The intractable and uniquely destructive nature of the Syrian conflict is well-known. A safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees has been repeatedly stressed as a crucial component of any sustainable solution to the crisis, yet the details of the safe environment required for this to happen and how the Syrian people themselves would define the concept has never been seriously discussed in the Syrian political process. The first panel session of the Geneva conference “Roadmap to a Safe Environment in Syria” zeroed in on the specific issue of the safe environment being an urgent policy question, central to SACD’s document Roadmap for a Safe Environment in Syria.
From Geneva Conference:
Refik Hodzic of the European Institute for Peace, Dr. Hala al-Ghawi of SACD, Michael Keating, Executive Director of EIP, Dr. Najat Rochdi, deputy UN Special Envoy to Syria and Ömer Önhon, former Turkish Ambassador to Syria.
The session, entitled Establishing a Safe Environment in Syria as a Policy Imperative, worked to unpack the policy question and implications of a safe return, exploring how and why a safe return needs to be a policy priority if a lasting solution is to be reached. The panel agreed on the importance of a comprehensive, lasting political settlement to the conflict which creates a safe environment before the return of Syrians and agreed that any such return must be in accordance with international law and international humanitarian law, with the voices of Syrians central to the process. They also agreed on the need for much greater international engagement with the goal of establishing such an environment. Issues of contention primarily centered on the hitherto limited involvement of Syrians themselves in this process, and on the nature of the current approach to achieving such a solution.
Moderator Refik Hodzic drew upon his personal experience as a Bosnian displaced by the war to open and frame the panel, stating that the establishment of a safe environment in Syria is not only a humanitarian issue, but a policy imperative requiring the serious engagement of international stakeholders in the conflict: countries hosting displaced Syrians, European nations and the EU, and other states that have been involved or have interests in the region. Such engagement, as existed in the aftermath of the conflict in Bosnia, is crucial for their own interests as well as for ultimately bringing about justice and a safe environment in Syria.
The first speaker of the panel, Dr. Hala al-Ghawi of SACD, began by noting that the concept of a ‘safe environment’ in Syria is simply the fulfillment of international law and UNSCR 2254. She emphasized that for Syrians, unlike for many in the international community, a ‘safe environment’ does not merely entail the absence of shelling or direct bodily harm, but must also include human rights such as the right against arbitrary detention or starvation, as well as the right to free expression. She also explained that 82% of Syrians surveyed by the SACD and others placed a change in regime as a condition of their return—not as a political slogan, but rather because the current regime is inextricably linked with the legal, security, military, and economic situation that forced them to leave their homes in the first place. She added that despite dire conditions in refugee camps, Syrians broadly do not want to return because the factors which led to their displacement are still in place, and in fact most of those still in Syria are looking for ways to leave.
The panel shifted to Michael Keating, Executive Director of EIP, who explained that countries must see the establishment of a safe environment as advancing their interests—security, economic, or internal political interests.
Mr. Keating noted the importance of the SACD’s “Roadmap for a safe environment in Syria”:
Dr. Najat Rochdi, deputy UN Special Envoy to Syria, addressed the UN’s role in facilitating a political solution. She broadly agreed with the previous speakers, that the opinions of Syrians must be heard, noting that, “the raison d’être of the Office of the Special Envoy is really to listen to, and to amplify, the voices of the Syrian people, wherever they are.”
Dr. Rochdi defended the UN’s push for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria:
She outlined that any return would not be a one-time event, but a process, which must follow UNSCR 2254 as well as international law more generally at every step. Pre-return, it is important to verify that a return is voluntary and unpressured. “It’s really mandatory, it’s a must. Otherwise, United Nations will never be part of this process.” During return, there must be, “a real protection procedure to make sure that they arrive safely.” And post-return, the verification process must ensure, “that it is safe, and that none of them is going to be arrested.” Lastly, she noted that, “I don’t believe in any lasting peace or lasting political process without having the people concerned, being part of it and been architect of it.”
When asked if she felt that Syrians were adequately represented in the political process, Dr. Rochdi had this to say:
The final speaker on the panel, former Turkish Ambassador to Syria Ömer Önhon opened by noting that Turkey is the country most affected by the Syrian conflict, and that Turkey would like to see a long-term, comprehensive, and sustainable solution to the conflict. He added that UNSCR 2254 already provides the framework for a political agreement which is explicitly or implicitly endorsed by all sides. What is lacking is the political will, on the part of international actors, to implement such an agreement. He singled out Russia as a country which has obstructed a political solution, adding that “Russia has played an extremely destructive role in Syria.” He also stated that just like in 2011, the Assad regime remains unwilling to effect any political reforms, and may not even want the return of refugees who would simply be an economic burden.
When asked specifically about Turkey’s intentions with respect to Syrian refugees, he had this to say:
The ambassador finished by saying that “the solution is not in Turkey, the solution is not in Switzerland, the solution is in Syria, the solution is at the source.”
Following opening statements, Dr. Ghawi asked Deputy Special Envoy Rochdi why the international community has not taken additional action toward creating a safe environment. Dr. Rochdi responded that the UN must work within the status quo and within the limitations of UNSCR 2254. She also noted the need for building trust and areas of cooperation, amongst international actors and amongst Syrians themselves, in order to create the opening for a wider solution.
Finally, the panel opened for questions. Questions were especially directed toward Deputy Special Envoy to Syria Dr. Najat Rochdi, including:
- Whose definition of a ‘safe environment’ will be followed when implementing UNSCR 2254?
- Why can’t the UN take steps like that of the 2012 Kofi Annan Peace Plan which included international monitoring?
- Why does the step-for-step approach only include the Syrian regime and the international community, excluding the Syrian people themselves?
- Why does the international community allow the distribution of aid to camps to run through the Assad regime, which itself uses starvation as a weapon?
- When the regime has already killed 221 people who signed ‘reconciliation agreements,’ how can we speak of a safe return with the Assad regime still in place?
- How can we be sure that the UN will not, directly or indirectly, contribute to pressuring refugees to return to areas that aren’t safe?
In her response Dr. Rochdi emphasized that any return of refugees must comply with international humanitarian law and international law, adding that the UN will not cooperate with any return of refugees that does not comply with these requirements. She also noted that her colleague Alexander Tyler of the UNHCR would be speaking as part of the next panel, and could address some specific aspects of these concerns. Specifically about the so-called “Step-for-Step” approach and the lack of displaced Syrians’ involvement in the initiative, she had this to say:
In his closing remarks, Michael Keating emphasized the importance of the measures proposed by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity in the “Roadmap for a Safe Environment in Syria”, saying that:
Finally, Ambassador Önhon closed by saying that while the international community has lost interest in Syria in recent years, the problem remains, and cannot be entirely the burden of bordering countries like Turkey. He reiterated that the international community must therefore work together to create a comprehensive solution with UN guarantees.