Displaced Syrians: Between regime’s hammer and international community’s anvil
Sohaib Boushi, Nader Abosaleh.
Syrians have contradictory feelings in the month of March. On the eighth of March of 1963, the army seized power in Syria with a political cover from Al-Ba’ath Party and ended the democratic life in Syria, while on the fifteenth of March of 2011 witnessed the rise of the popular demonstrations calling for freedom and democracy, encouraged by the Arab Spring. This eventually turned into an armed confrontation in response to the brutal and unjustified repression by the regime. This confrontation and its repercussions led to the displacement of more than half of the Syrian people, with thousands of civilians and killed thousands of detainees.
In light of the international community’s inability to achieve a solution to end this Syrian tragedy, which the United Nations described as the largest humanitarian disaster in the world after the Second World War, some observers believe that the major countries active in global politics have not paid enough attention to the international efforts to find a genuine solution. Indeed, the waves of asylum continued, and the countries affected by asylum dealt with them with varying degrees of full commitment to international law and the 1951 Convention regarding the rights of refugees and respect for human rights, but unfortunately there were and still are flagrant cases of systematic violations and incitement against Syrian refugees, as if injustice and persecution against Syrians turned into a syndrome that the Syrian will suffer wherever he goes.
In some neighboring countries that host the largest number of displaced Syrians, violations of the right of refugees were even clearer. On the 3rd of March 2021, an Amnesty International report was issued titled “Lebanon: Torture of Syrian Refugees Arbitrarily Detained on Counter-Terror Charges”, where Amnesty documented the systematic violations that were practiced by the Lebanese authorities represented by the army intelligence or the General Security Office in Beirut or the Ministry of Defense against the Syrians for political reasons. After being arrested without any legal document or a court decision, the interrogators would ask the detainee whether or not he supports Bashar Al-Assad, and if his answer was negative the interrogators beat and torture him. Amnesty International confirmed the detention of four children on terrorism-related charges between 2014-2021 and the torture of others who were no more than sixteen years old. The racist and immoral words that the interrogators uttered are only indicative of the extent of hatred and racism that filled the minds of interrogators against Syrians. According to the testimony of one of the detainees, one of the interrogators would say, “I am hitting you here so that you cannot bring more children to this world, so that they do not pollute this community”.
In addition, the sexual harassment practiced against women seemed like a systematic behavior. In fact, all the Lebanese security authorities’ violations against refugees violated the Lebanese law to combat torture, and are contrary to the principle of the non-refoulement under international law, which prohibits states from returning any person to a place where he would be physically at risk of serious human rights violations. Yet it has been documented that the Lebanese authorities returned some detainees to Syria through handing them over to the Syrian regime forces.
In the same month, the Lebanese authorities continued to arbitrarily detain a number of Syrians, including minors, without any charges against them, in parallel with the incitement of some Lebanese officials against the Syrians through their irresponsible statements publicly berating them for entering Lebanon illegally. In Lebanon also, and due to the poor conditions in which the Syrians live, irresponsible incitement at the official level, poor services, injustice in the Syrians’ access to medical care, their constant fear of the Lebanese general security and the deteriorating economic and political conditions, all led a family of a pregnant mother and two children to seek smuggling routes from Lebanon to Syria to reach their relatives in Syria to escape the hardships they were living in Lebanon. Yet because of Hezbollah’s control over all smuggling routes whose members work on smuggling people and materials on these routes in exchange of huge money, the family had to trust one of the smugglers to get them to Homs, and due to the bad route and the heavy snow, the pregnant mother and her children froze to death! No one knew about them or heard their groaning and pain.
In the European continent, which has turned into a haven for Syrians fleeing the hell of tyranny and persecution, and in which the refugees expect to find a safe place and a treatment in line with international human rights standards, the Croatian TV reported the death of four Syrian immigrants and the injury of others after a rollover of the truck they were hiding in. On the other hand, the Sabah newspaper published that the Turkish police rescued 23 asylum seekers who said they were beaten and repelled by Bulgaria. The immigrants, according to the newspaper, the majority of whom are Syrians and Iraqis, said that they crossed from Turkey to Bulgaria, but the Bulgarian forces caught them with beatings and insults and stole their valuable stuff and returned them to the Turkish side of the border.
Denmark also issued a shocking decision, not based on reality or any law, in which it considered the Syrian capital, Damascus and its surroundings, safe areas and expressed its intention to deport nearly 100 Syrian refugees. Based on this decision, the Danish government withdrew residency permits from 94 Syrian refugees, in preparation for their return to their country. This came after the authorities considered their areas to be safe and livable, in clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement under international law, which prohibits countries from returning any person to a place where he would be physically at risk of serious human rights violations. Amnesty International considered this behavior a “reckless violation of Denmark’s duty to provide asylum.”
The frequent and successive news that Syrians continue to flee from Syria and expose themselves to various types of dangers and arrests to reach a safe country is nothing but evidence of the failure of the international community to eliminate the reasons that led to the displacement of Syrians from their country and their effort to live in countries that secure their livelihood. This international failure in dealing with the Syrian crisis in all its security, military, political and humanitarian aspects encouraged the regime to move forward and continue with its criminal policies. The mechanism of forced displacement by the Syrian regime and its allies is still in full swing without any considerations for the international community. According to Bashar Assad, the ultimate goal is to reach “homogeneous” societies, which exist in areas under the rule of Assad who have witnessed demographic change and forced displacement of its original populations. The policy of detention, intimidation and enforced disappearance by the regime continues. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented the Syrian regime’s arrest of 143 people among them 2 children and 9 women, in March 2021.
These combined reasons have established the Syrians’ opinion of the necessity to create conditions for a solution based on right foundations to end the Syrian suffering, which begins by the formation of a transitional governing body with full powers. This body shall operate in cooperation with international organizations and with the support of the countries influential in Syria, which consider themselves supportive of the Syrians’ demands to create appropriate conditions for the return of the displaced people, particularly from achieving a safe environment (in a manner consistent with the Syrians’ understanding of a safe environment) to restructuring the army and security services, releasing detainees, amnesties, transitional justice measures, and all that is required to create appropriate conditions for the return of refugees and to start the reconstruction of Syria.
The delay of the international community in creating the appropriate conditions to begin implementing a solution in Syria and the deviation of the political path in sub-contexts that do not provide radical solutions to the Syrians’ reality has reinforced the feeling among the majority of Syrians of lack of confidence in the work of the international community and the conferences it holds. The Syrian people are convinced that the current efforts merely adhere to managing the crisis in Syria and working to reduce its external repercussions while slightly alleviating the severe suffering conditions for Syrians without working to solve the Syrian crisis from its roots. And this was no different than the Brussels conference held on March 30-29, 2021.
This common feeling of distrust among Syrians in such conferences is not only sensed by the Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity, or the rest of the Syrian organizations and figures, but also confirmed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Guterres who in his speech at the Brussels conference said that “Many Syrians, after a decade of war, lost confidence that the international community could help them formulate an agreed path out of the conflict.”
What astonishes the Syrian organizations, politicians, and the general public the most are the attitudes of the the Assad regime allies (Russia, China and Iran) who are crying over the situation in Syria, especially when the Russian Foreign Minister warned that the Syrian government is about to collapse.
Instead of begging for aid from European countries, the United States and the Gulf states for the reconstruction of Syria and their demands to pressure the refugees to return, why do these allies not rebuild in Syria or at least rebuild part of what their warplanes destroyed, including hospitals, schools, and furnaces, instead of expanding their military bases in Syria? Or to press on its ally, the Assad, to start real steps to gain the confidence of the refugees and encourage them to return? Not to mention that Russia and China have not contributed for the donations at the Brussels conference. This confirms that the regime and the countries supporting it are not serious in their search for a solution in Syria. Their main aim is resurrecting the regime and trying to restore its legitimacy internationally after the serious violations it committed against the Syrian people for a decade.
At the same time, there is no doubt that it is encouraging to the Syrians that signs of a firmer policy towards the Syrian regime and its allies have emerged from the European countries to push them to accept the solution measures in Syria. Countries began to condition their aid for reconstruction or relief from sanctions against the regime upon practical, reforming steps.
The European Union’s Foreign Minister, Federica Mogherini, stated at the Brussels conference that the conference should not be merely a pool of donations, but also warned that the funds provided by the European Union for reconstruction will not be disbursed unless a credible peace process begins in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations.
Belgium’s Foreign Minister Didier Reynders also supported by saying, “The Syrian regime must sit at the negotiating table in Geneva”. Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark added another condition, which is combating escaping from crimes committed in Syria.
But this progress in the policy of the Western countries is still not sufficient to form a real motivation to start practical measures for the solution in Syria, and these positions are still just general perceptions that lack a clear plan for the solution in Syria and the practical ways to implement that solution. The international efforts have failed to achieve the humanitarian goal, which is at the very least, to alleviate the human suffering of the Syrians in general. The Brussels conference failed to collect half of the estimated amount from the United Nations for the continuation of relief efforts, prompting UN officials to warn of suspending many support programs.
Therefore, at this stage, the Syrians have to realize that they still have a fundamental role in determining the future of their country, and that they are, as a demographic and societal bloc, the largest in Syria currently, and they are able to influence the policies of countries and their perception of a political solution through advocacy work and organized political pressure.
There is no choice for Syrians but to uphold their right to a decent life and defend this right and reject any form of return to Syria unless the appropriate conditions are fulfilled, which are a safe environment according to their definition which ensures that they are not exposed to danger to their lives, the ability to regain their rights and property, resist any attempt from anyone to force them to return, raising their voices, and taking all measures guaranteed by local laws, international agreements and laws that protect refugees.
- Cover photo: A Bulgarian border policeman guards a group of Syrian refugees on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria near the town of Elhovo, October 11, 2013 © (picture alliance / dpa – Vassil Donev)