While the mass exodus of refugees from Syria since the spring of 2011 has been widely covered in the press, at least in terms of Europe (where it should be remembered many of the those arriving were not Syrian at all), there’s been very little reporting on what appears to be a new trend: the return of thousands to take up the work of rebuilding their communities.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that almost half a million Syrians, most of them internally displaced people (IDPs), have returned to their cities and towns so far this year as the conflict has wound down. Credit for this relative security must be given not only to successes on the battlefield but also to the tireless diplomacy of some actors, including Turkey, Russia, Iran and, to a lesser extent, the United States, with a number of safe zones established by agreements between the various countries involved in the conflict and, in most cases, their proxies.
Recent events show that a final victory for the Syrian government and its allies is becoming more likely with each passing week. The so-called Islamic State is engaged in a losing battle for its ‘capital’, Raqqa and the Syrian Arab Army just captured the strategically important city of Deir Az-Zor from the group as we went to press.
The other major rebel group, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, alongside a hodge podge of other groups, almost all fighting among themselves, have mainly retreated to the Governate of Idlib, near the Turkish border, where Russia, Turkey and Iran are attempting to create a ‘de-escalation’ zone for at least 6 months, although details are still vague.
Although it’s a drop in the bucket of those who have fled, believed to number 6.5 million IDPs and more than 5 million refugees in neighboring countries out of a pre-war population of 22 million, there have also been 22,200 spontaneous refugee returns so far this year (as opposed to forced repatriations) from neighboring countries, the majority from Turkey and Lebanon.
This small number is encouraging but comes with the caveat that, as reported by Reliefweb, there are still an average of over 7,000 displacements daily, especially in places like Raqqa and surrounding towns, where the fighting continues unabated.
There has been barbarism on all sides in this conflict and the insurgents are not the only ones to blame for the displacement of ordinary Syrians. From the siege of east Aleppo by the Syrian Arab Army, Russia, Iran and various militias, to the ongoing leveling of Raqqa by the United States, its NATO allies and mainly Kurdish fighters who call themselves the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there is plenty of blame to go around.
And of course many of these displaced people are lucky that they aren’t counted among the at minimum 300,000 men, women and children killed so far, a number that is sure to rise in the months ahead.
For all of its many faults, including the arrogance that it displayed in dealing with legitimate protest early on in what became the conflict, the government of Syria is the only force in the country that has the legitimacy to begin the process of rebuilding in those areas that have been made safe, regardless of who takes credit for clearing them of what amounted to heavily armed gangs.
Besides restoring basic infrastructure, vital civic institutions like schools will need to be prioritized to ensure that the next generation of Syrians, many of whom have already missed years of schooling, don’t fall behind in terms of their future prospects once they can safely return to their communities.
Even in areas where combat operations have ceased, it will take time to guarantee the safety of returnees, with the vast number of refugees in neighboring countries hoping to come back at some point in the future.
As Amin Awad, the Middle East and North Africa Director for the UNHCR, explained in a press conference recently, “The conditions for returning are not appropriate and there are too many obstacles and the great destruction we see today in Syria prevents many people from returning to the rescue: 82 percent of the refugees in neighboring countries say they want to go back if security and service are provided, 10 percent and 6 percent say they will return if they find safe places.”
It would be naive to assume that the many atrocities that whole communities were subjected to will be easily forgotten when the conflict finally ends. For years, if not decades, the resentment created by these incidents will at the very least simmer if there isn’t a real effort at reconciliation among the country’s diverse communities, planting the seeds of future conflict. This is something that many who closely watched Iraq unravel have warned about.
The limits of compassion
Many people, including this writer, long felt that the push back against Syrians fleeing a war mostly not of their own making was mainly a Western phenomenon. The case of Lebanon, which hosts 1.5 million displaced neighbors, almost a quarter of the country’s previous population, shows that the strains created in Europe and even here in Canada where we received just under 50,000 Syrians in 2016 to the dismay of our own homegrown xenophobes, are not unique. In fact, some Lebanese politicians and civic leaders have begun to use the kind of language about refugees we hear from many Western leaders, including the President of the United States.
Even the head of the Maronite Christian church in Lebanon, Patriarch Beshara al-Ral, took a decidedly unchristian stance at a mass in July, saying the Syrian refugees are, “snatching (the Lebanese people’s) daily bread from their mouths, throwing them into a state of poverty and deprivation.”
Having said this, the increasing tensions are not happening in a vacuum and there have been a number of incidents that would test the patience of any country’s citizens, but are probably even more traumatizing for the war weary Lebanese.
In one tragic case, militants believed to have been associated with either the so-called Islamic State or Syria’s serially rebranding Al Qaeda affiliate in camps in Arsal on the Syrian border, engaged in a series of suicide attacks on the Lebanese army at the end of June, making it much easier for cynical politicians to demand that refugees be repatriated, regardless of the security situation in their home country.
So far, in cooperation with the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, at least 10,000 refugees, among them hundreds of militants, who may be protecting the refugees or holding them hostage, have been sent back to Syria, with most making their way to Idlib. This is worrying because the UN and other international agencies have not been involved in the process and militant groups are being relied upon to maintain security.
As one of those who made his way to Idlib as part of the deal, Diab Jussain al-Zaitoun, 27, told the U.K. Guardian after making the perilous trip, “What can I tell you? I am at a loss for words… I feel relatively safe here although we don’t know if we might be bombed into pieces at any given time -it’s an unknown type of safety.”
There are also larger factors at play in terms of Lebanon, including the country’s already fraught history with its neighbor and the unique sectarian balancing act at the heart of the Lebanese state, with power divided between various confessional groups. In such a fragile system there is genuine fear that the influx of mostly Sunni Muslim refugees could permanently alter this already imperfect political compact.
Nonetheless, as Sima Ghaddar of the Century Foundation told Al Jazeera from Beirut, it isn’t difficult to scapegoat migrants, even those fleeing a brutal, multi-sided war, “This is where the pressure starts. Negative perceptions become public facts [and] Syrian refugees become the reason behind all of Lebanon’s economic, social and political problems.”
The funding shortfall
The UNHCR has asked for about $8 billion in funding this year, money that would be used for everything from tents to diapers for the world’s estimated 65.6 million displaced people. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that even these basic needs will be met as the total amount currently available is just under $3 billion.
While these might seem like big numbers, a recent, conservative estimate of the cost of the war in Afghanistan to American taxpayers was $841 billion over the last 15 years. Also, Israel, a prosperous country when compared to most of its neighbors, will receive $3.8 billion in military aid this year from the U.S. alone (a bonanza for arms manufacturers in what seems to be the United States’ hidden jobs program).
Still, not all the emphasis should be put on the United States and allies like Canada, France and the U.K., remembering that some of the richest countries per capita in the world are nearby in the Gulf and have themselves denied entry to most of these refugees and been slow to fund the efforts to help them, while generally being regarded as among the main culprits in flooding the country with weaponry and foreign fighters. One exception to this is tiny Kuwait, which gave the UNHCR $360 million between 2013 and 2015, making it the 6th largest donor country in the world for the period reported.
As Kelly T. Clements, deputy commissioner for the UNHCR told Reuters in terms of Kuwait’s commitment, “The other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) have not managed to come anywhere close.”
Although many pundits have claimed that the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic is a symptom of intractable, age old battle between Sunni and Shia Muslims, this is not even the main part of the story and is a dubious reading of history usually made by those who know almost nothing about Islam except for the fact that they are opposed to it. By framing the story in this way, Western media also lend legitimacy to the extremists who have rampaged through the country for 6 years, enslaving and murdering the country’s citizens and generally making a mockery of their purported religion.
As the conflict continued, it should have become more and more obvious to outside observers that, for all its faults, including its government’s early, brutal over-reaction to protests, this was as much a battle between several strains of reactionary fundamentalism against the secularism and the rich diversity of religion and ethnicity that was once the pride of the Syrian nation. For now at least, the barbarians are losing.
* Although there was no way to incorporate it into the above, the Mohawk people who traditionally held sovereignty over the territory I live in revived the traditional ‘wood edge ceremony’ to welcome Syrian refugees to Montreal last year. You can watch a short news video about this beautiful tradition here.