian domination over the reconstruction projects, but this isn’t entirely true. Their influence is present regardless of UN involvement, and this involvement just serves to give false legitimacy and credibility to the regime. The displaced population isn’t allowed back in the city and east Aleppo is completely abandoned, but rebuilding the ‘significant’ half of Aleppo is what the UN and its partners want. It’s not a matter of perspectives here, it’s more about how repulsively prejudiced this whole thing is.
With many projects undertaken by Asma al-Assad’s charity foundation and its UN partners (Beals 2017), funds are being generated in order to burnish the regime’s murderous face and promote its secular, civilized, necktie brutality.
UNDP and UNESCO are working closely with the Syrian regime and its administrative. Their role in the reconstruction procedures is still unclear, but the argument they are using provoked some controversy, especially that they claim not to be working with the regime, but with the ‘people’. Which people are they talking about, and why does it sound like they don’t already know that the government controls all of the country’s institutions?
The Syrians who fled the country escaping the regime’s brutality aren’t considered “people”, and the claims that the reconstruction is for reconciliation doesn’t make much sense: the ones who need to be reconciled aren’t even there to begin with and won’t even be considered.
It is true that rebuilding the country requires local expertise and would generate plenty of job opportunities, but not all Syrians are offered the chance to participate: unless you support the regime and its corruption, you’re not welcome.
WHAT HAS TO BE SAID AND DONE
History has told many stories, but are we to learn something? It could be said with certainty that the past keeps repeating itself in the most horrific of manners: dictators come and go, cities fall and rise again. Why is the Syrian story so special? Well, it isn’t, the only significant thing is all these unused international legal documents: if we are to read those dealing with human rights, cities’ rights, and so on, one would be astonished. However, the question remains: when will these legal documents be implemented in the Syrian case? When will the international community stop waving these away in order to protect a killer’s government?
Aleppo has entered a new era, and history is definitely written by winners. The objective story doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Yet this is not the case with everyone. We still care, and by ‘we’, I mean the Syrians who believed in a better future. The Russians are there to stay, so are the Iranians, the Turks and the Americans. How could our story be written by them? Will the following generations read the epic story of the many Syrians who died believing in a dream, a dream that cost us more than souls, it cost us our cities, our memories and everything we held dear? The answer is no, they will hear a story of victory, a story of a modern dictator who saved Syria from terrorists. This is the most popular story nowadays anyway.
If we were to discuss options and propose solutions for the obstacles facing the Syrians when deciding to return to their country, I could think of one solution: the regime has to be overthrown and justice should be served. Those who committed crimes and have stains of blood on their hands should be punished so that Syrians can restore faith in the global justice system.
Anything else would be fictitious and unfair for many Syrians, and unless there’s a way to guarantee the safety of those who want to return, many won’t even consider doing so.
It’s safe to say that al-Assad doesn’t want any of his opponents back, but he’d go as far as suggesting that many of the Syrian refugees are terrorists and pose a threat to the Western world (Nelson 2017), supposing he thinks it’s better when the hosting countries send them back and let them languish in his prisons to die instead.
The logic is simple: if you want to get Syrians back to their country, stop supporting al-Assad and take your troops out of their country. You can’t keep empowering al-Assad and his regime and expect people to return voluntarily, knowing that nothing awaits them except suppression, imprisonment and death.
The Syrian revolution was the country’s chance for a reformation. Now that the revolution has failed to achieve its goals and objectives, the future of Syria doesn’t look so bright, especially given that regime change would require not only the downfall of al-Assad as a person but that the whole regime’s intelligence agencies, security and military system be altered. The chain of corruption has been forming in the country for almost half a century, and it isn’t easy (if not impossible) to break. The security grip is only tightening, and the brutality of the regime has no limits.
Beals, E. 2017: UN allowing Assad government to take lead in rebuilding Aleppo. Fox News [Online] 16 November. Available at: <http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/11/16/un-allowing-assad-government-to-take-lead-in-rebuilding-aleppo.html> [Accessed 05 February 2018]
Nelson, N. 2017: Syria’s Assad: Some refugees are terrorists. POLITICO [Online] 02 October. Available at: <https://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/bashar-assad-syria-refugees-terrorists-yahoo-interview-234890> [Accessed 01 February 2018]
UNHCR, 2017: Syria Emergency. [Online] 07. December. Available at: <http://www.unhcr.org/syria-emergency.html> [Accessed 09 February 2018]