Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a bi-monthly blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS will be featuring this work in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump agreed upon a plan during their July 16, 2018 summit in Helsinki to bring home Syrian refugees. Putin subsequently sent his envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, to Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and his secretary of state, Sergey Lavrov, to Berlin and Paris to promote the plan. However, the plan should be rejected as a last-ditch effort to legitimize the Assad regime. Syrian refugees do not recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime, and this diplomatic episode threatens to prolong their crisis, not shorten it.
Samir Same, a father of three children, from eastern Aleppo, laughed when I asked him about returning to Syria. He explained that not just his house, but his entire neighborhood had been destroyed by Russian and Syrian regime air raids. “I don’t trust living under the Syrian regime anymore,” he said.
The Syrian war has forced more than 11 million Syrians to flee, 5 million of them refugees. Around 700,000 Syrians fled to European Union (EU) countries, while Turkey received more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Jordan and Lebanon a combined 1.5 million, and Egypt 130,000.
The Russia-US plan aims to bring back one million refugees to their towns and cities in one year. To make this happen, it would establish a joint observation group in Amman and Lebanon with members from Russia, the United States, and Jordan. Yet more than 70 percent of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed, and the nation needs more than $200 billion over 15 years for basic reconstruction. The plan depends on the EU to meet some significant part of this expense, but the EU is demanding a political solution before it starts talking about the return of Syrian refugees or becomes involved in the rebuilding.
Nadia Jamily is a 28-year-old woman from eastern Gouta who studied history at Damascus University and now lives in Lebanon. She lost a brother and cousin in a recent devastating battle between the Syrian regime and the rebels for control of the Gouta region. She told me: “My home is gone, my family gone, and I am on the wanted list by the Syrian regime for taking a stand against the government…Now I hear that the Lebanese government is anxious to send us back; I would go anywhere except back to live in fear under the Syrian regime’s security forces’ rule.”
The United Nations reports that Syria is still unsafe for most refugees. The names of 1.5 million Syrians in exile are on the wanted list of the Syrian government. They will be arrested if they set foot in Syria. Like Jamily, many refugees find it impossible to believe that the wolf-like Assad regime – whose media continues to describe them as terrorists and fifth columnists – will turn vegetarian overnight and permit the secure return of its avowed enemies.
So the ultimate question remains: what to do to bring Syria’s disaster to an end? Simply put, justice has to prevail and trust has to be regained between all sects in Syrian society before further talks by outside powers on bringing the country together.
For the Syrian regime, the Russia-US plan is a card to play to ensure its survival and to solidify its power. In truth, it favors a knock-out punch of those who fled because of terrorism, barrel bombs, and arbitrary detentions, not their peaceful and productive reintegration. For the Russians, the plan will help to ensure the survival of their proxy, Bashar Assad, and, a result, their influence in the region. Yet Syrian refugees know the high cost of playing by Assad and Russia’s rules, and they will overwhelmingly reject this plan.