The agenda of German chancellor Angela Merkel during her official visit to Jordan and Lebanon in mid-June was dominated by issues around refugees. While she established that all parties involved aim to work towards the return of Syrian refugees, such a return could only be considered once safe conditions had been established for them. She had not yet boarded the plane back to Berlin when the Syrian regime already launched its next major military offensive. This campaign’s target: the province of Daraa in the south of Syria.
Daraa had been deemed the calmest of the four so-called de-escalation zones set up by Russia, Iran and Turkey in Astana in 2017. The ceasefire agreed upon by the US, Russia and Jordan precisely one year previously had no doubt significantly contributed to that circumstance. The end of these de-escalation zones was however heralded with the approach of the World Cup in Russia when the US warned rebels in Daraa not to react to “provocations”, while at the same time dismissing any expectation of assistance from the US. Shortly after, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared a unilateral end to the ceasefire. The Syrian air force launched a series of massive bomb attacks in pursuit of Bashar al-Assad’s goal to promote the fragmentation of rebel territory and to push towards the Jordanian border crossing. Assad’s ally, Russia, previously proved reluctant to fly attacks over that particular region but soon participated in the aerial bombings. Within only two weeks, more than a quarter of a million people were driven to flee. Up to then, they had chosen not to leave, despite the lack of prospects in their situation – but now they are trapped. For neither Israel nor Jordan are prepared to open their borders.
Surrender is not enough for the regime
The pity is that it was precisely this region that would have been passable for civilians, even without the introduction of substantial protective measures. “Daraa is a prime example of something in Syria that should have been supported and protected,” filmmaker and activist Orwa Mokdad explains. “Neither IS nor other extremist groups were able to gain a foothold here” – at least not to the extent that they had in the north of the country. “The uprising here has always been a local matter.” He is certain that is the reason why there are far more fighters in Daraa than in other regions – fighters who defend their localities and therefore retain a much stronger backing from their communities than is the case in other places. Furthermore, their mere numbers suggest that a transfer to Idlib would be unrealistic.
We are witnessing typical regime tactics: Area bombings and targeted attacks on civil institutions like hospitals and schools are intended to aggravate the suffering of the civilian population, to a point where local councils are forced to surrender. In light of the military advantage of the regime and its supporters, it is clear that the rebels stand no chance.
The fact that they refuse to give in before arriving at the ultimate escalation has good reasons: Experiences across Syria have shown that the regime is not capable of being satisfied. A surrender – cynically referred to as a “reconciliation agreement” by the regime – is not enough. Instead, the regime seeks revenge on those it has defeated. To that end, it is known to have depopulated entire cities. A return of residents is not planned. Instead, the campaigns form part of a brutally enforced demographic restructuring. The persecution continues in other places. “The most recent examples are reported from several places in the Daraa province. Despite signing an agreement against it, the regime chose to execute fighters of the Free Syrian Army immediately once they had captured one of the localities. In another case, the bombings simply continued.” As long as there are no guarantees to ensure that agreements are adhered to, many cannot hope to be spared. They fear the physical presence of the regime and its militias more than the bombings they are subjected to daily.
“Alongside the demand that all weapons must be turned in, the Russian negotiators also insist on lists with the names of all members of the Free Syrian Army,” says Mokdad. That alone suggests to many that they will either be arrested, subjected to relentless persecution or will become targets for forcible recruitment for the next front - the northern province of Idlib.
Europe’s interest in the Syrian conflict is limited to not wanting to take in any more refugees and to return those who have already been accommodated as soon as possible. A Europe in which the discourse is dominated by right-wing parties has seen this become its dictum and the perception that Europe has been especially affected by the war in Syria has been quick to spread. And yet, only a fraction of the approximately five million people who have fled Syria have even made it into Europe. In fact, Syria’s neighbouring states – Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – have taken in the majority of refugees.
Whoever refuses to be subordinate is to stay outside
While the most convenient solution for Europe is to close its borders and to financially support other states in exchange for their admission of refugees, the most urgent matter for the most impacted neighbouring states is to find a solution that involves a return of refugees to Syria.
There has been no shortage of lip service from Damascus insisting that the regime fondly awaits the return of “each of its sons”– messages foiled by Assad’s statement last August that although the losses were unfortunate, Syrian society had become much “healthier” and more “homogeneous” in the process. The latter stance is illustrated by various examples.
For one, the deliberate game under the guise of “law number ten” which was circulated this year. It permits the expropriation of Syrian citizens, unless they report to their locality within a short space of time to claim their possessions – impossible for many and a practice which will present a massive obstacle should they return.
In addition, the regime has at times indicated to its neighbours that it pursues no interest in even permitting those who have fled to return over the borders.
The regime’s reasoning is not even mainly based on the suspected opposition of those who have fled. The majority of them were not politically motivated. Yet the regime assigns all responsibility for their desperate situation to them and avoids an increase in tensions in the regions it controls by refusing to accommodate Syrians in need.
Europe withdraws from its responsibility
In the course of the past year, Lebanon has ensured with drastic measures that thousands “volunteer” for the return to Syria. Following the raid of a refugee camp, four of those detained were tortured to death in Lebanese prisons within a few days. Those “returning” were not brought back to their regions of origin; they were transported to the rebel-held province of Idlib and besieged localities.
This summer again, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil boastfully announced that 3,000 Syrian refugees would be returned from Arsal. Evidently, however, the regime only allowed a fraction of them to return. Possibly even that came at a cost, for Lebanese president Michel Aoun appeared to be in the process enforcing a decree that would allow dozens of wealthy Syrian businesspeople to gain Lebanese citizenship at the same time.
The Syrian regime uses refugees as a weapon to exert pressure on its neighbouring countries and on Europe – and it does so successfully when one considers how many parties are now prepared to resign themselves to the dictator.
The timely coincidence of Merkel’s visit, focussed on the support of refugees, on the one hand and the onset of a new wave of displacement on the other hand could not be more emblematic. Europe circumvents the ramifications and withdraws from the actual debate: why it chooses not to hold the parties who are responsible for these and other human rights abuses accountable and instead furthers its own agenda on the back of those affected.
From its rise as the cradle of the uprising, Daraa has diminished and has now become the grave of not only the rebellion, but also the rules of humanity which are supposedly held in high regard in Europe.
Translated from the Geman by Christine F.G. Kollmar