In recent years we got used to the fact that the civil war in Syria continues with no chance for it to end soon. In the conflict that involved at least four parties: the government in Damascus with President Bashar Al-Assad at the helm, increasingly less “moderate” opposition, in which an important role is played by a Syrian franchise of Al-Qaeda called the Islamic State, and Kurds, who are seeking autonomy for their region. So far, there have been no talks, which would involve all participants of this conflict. The last ceasefire, pompously announced by Russia, since the beginning excluded the Islamic State and other jihadi groups. The truce shared the fate of all previous attempts to halt the fighting and lasted only a few days.
2016 brought some changes in Syria, which looked as if they were minor when looking on a map, but in fact they were very significant in terms of the strategic situation. After three years of fighting, government forces took over the districts of Aleppo, the largest city in the country, which were previously overrun by rebels. In addition to the Idlib province located on the Turkish border and a small territory on the border of Jordan, the government in Damascus controls virtually the entire area of the so-called “useful Syria”. This term describes the more densely populated regions of the country, with its cities and industrial potential. The remaining part of the country consists mainly of the dessert, which is mostly controlled by the so-called Islamic State.
The government of Bashar Al-Assad’s is unlikely to abandon their pursuit to overcome all of its enemies in the Syrian territory, from the rebel groups, whose political and religious views drift towards Islamic radicalism. Fighting will continue for several more years. This does not change the fact that the government in Damascus effectively controls the territory inhabited by approximately 70% of the population of the country, including all major cities and it can start preparing for the country’s reconstruction. And the needs are enormous: 1/3 buildings in Syria lies in ruins or is inhabitable. The war destroyed the country’s economy, especially its industrial and commercial potential. According to unofficial forecasts, it will take even as long as 70 to bring Syria back to its state from before the outbreak of the revolution.
From the point of view of humanitarian organizations the biggest challenge will be to enable the refugees to return home. The war in Syria forced about 11 million people to flee, that is more than half the country’s population. 6 million of them are refugees within the borders of their own country, while 5 million have already crossed the border and took refuge mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. For the past four years every month I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with refugees from Syria staying in northern Lebanon. These people, like millions of other refugees, they want to return to their homes, even though they lost hope this will ever happen.
Countries of the Middle East providing shelter to refugees do not make their lives easier. In Lebanon and Jordan Syrians are not allowed to work doing anything else than just the worst paid jobs. Refugees must annually renew their residence permits, which costs as much as several hundred dollars. Syrian men in Lebanon who do not do this risk arrest and other legal consequences, although this does not include being sent back to Syria. International law prohibits sending refugees back to the territory of their homeland, where they may face persecution. Without sufficient income, the refugees have been drowning in growing poverty for years. Between 2014 and 2016 percentage of Syrian refugees in Lebanon living below the level of absolute poverty increased from 30% to 60%, which currently amounts to 600 thousand people.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Middle East are ready to return to Syria – even tomorrow – provided that they are assured of being safe. Other armed groups of militants and terrorists no longer operate throughout a substantial part of the territory controlled by the government. Refugees need safety from oppression and ill-treatment by four Syrian secret services, the police, the army and pro-government militias. One of the few positive cases of such treatment took place during the recent negotiations to resume water supply to 5 million inhabitants of Damascus from the springs located in the valley of Wadi Barada. Government forces offered the local population the possibility to protection against arrest by granting them immunity within their homes. If such conditions could be offered to refugees suffering from extreme poverty in Lebanon or Jordan, probably hundreds of thousands would choose uncertain future in Syria over poverty in exile.
Unfortunately Syrian decision makers and representatives of the ministries of force seem to believe that all residents fleeing from government forces and the omnipotence of the security forces are potential or real to terrorists or their supporters. The return of refugees would initiate the influx of additional, massive humanitarian aid within the borders of Syria, which could become the fuel for reconstruction of the war-torn country. Even the European Union will probably have to face a dilemma whether to financially support the reconstruction of Syria ruled by Bashar Al-Assad or accept the existence of a failed state, exporting terrorism and other threats to Europe. For refugees to be able to return it would require a change of thinking and voluntary limitation of power for the representatives of the Syrian government and the ministries of force, which for decades have been accustomed to having absolute power over the lives of their citizens.
Let’s not have any doubts about the fact, that only refugees currently staying in Middle Eastern countries and only theoretically are considering returning to Syria. It is very doubtful that refugees from Syria, who found shelter in Europe, will voluntarily return to the country within the next few years, if not decades.
Dr Wojciech Wilk is the president of the Foundation for Polish Centre for International Aid (PCPM), which since 2012 constantly brings humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees residing in northern Lebanon, which has so far covered more than 25 thousand people. Acting as part of the system of humanitarian assistance coordinated by the United Nations and UNHCR, PCPM focuses on securing shelter for refugees living below the poverty line. Dr. Wolf is also an expert of the United Nations in the field of crisis management and coordination of humanitarian aid.
More information about the activities PCPM in Lebanon and Syria and information about the means to support these activities can be found on the following website: www.pcpm.org.pl/syria