By Refik Hodzic and Osama Seyhali 


A year ago, in February 2023, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit North West Syria and Southern Turkey, the world witnessed a geopolitical tremor that shook the ground beneath Syrian diplomacy: a sudden rush by regional powers and some Western states to normalize relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This move, while seemingly pragmatic, did not resolve nor address any pressing issues or threats affecting the Syrian people or western stakeholders in Syria. At the same time, it threatened to betray the hopes of millions of displaced Syrians who yearn for justice and a dignified return to their homeland.  

 For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided $100 million in earthquake-related humanitarian assistance directly to the Syrian regime, and countries like Saudi Arabia and some European states provided earthquake relief via Damascus although the main affected areas were outside the control of the Syrian regime, and the international community had direct and faster access to those areas. This self-imposed and artificially created bureaucracy driven by political agendas contributed  to the unnecessary death of thousands of Syrians trapped under the rubble, and prolonged the suffering of hundreds of thousands more.  

 A series of diplomatic engagements between Syria and Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE indicated that a new approach to the Syrian regime may be materializing. Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Syria in May, while in the same month the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia invited Bashar al Assad as a full member, after 12 years of isolation. 

Although the regional normalisation attempts had a mixed reaction in the West, ranging from official silence to mild reservations, there has been expectation to see if such normalization will yield any tangible effects that could serve the interests of some of the Western governments – serious prospects for the return of Syrian refugees and the prevention of new displacement waves towards Europe. 

Amidst the lack of any clear political horizon or seriousness on behalf of the international community in the implementation of UNSC resolution 2254, and the lack of effective monitoring mechanisms to enforce sanctions on the Syrian regime, normalisation of the Syrian regime offered the illusion of peace and stability while ignoring the underlying issues of accountability, human rights abuses, and political disenfranchisement that have plagued Syria for decades.  

Assad’s intransigence, the continued production and smuggling of huge quantities  of synthetic drugs which are significantly affecting countries like Jordan, and have already reached Turkiye and Europe , and the recent adoption of “Assad Anti-Normalisation Act” by the US House of Representatives, have put a spanner in the works of international champions of Assad’s normalisation. However, it is  not entirely clear that they have completely abandoned this flawed stance.  

This makes it even more important to remind that  any  policy which seeks  to normalise the murderous regime in  Damascus disregards the fundamental rights and aspirations of the largest and most directly affected constituency: the displaced Syrians. 

Displacement is more than just a physical journey across borders; it leaves deep emotional and psychological scars on individuals and communities. A recent survey conducted among displaced Syrians revealed the profound mistrust they continue to harbour towards the Assad regime. Their distrust is well-founded, given the regime’s history of brutality and repression. For displaced Syrians, returning home is not merely a matter of crossing a border; it entails rebuilding trust, ensuring safety, and guaranteeing basic human rights, all impossible under the Assad’s rule. 

Normalisation with the Assad regime would effectively legitimize a government that has committed a widespread human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons, arbitrary detentions, and torture. It would send a disheartening message to the victims of these atrocities that their suffering is overlooked for political expediency. The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity’s findings reveal a clear rejection of normalisation by displaced Syrians, with a significant majority ceasing efforts to return due to safety concerns and unresolved issues such as the fate of detainees. By sidelining these concerns, normalisation risks further entrenching a regime that has consistently shown disregard for basic human rights and international norms. 

Moreover, normalisation without a credible pathway to political transition ignores the root causes of the Syrian conflict. It clearly diverts from the United Nations Security Council resolutions, like Resolution 2254, which outlines a roadmap for peace, including a ceasefire, humanitarian aid access, and a political settlement reflecting the Syrian people’s will. Such political adventurism on the part of international community further erodes the faith among displaced Syrians in the current political process, driven by the belief that normalization strengthens Assad’s position, further diminishing the prospects for a genuine political solution. 

The policy of normalisation also undermines the principle of accountability. For any durable peace in Syria, accountability for war crimes and human rights abuses is indispensable. Displaced Syrians, as highlighted in the survey’s findings, prioritize the issue of tens of thousands of detainees still held in Assad’s prisons, and the establishment of a safe environment for all Syrians. 

By engaging with the Assad regime without addressing these issues, the international community fails to uphold justice, potentially fostering a climate of impunity that could have far-reaching consequences beyond Syria’s borders, as it fails to address the humanitarian and security dimensions of the Syrian crisis. The conflict has created one of the largest displacement crises globally, with millions of Syrians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and beyond. The international community’s engagement with Assad without a clear commitment to resolving the displacement crisis risks exacerbating the vulnerabilities of refugees, subjecting them to further discrimination and instability. 

Consequently, the normalisation policy overlooks the strategic error of alienating the most numerous constituency of Syrians – more than 13 million displaced Syrians represent the majority of the country’s population, with deep ties to their homeland and a vested interest in its future. Their exclusion from the political process not only negates a wealth of potential contributions to Syria’s recovery and reconciliation but also disregards their right to self-determination. The work of organisations and movements representing displaced Syrians, such as the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity’s, continuously emphasizes the necessity of including displaced Syrians in any discussions on the country’s future, ensuring their experiences and aspirations shape the path forward. It is a grave illusion that this can be ignored without severe consequences for the region and European states.  

Seeking shortcuts to peace that bypass the difficult but essential steps of ensuring justice, accountability, and reconciliation is a perilous path. History has shown us that such shortcuts often lead to fragile and unsustainable peace that collapses under the weight of unaddressed grievances. 

To all serious policymakers it is crystal clear that normalising of the Assad regime is a misguided policy that neglects the fundamental principles of justice, accountability, and the rights of displaced Syrians. It needs to be abandoned in all its shapes and guises. Instead, for a sustainable resolution to the Syrian conflict, the international community must prioritize a political process that includes the voices and concerns of displaced Syrians, aligns with international resolutions for peace, ensures a safe environment for all Syrians, and holds perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable. The insights such as those provided by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity serve as a crucial reminder of the stakes involved and the imperative to reevaluate current approaches for the sake of Syria’s future and the dignity of its people. 

 Refik Hodzic is a transitional justice expert and senior advisor at the European Institute for Peace. 

 Osama Seyhali is advocacy officer and member of the Board of Trustees of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity