The issue of refugees, who together with the displaced constitute half of Syria's population before the war, is essential to restoring peace. But the government of Assad blocks the possibility for return.

If not addressed now, Syrian and regional stability will be enduringly improbable, and international security just as much at risk.​

By: Paul Seils

The gruesome images and horror stories that flow daily from Syria, played out before an increasingly Cold War backdrop, obscure a strategy that has been under way for years and whose outcome will determine the fate of Syria and the stability of the region and beyond.  At its heart: the fate and the rights of thirteen million uprooted Syrians. Assad’s government is engaged in systematic dispossession and expropriation, rewarding cronies and deliberately making return impossible for millions. If not addressed now, Syrian and regional stability will be enduringly improbable, and international security just as much at risk.

Thirteen million people represents more than half of the pre-war Syrian population. More than half of this number are internally displaced (IDPs) and some 6.5 million are refugees, mostly in the neighbouring lands of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. If politics is about anything it is about people. To talk of a politically inclusive settlement that does not consider the fate of half of the population a central priority is incoherent at best.

The EU’s top diplomats and the UN’s Special Envoy on Syria recently led meetings in Brussels focusing on humanitarian support and bolstering the UN-led political peace process in Geneva. In the lead-up, EU diplomats have debated where to draw the line between reconstruction and early recovery.

The discussions are framed by two principles: that no EU investment in reconstruction will take place before there is a politically inclusive settlement; any settlement must be built around UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015.

Resolution 2254 sets out, among other things, the imperative of building conditions for safe and voluntary return of refugees. It is a mistake that an issue that was given specific prominence in the resolution has been given almost none in any talks since about a political settlement.

If negotiations ever take a credible form they will of course have to deliver results on ceasefires, detainee transfers, constitutional reform and reform of the military and security services. But it takes no creative thinking to see the refugee and IDPs issue as at the very heart of a meaningful political settlement. Here is a cast-iron guarantee: if the refugee/ IDP issue does not form an integral part of any agreement connected to reconstruction, it will be an abject failure not only for the uprooted and dispossessed but for a stable Syria and a safe Europe. If you want to know what happens by leaving this kind of problem until after a settlement is reached, look at Afghanistan. And if no settlement is reached – Palestine.

The Syrian government has not been letting the grass grow under its feet. Russo-Iranian military success has been systematically followed by administrative decrees designed to strip large numbers of the displaced Syrians of ownership of their homes, land and businesses. Decree 10, past earlier this month, has already become notorious. Much like South Africa’s apartheid era, it bears all the marks of legality and none of legitimacy.  Property owners are required to prove their title within thirty days. To do so they have to go through the regime’s security services. Most IDPs and refugees could not have met the time limit in any event. The second requirement seems designed to make sure they do not try.

The motives of the regime are as predictable as they are divisive: securing and rewarding the support of businesses and other cronies; self-enrichment, political gerrymandering and what is sometimes called “demographic engineering”.  The regime’s interest in the return of millions of disaffected citizens is, unsurprisingly, hardly red-hot. Indeed, Assad has famously said that despite the cost of war, Syria is now more homogenous. The Government prefers in many cases that those who have left do not come back, but simply bolster the economy with remittances. Such cynicism is far from unique. In a similar fashion, Bosnian Serb leadership used legislation and appropriation of property owned by the “ethnically cleansed” Bosnian Muslims and Croats to ensure they never return to what became the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Legislation was reversed following the Dayton Accords, but the impact was never fully alleviated with hundreds of thousands settling elsewhere before they regained possession of their properties.

So, month by month, we witness a proliferation of laws and decisions that amount to a deliberate, systematic process aimed at repudiating a crucial element of UN SC Resolution 2254, redesigning Syria for the benefit of the remnants of the regime’s supporters and to secure the strategic interests of its Russian and Iranian allies.

One dreads the thought of creating yet more false expectations among the war’s victims. They have little reason to believe that anything good will come from our promises. But last week Federica Mogherini, the EU’s chief diplomat, restated the EU will not give up on peace, so if we recommit ourselves to a genuine push for a negotiated settlement, what should be done about the refugee and IDP issue?

First, the EU and the UN should reaffirm the centrality of the IDP and refugee issue as the keystone for building any genuinely inclusive political settlement; secondly, the EU and the UN should reinforce its efforts to establish a reliable catalogue not only of the measures that have been passed but of their impacts on IDP and refugee land and property as a clear indication of its awareness of the nature of the systematic effort that is being carried out; thirdly, they should state that the steps taken to deprive owners of land and property during the war will require an independent review process and restoration of illegitimately expropriated property. Finally, the EU and UN should facilitate and listen to the voices of IDPs and refugees as directly as possible.

The refugee/IDP crisis is not simply an opportunity to make the usual plaintiff noises of empathy. Politicians seem to have been fumbling in search of an interest, much less a strategy, for some time. They should be much more frank about the direct interests at stake here for all of Europe. A post-war Syria that serves simply as a shelf company for Iranian and Russian interests is not in its interests. An unstable Syria with millions inside, increasingly disenfranchised and desperate, will not have far to look for those promising righteous vengeance. Millions of refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan is unsustainable economically and socially. 

No one pretends that the regime right now is inclined to make a deal, and nor will the reconstruction card pay immediate dividends for Europe, but it is its strongest card and will mature in value. Failure to make the most of it means a heavy price for all of its taxpayers for generations to come.

The vast majority of Syrians are barely politicized. They want the same as everyone else – a chance to live safely, love deeply and die as happy as any of us has the right to hope. Refugees and IDPs constitute more than half of the country. They could and should be considered potentially the most powerful constituency Syria has for peace. They should be a foundational element in considerations of reconstruction.  Far from adding to the burden of a static negotiation, it may provide a key to unlock it.


A version of this opinion piece appeared in


© image Bo yaser Wikimedia Commons