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”:

Sometimes even in the most moments of greatest political gridlock, you nevertheless need to be prepared for the possibility of a political opening. And even if it is not entirely clear how this is going to feed into high level political discussions on a solution in Syria, having this on the table in front of everybody, both has a psychological effect, but is also going to be extremely useful should things unblockwhich they may not, but stranger things have happened. And we are living in a very kind of strange moment in geopolitical affairs. We are not quite sure how the Ukraine war is going to unfold, whether that is going to create strange new coalitions and opportunities depending on how it goes. There is a concern, of course, that the Ukraine war will be as prolonged and intractable as the one we have in Syria, but other possibilities are also on the table. And having this input from Syrian civil society is incredibly important in terms of providing very practical suggestions as to what the elements of a political settlement inside Syria should look like. 

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:

While the negotiations are not always addressing all the expectations, they are still needed. What the international community is doing, what the United Nations is doing, while maybe not covering and meeting all the needs and expectations, is still needed. Whatever we are doing to implement resolution 2254 (UNSCR 2254), is still needed. And so far, there has not been any alternative to protect civilians. And protecting civilians is not a mission, it’s a duty, and it’s a collective duty for everybody, no matter where they are, no matter their function, no matter their country. Protection is a duty for all of us. 

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: 

What I can tell you is that through the different bodies, we have, you know, the Women Advisory Board, the Civil Society Room, who I really need to commend them, and to really express all my admiration for the level of commitment of the Syrians, but also the level of expertise. There is a room for them really to express their voices. If your question is about the constitutional committee, this is beyond, you know, that was a discussion that there was an agreement, is everybody represented there? No, because that was the way it was agreed, having representatives from the government and representatives from the opposition. I mean, now, do you accept that this is the opposition, that’s a different story. 

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: 

Now Turkey has been hosting 3.7 million, maybe even more Syrians in Turkey. And as you know, we have applied an open-door policy, the so-called Open Door Policy, and we have 3.6 3.7 million, even more Syrians in Turkey today. Sometimes, there is almost an impression that Turkey is going to put the Syrians in the buses and send them back to Syria. That’s not the case at all. But what we should draw attention to is the following. 

Now, Syrians in Turkey, are there on a temporary basis, they have not come to Turkey to settle there and to become Turkish citizens and live forever in Turkey. No, they have come there temporarily out of need. And as soon as the conditions back in their home country, allow them to return—which I know that there are many different views on—that they will eventually return. 3.7 million of them? Of course not, some will remain. But I think Turkish politicians and officials are trying to make the following point: The status is temporary. And eventually they will return back, be it in months, be it in two years, three years, four years and so on. Now we are in the wake of elections in May or June. There are elections in Turkey. It’s only normal I think that some politicians use some words, which could be understood in a different way. But there is no way I think that Turkey will ask or push the Syrians to go back to Syria, against their own will. I mean, that would be something very much contrary to the principles that we have been implementing from the very beginning. And I don’t think that this is something which will change, even if there is a change of government. 

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:

Well, displaced Syrians have not been involved yet. I mean, just to be very, very clear, and very frank and very direct, so I’m not going to package it the way you feel good. I’m telling you the truth, but there is a good reason for that, it’s because it’s really the beginning of a process. And the step-for-step, you have to understand the concept of the step-for-step, it is not here to replace any existing mechanism that is there, it’s not replacing the Constitutional Committee. So, this perception that the Special Envoy is going ahead with that, because there is a deadlock or paralysis of the Constitutional Committee is not correct. It’s not coming to replace that. As you know, Resolution 2254 has a number of components. And stepforstep is part of the confidence building measures, which is very important. Just through the questions you have asked, it shows clearly that there is a huge trust deficit, which we fully understand, obviously, and it’s really important to address it. And the starting point is how can we actually mitigate or address the trust deficit? And what are the steps or issues which actually will have the potential to help restore a bit of the trust? 

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:  

This is a really significant roadmap. And at a time when the political processes is so stuck and as you said the Security Council is what it is, and all the problems we face. This does provide an entry point for discussions both among Syrians but between Syrians and for the states that are most vested in this, in trying to find a solution, and I do take the ambassador’s points about, you know, we’re not dealing with a nice bunch of people here in terms of intent to resolve the Syrian situation. So I really commend the Syrian Association again for doing this and hope that it gets the oxygen and attention it deserves and is used to inject further density into the political discussions. 

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. 

Find all Safe Environment paper’s related events and materials here: