Syria’s war has uprooted millions of people and forced many to flee to neighboring countries. Today, however, world leaders perceive the war to be over, a posture which leads host governments to enact policies forcing refugees to return to Syria. In parallel, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to demand returns while recovering territory previously controlled by rebels and the Islamic State (IS). Taken together, these developments suggest that millions of Syrian refugees could be deported to unsafe environments within Syria, characterized by reprisals from the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate (GID), a failed economy, and sustained hostilities across the country.
The State of Syrian “Peace”
Indeed, Syria has not reached a state of “peace”. Its economy has collapsed due to the ongoing conflict, Lebanon’s currency crisis, and international sanctions. As a result, over 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Furthermore, the country experienced food price spikes of over 247 percent in 2020 and 100 percent in July 2021. Meanwhile, the government claims to provide support for the Syrian people through subsidies while simultaneously reducing aid to fund military expenditures – effectively purchasing loyalty by selling out its people.
Hostilities remain widespread, with regular ceasefire violations in Idlib province, IS attacks, and sustained fighting and revenge assassinations in Damascus-held governorates like Daraa. Militias regularly commit human rights violations and stand accused of killing civilians for sport or as a result of ethnic resentments. Ignoring responsibility for over 500,000 deaths, Assad promotes such violence to legitimize and consolidate control while demographically engineering previously rebel-held areas through land appropriation policies such as Decree 10.
Ultimately, enduring bloodshed has provided Damascus with a greater pretense to resist reform and to rid itself of anyone it designates an enemy under “terrorism” laws, even persecuting returnees for crimes such as evading mandatory conscription. In addition to this, the regime’s continued reliance on repressive measures, including forced disappearances, hardly suggests a peaceful or safe space to return to, as noted by Christopher Solomon, Middle East analyst and author of “In Search of a Greater Syria”.
In this context, 102,000 people have been forcibly disappeared since the start of the conflict – an issue that remains a core concern of refugees. Indeed, many returning refugees, accused of malfeasance by GID operatives, have disappeared upon their return to Syria. Given this issue’s centrality to the revolution and Syrian families, international engagement – while still limited – has failed to convince Syrians that it is safe to return. Rather, many refugees correctly maintain that nothing has changed since they left Syria.
Nadia Hardman, a researcher in the Refugee and Migrants Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, outlined this dynamic, explaining, “Syrians don’t want to return, citing safety and security concerns inside Syria to this day. The ones I spoke with said they faced horrifying human rights abuses – even those who got security clearances and did their due diligence to see if they were wanted by the authorities”. This further suggests that Syria has changed minimally, and negatively, due largely to Assad’s actions and continued rejection of reform in support of a deepening mafia-style police state.
International Shifts on Assad and Returns
Considering this, Assad’s victory cannot be equated to any modicum of Syrian peace or reform. However, many world leaders perceive the government’s victory and peace to be interchangeable, a stance which encourages poor – and illegal – refugee return policies. Such policies serve as both a political convenience for governments disinterested in supporting refugees and a capitulation to far right movements sympathetic to Assad’s false dictatorial stability.
Multiple European states have pushed to begin deporting Syrians. In 2019, Denmark stripped Syrian refugees of residency permits and their right to work, determining that declining violence in Damascus and its suburbs rendered returns safe. Other European countries followed suit, including Eastern European states like Poland, Hungary, and Romania. Furthermore, illegal “pushback” policies that keep Syrian refugees out reflect an increasingly polarized and anti-refugee political climate, exemplified by the 2021 Poland-Belarus border dispute.
Similarly, Syria’s neighbors have a significant interest in returning refugees. This interest is driven by anti-refugee nativism and is rooted in unaddressed economic issues – specifically current economic crises in Turkey and Lebanon. Today, Turkey and Lebanon host 3.7 million and 1.5 refugees, respectively. This has contributed to Turkey’s decision to force deportations into northern Syria, Turkish opposition groups’ calls for returning all Syrian refugees in an election year, and Lebanese leaders’ demands to illegally detain and deport Syrian refugees. Both states employ “voluntary return” documents that are signed following coercive tactics.
Regarding Lebanon, one member of the Lebanese Forces party (LF), former Minister of Social Affairs Richard Kouyoumjian, prefers a humane and safe environment for Syrian refugee returns. However, he believes Assad and Hezbollah implement ethno-religious repopulation policies that deliberately prevent Syrians from resettling in their home communities. Kouyoumjian further alleges that the Syrian regime is not serious about returnees, arguing that the pro-Assad axis under the auspices of Iran seeks to create a Damascus-friendly demographic base via “Shiatization” of Sunni areas. When asked to support this accusation, Kouyoumjian pointed to Syrian opposition statements in Turkey. LF leader Samir Geagea made similar charges in 2019.
LF’s official position is against normalization with Assad under current circumstances. Nevertheless, Kouyoumjian did not explicitly oppose a hypothetical meeting in Syria between Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Assad to facilitate the return of refugees. Rather, he endorsed Russia’s plan for refugee safe zones inside Syria – a proposal rendered unlikely by Moscow’s recent invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, Hardman argues that Lebanon’s government and establishment parties have purposely enacted policies to ensure that “Syrian refugees don’t follow the Palestinian legacy of remaining”. Hardman further notes, “They want to create an environment that is temporal to force returns, especially in the last three years through restrictions on freedom of movement, work, and housing, while enacting policies of detainment, torture, and deportation”. Thus, while Lebanese leaders are split on Assad, these policies depict a general disdain for Syrian refugees.
A Pragmatic and Human-Centered Syria File
This is the unfortunate reality for Syrian refugees, who are unwelcome in both their host and home countries. As the war is prolonged, countries with Syrian refugees are increasingly forcing returns, especially if their citizens either demand it or stop paying attention altogether – two attitudes which are prominent and growing.
“Things will get worse for Syrian refugees,” contends Hardman, explaining that “You will have attempts to scapegoat refugees – especially in Lebanon – and they will continue to clamp down with upcoming elections”. Hardman believes that monitoring international funding is crucial – especially from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – as any shift from refugee aid to “return programming” could further embolden host governments to return refugees.
Thus, leaders must work to foster safer conditions in Syria while simultaneously fighting illegal returns – a difficult balancing act. Improved economic and security conditions focused on reconstruction, currency stabilization, and progress on arbitrary detention and disappearance are crucial, alongside advocating for Syrian refugees who refuse to return to an unsafe country.
Unfortunately, the international community is unlikely to address reconstruction and currency stabilization efforts anytime soon. While many actors – including Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates – support such efforts, Washington’s Caesar Act sanctions complicate this by targeting most infrastructure projects along with the Syrian Central Bank. Additionally, the Biden administration has not expressed any interest in sanctions relief, even though there is supposedly disagreement within the National Security Council on this issue.
Alternatively, early recovery assistance is effectively endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and has received some authorizations from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, suggesting that states could explore flexibilities. Ultimately, efforts to mitigate sanctions harm that subsequently improve living conditions for returnees and communities in Syria should be welcomed given the broad nature of their impact – especially if returns are inevitable. Such policies could include removing sector-wide sanctions, as experts like Karam Shaar advocate.
Some Arab states recognize that a change in approach is necessary. Recently, the Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi defended Amman’s decision to engage Damascus to resolve security and trade concerns, arguing that, "It is incomprehensible that everyone gets a seat at the table except for a collective Arab role”. Safadi further contextualized the imperative for a policy shift: “We need to bring the Syrian Crisis back to being about Syria and the Syrian people”.
Such statements are commendable if actions match rhetoric. Whether Jordan or other states see an opening to discuss phased re-normalization that garners observable safety guarantees for Syrians – including those forcibly returned – remains to be seen. However, this should be the focus moving forward, along with the understanding that current and future forced returns are illegal.
Adnan Nasser is an Independent foreign policy and Middle East analyst. He is a graduate from Florida International University in International Relations. Follow him on Twitter: @Adnanaoutlook29.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on Twitter: @langloisajl.