Syria seeks return of refugees, but they fear Assad regime's wrath

Syria is a shattered country, with President Bashar Assad ruling only part of its territory. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - The Syrian government hosted a lavish conference in the capital, Damascus, this week aimed at trying to get the more than six million refugees who fled the country's civil war to come home.

They have been blocked from returning, President Bashar Assad told attendees, by Western nations that have damaged Syria's economy with sanctions and worked to keep the refugees in neighbouring countries.

But he left out the main reason many refugees say they are not ready to return: himself. Most of the refugees fear going home as long as Mr Assad and his government remain in power.

"I don't trust the regime nor Bashar," said Ms Yusra Abdo, 40, who fled to Lebanon after the conflict began in 2011.

Since then, her brother-in-law disappeared after being conscripted into the Syrian Army, and her house was seized by government loyalists.

"With this regime, there is no safety, no going back," she said.

Since the war in Syria began with Arab Spring protests calling for Mr Assad's ouster, more than half of the country's pre-war population has been displaced, and its refugee crisis has grown into one of the Middle East's most pressing humanitarian issues.

More than 5.5 million Syrians have been registered as refugees by the United Nations, most of them living in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. More than one million more have migrated to Europe, and refugee experts say they do not expect large numbers of the displaced to go home unless fundamental changes take place inside Syria itself.

"They are not going to go," said Prof Nasser Yassin, a professor of policy and planning at the American University in Beirut who researches refugee communities. "It is the factors back home - safety, having their houses rebuilt, having the opportunity to work and provide bread for their families - and you don't have these in Syria."

Like many experts, he did not expect improvement on those issues without a political change in Damascus and significant reconstruction, and neither appears likely.

Most of the refugees left in the earlier years of the war, when battles between government forces and armed rebels tore apart towns and cities. The exodus continued as violent Islamist groups such as the Islamic State took advantage of the chaos to expand, and powers including Turkey, Russia, Iran and the United States sent forces to back their own Syrian allies.

Now, Mr Assad appears to be secure and the big battles have subsided, but the relative calm has not caused large numbers of refugees to return, even though most live in crushing poverty in countries that wish they would leave.

Since 2016, only about 65,000 refugees have returned to Syria from Lebanon, according to the United Nations, while more than 879,000 have chosen to remain in a country suffering through its own political and economic crises.

The number of refugees in Jordan has not dipped below 650,000 since 2016.

Turkey says that more than 400,000 refugees have moved to areas it controls in northern Syria in recent years, but that is a mere fraction of the 3.6 million refugees the country hosts.

Refugee experts agree that most of the displaced would like to go home, but cite a number of reasons that they do not.

Syria is a shattered country, with Mr Assad ruling only part of its territory. Its cities are damaged, meaning that some refugees have no homes to return to. The collapse of its economy and resistance of many governments to engage with Mr Assad have prevented large-scale reconstruction.

On top of material concerns, most of the refugees fled violence committed by Mr Assad's government, and they now fear that going home could mean arrest or forced conscription into his army.

None of these issues was discussed at Syria's two-day conference on refugee return, which concluded in Damascus on Thursday. Instead, a procession of speakers and a video address by Mr Assad underlined his narrative of the war, which he has blamed on an international conspiracy to topple his government through support for terrorist groups.

In his address, Mr Assad thanked Russia and Iran, which sent military support to his forces, 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.

"Rather than taking effective action to create the right conditions for their return, these countries used every means possible, from bribery to intimidation, to keep Syrian refugees from returning home," he said.

Even before it opened, in a cavernous conference centre, where suited delegates filled an auditorium with every other seat left empty to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the event faced resistance from parties with deep stakes in the refugee issue.

The UN refugee agency declined to attend, as did European Union countries, calling the conference "premature". In a statement, the bloc listed reasons it said refugees could not go home safely, including forced disappearances, indiscriminate detentions, conscription, poor or non-existent social services, physical and sexual violence and torture.

About 20 other countries sent representatives, including China, Russia, Pakistan, Brazil, India and South Africa. But those countries host few if any refugees.

Of the three states that host the vast majority of them, only Lebanon sent a representative.

Conference attendees noted a strong Russian presence, which at times seemed to outweigh that of the Syrian government. Russian security guards with walkie-talkies patrolled the conference centre, while Russian civilian and military officials attended sessions inside.

And Russian medics took the temperatures of people entering the main door and distributed face masks to Russian attendees.

Analysts said that the conference appeared to have been motivated less by concern for the refugees than by Russian and Syrian political and economic calculations.

Russia has worked hard to ensure Mr Assad's victory since it intervened to help his forces in 2015, an investment that does not pay off if Syria remains in shambles.

And the Syrian government sees welcoming refugees home as a way to replenish its forces and perhaps unlock badly needed aid.

"The regime is barely surviving economically, and they need new people to keep their military infrastructure working," said Mr Kheder Khaddour, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. "Each dollar that is entering Damascus adds a new dollar to the regime."

But there was no sign that the conference generated any enthusiasm among the refugees themselves.

"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 Mr Muhanned al-Ahmad, who fled to Lebanon early in the war.

"Can the government guarantee that I'll have a home, food and work in Syria?"

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