Tents at the Azraq camp near the town of Maaret Misrin in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. (Photo by Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP) (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Displaced Syrians are key to the political change that Syria needs

07/30/2020 . By Labib al-Nahhas

With the recent activation of the Caesar Act and the continuing economic and political weakening of the Assad regime, it is of paramount importance to start discussing what a real, sustainable political solution in Syria would look like. One thing is clear: it cannot be limited to superficial solutions or the replacement of a figurehead, but instead based on comprehensive reform that ensures the rights of all Syrians. In this equation one segment of the Syrian population holds the key to its future—its displaced. Today 13 million Syrians—more than half of the country’s population—are displaced and face mounting and pressing needs and have been the most absent in the decision making during a conflict that most intimately affects them.

It is clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Should the international community allow the displacement of Syrians to become (semi)permanent, the effects would be devastating. In the immediate, the flow of refugees fanning out in search of safety and security for their families would intensify, with likely destabilizing effects across the region and in Europe. In the long term, a displaced population with unaddressed traumas, an overwhelming sense of being betrayal and left to survive in dire, humiliating conditions, without prospects for their well-being, could become easily susceptible to opportunistic ideologues of extremism and nihilism. On the other hand, if forced return to Assad-held areas was to be accepted as a solution, it would inevitably lead to further upheaval, feeding infinite cycles of violence and displacement.

The rights of the displaced must be taken seriously and placed at the heart of the future political solution. It is impossible to consider any of the currently ongoing elements of the political process without addressing one key issue–creating a safe environment for a voluntary and dignified return of the displaced. Elections, passage of a new constitution, reconstruction, and organized return are all impossible without this.

Extensive reports published by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD) late last year, which are based on unique surveys and direct interviews with displaced Syrians and returnees in regime controlled areas, have indicated that security conditions are the main reason for continued displacement of Syrians who are not currently considering returning.

In the report titled “Between Hammer and Anvil” returnees explained that having “clean” security record checks did not guarantee safety upon return. The study details cases of returnees who had been given the impression that they were not wanted by the security services because they were not part of any opposition groups. However, those returnees were still arrested, security abuses, and extorted financially. Furthermore, many of those returning fear military conscription. These factors motivated 68 percent of returnees to advise other IDPs and refugees against returning.

In another report by the SACD titled “Reality Behind Assad’s Promises to Displaced Syrians,” 75 percent of participants surveyed had been arrested within the last 18 months. Several interviewees’ relatives were subjected to enforced disappearance. Two thirds of the interviewees stated that they live in constant fear of arrest or harassment from the security services and various militias that run a maze of checkpoints, particularly in areas under “reconciliation agreements.”

A new report called “We Are Syria” issued this month by the SACD includes a detailed survey conducted with 1,100 Syrian refugees and IDPs addressing their definitions of the conditions for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns. Ninety percent of participants confirmed that they fled their homes due to feeling unsafe and threatened, while 33 percent mentioned the “social situation”—the fleeing of close family members and others—as a main reason for leaving, and 28 percent citing economic hardship for displacement. Approximately 80 percent of interviewees asserted that they will not go back unless security conditions have considerably improved.

Securing genuine conditions for a safe and dignified return will be possible only under strict and meaningful international supervision. And it is displaced Syrians who must be called upon to define what the minimum conditions for a voluntary, safe and dignified return constitute in reality. For example, no meaningful return can take place until there are constitutional amendments that limit the powers of the security services and limit the authority of any Syrian government to prosecute individuals without the necessary and due judicial procedures. The parties to the agreement would be obligated to accept, without discrimination, the return of all displaced, including those given temporary protection by third countries.

The basic rights guaranteed in such an agreement would include the right to return and have property and tenancy rights restored to their status at March 2011, without risk of persecution, harassment, discrimination, intimidation or humiliation on the basis of ethnicity, political orientation, religious affiliation, or any other grounds. Other rights guaranteed before any organized return would include, among others, the right to freedom of movement throughout Syria; the right to choose destination of return, including the right to exchange or sell property without hindrance or any form of prohibitive discrimination; the right to sufficient information on the prevailing conditions of return; and the right to refuse return to situations of serious danger of insecurity, or to areas lacking basic infrastructure for a normal life.

A number of confidence-building measures that address the concerns of the displaced should be taken. These include the release of political prisoners and those detained under the pretext of rebelling against the regime, implementation of an accountability mechanism to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the removal of officials and security personnel documented by relevant U.N. bodies to have committed serious crimes; amnesty from prosecution for political or crimes resulting from political action or displacement; and amnesty from recruitment to the armed forces for returnees.

Laws issued by the Syrian state in recent years that give it the right to pursue and arrest political opponents must be repealed, as well as legislation that deprives Syrian citizens of their possessions, homes, and properties due to political views.

These are just some of the elements of such a political agreement, with a number of others required to provide for a comprehensive solution to the issue of displacement, including a repatriation plan to be developed by the UNHCR. This would require sequencing and prioritization of those most in need, certification of conditions to allow for return, and coordination with host countries.

In addition, a number of independent institutions would need to be established by the parties, with international participation and supervision, to deal with crucial issues like searching for missing persons, overseeing security and police forces, distributing of repatriation assistance, and reconstructing and property restitution.

The implementation of such an agreement would address the root causes that are at the heart of displacement, which as it currently stands seems unimaginable. The resulting reversal of demographic change engineered by Iran and dislodging of Russia’s presence which permeates security and economic segments of the state may appear even more far-fetched. Yet, this is the only path, however difficult, that offers a hope for a genuine, sustainable political solution which would guarantee rights and dignity of all Syrians.

The cornerstone for any sustainable and comprehensive political solution in Syria is the safe, voluntary and dignified return of displaced Syrians, and this conundrum should not be seen as a humanitarian issue only; it is fundamentally a political issue. Such clarity could potentially lead to much-needed decisiveness and commitment to real solutions on the part of the international community.