Measures and steps required to establish safe environment in Syria, as defined by displaced Syrians in the Roadmap to a Safe Environment are not merely aspirational but realistic, minimal conditions that must be created over time for a mass, organized, safe and dignified return to become possible. Contrary to the impression of some regional and international parties involved in the Syria conflict: the current situation in Syria is not sustainable nor containable if circumstances remain unchanged, which is in fact not the case as security and living conditions keep worsening in many parts of the country, and the de facto fragmentation of Syria is further reinforced. The reverberations of the current situation in Syria are felt in neighboring countries and Europe, and the effects are likely to aggravate.
Political will of key countries, including the United States, the European Union, Turkey and others, must be summoned to reset the political process around the issue of creating the safe environment in Syria, which would enable a safe, voluntary and dignified return. Ad hoc, partial approaches to return, currently entertained by some agencies and organizations inside Syria must be recognized as dangerous to the wellbeing and interests of displaced Syrians and abandoned, replaced with a genuine effort to transparently report on the current reality and work on the creation of minimum conditions for return across Syria. Displaced Syrians must be consulted and involved in designing concrete steps for implementation of the safe environment, as defined by them and guaranteed by a robust international presence. This is the foundational basis for a safe and dignified return and a sustainable solution for the Syrian crisis.
The fourth session of the recent Geneva conference organized by the SACD addressed, Safe environment in Syria and the political process: overcoming the paralysis focused on this question of how the current stagnation can be overcome, and how international actors can be brought to reengage with Syria.
In general, there was agreement on the need to frame the discussion in terms of how a solution can serve the interests of international actors. The panel discussed the consequences of failing to engage with Syria, and the overall global effects. And finally, there was agreement on the need for Syrians to unify and mobilize toward greater political action.
The first speaker was Mr. Qutaiba Idilbi, former ambassador of the Syrian opposition to the United States and current Syria Fellow at the International Center for Transitional Justice. Mr. Idilbi began by explaining that the United States and Europe have largely disengaged from Syria as other priorities—including COVID-19, Ukraine, and the current economic situation—have asserted themselves. He noted that the invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s refusal to rejoin the JCPOA, and even China’s aggression are all partly a result of the US’s disengagement from Syria and the Middle East in general. He also discussed that it may require a very extreme blow to US interests for it to finally reengage with Syria.
When discussing ways that Syrians themselves can help to increase this engagement, Mr. Idilbi outlined a few steps. Firstly, he noted that Syrians must leverage their territory in northern Syria and their international support and human capital to help define what a post-Assad Syria should look like. Secondly, he stated that Syrians must be proactive in defining their political demands rather than merely reacting to ongoing negotiations like the Step-For-Step process: demanding practical steps that improve the lives of Syrians on the ground, and demanding mechanisms of accountability to ensure that the regime complies with such agreements.
Next Mr. Yasser Aleiti of SACD explained the Syrian people’s distrust of the Step-for-Step process, as well as the dangerous trend of countries normalizing relations with the Assad regime. He explained how footage of the 2013 Tadamon massacre was released earlier in 2022, showing a Syrian intelligence officer named Amjad Youssef pushing civilians into a hole and executing them; in all, 41 civilians were killed in those events. According to the guardian, Amjad Youssef is still working for the regime and has since committed more massacres. Finally, Mr. Aleiti concluded that Syrians cannot return to Syria while such criminals remain in power and the spectre of similar crimes remains ongoing.
The next speaker was Dr. Talal Sunbulli, of the Syrian American Council. Dr. Sunbulli explained that the Syrian regime has created a feeling of learned helplessness in the Syrian people, making them feel as though they have no alternative to its order. He explained that if Syrians stand up and speak out against the Syrian regime and in favor of an alternative, then the world will be forced to listen. Finally, he called upon all listeners to take action by earnestly and sincerely presenting the Roadmap to every Syrian that they know, everywhere in the world:
This is our opportunity, as Syrians, as advocates, to have a plan of action and to go ahead and carry out this plan. I’m talking about taking this seriously. Collectively, we have to take it as the only way out. And you should consider yourself: you are responsible. There is nobody else responsible. You are responsible for it—me, you, everybody, collectively—we must talk to everybody. We have to start from now, sit down, calculate, set a plan of action, and be candid with ourselves—with our shortcomings, with our abilities—and find the best possible way out of the situation. And then, we start talking to our brothers and sisters in Syria, and everywhere.
You’re not going to talk to them from Geneva. You have to talk to them in northern Syria, southern Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, England, the United States, Germany; you have to talk to them everywhere. And give them this report: this is what you have. Show it to them. Tell them, “this is our way out” and show them, don’t just talk to them. Show them your sincerity…You have no interest except in their success. You don’t want to be president. You don’t want to be prime minister, you don’t want to be a Minister, you just want the honor and the dignity to be a part of the process. If we can be part of the process, that by itself is a great honor, for all of us. I wish and I hope that all of us will be part of it, not by talking, but by action. By sitting down this evening, and hopefully tomorrow, and deciding how we are going to do it. And each one of us will take part, and each one of us will be responsible for that part. Like you’re defending a city, each defending a corner of it. And you don’t want to be taken from that corner. Thank you very much.
Next Mr. Paul Seils of the European Institute of Peace spoke about the prospects for “unblocking” the political situation, which has been stagnant for a long time. He discussed how the question of refugees has been central to European politics since they last encountered a large wave of refugees in 2015. He noted that while Europe has held the implicit view that neighboring countries have the capacity to hold such large refugee populations indefinitely, that assumption is no longer holding. He explained that a new wave of refugees would be catastrophic for Europe and could be an existential threat to several governments there.
Mr. Seils therefore underlined the importance of developing new doorways by which to engage with and address the problem. He noted that the Roadmap paper which was the subject of the conference is one such door which provides practical and concrete steps based on the experiences and needs of people most affected. Finally, he added that such a paper could provide the framework which would give refugees enough confidence to make the return to Syria, and that such an approach would ultimately be in the interests of European countries and other international observers.
When asked why the 13 million Syrian refugees and IDPs have largely been ignored in such discussions, Mr. Seils described a number of factors. He explained that the very nature of becoming a refugee or IDP involves individuals being stripped away from their networks and a loss of social capital as they are gradually marginalized and silenced. He also noted that while the US and Europe were eventually willing to engage more seriously with Ukraine, they were also largely willing to overlook a number of events including the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the occupations of Donetsk and Luhansk. Therefore, he said that Syria simply has not hitherto represented a sufficient strategic interest for them.
Dr. Talal Sunbulli added that one of the problems is that the regime worked with Iran and Russia to empower Al-Qaeda and Da’esh (ISIL) in the region, and therefore to paint all Syrians as extremists. He noted that therefore when large numbers of Syrians were displaced as refugees, there was an air of suspicion surrounding them, and countries were reluctant to take them in or to provide them with assistance.
Next the panel opened for questions and comments. Questioners largely emphasized the importance of cooperation with Europe and of identifying shared interests in order to make that possible. They also noted the importance of the Roadmap paper in helping international actors identify areas of potential agreement with the cause of Syrian refugees and IDPs. Questioners also criticized the disengagement of foreign actors and the importance of such countries reengaging with the Syrian conflict. Many also noted the role that Turkey has played in hosting large numbers of refugees, and the specific importance of Turkey’s involvement in any solution.
Mr. Yasser Aleiti agreed with the need for greater engagement, and specifically argued that the international community should not be taking steps to alleviate pressure on the regime, but should be tightening the existing pressure and finding new mechanisms of exerting pressure as well.
Mr. Qutaiba Idilbi explained practical and concrete steps that Syrians themselves can take to help accelerate this process. He argued that while Syrians have been very successful at creating civil society organizations, they have to work harder on political organizing, especially Syrian women. Secondly, he discussed the importance of the US and EU developing a long-term macro strategy for dealing with the region and potentially planning for refugees in the long-term. Finally, he argued that if the Step-for-Step process continues to be an opaque process that focuses on engagement between the regime and the international community, then the regime will use it as an opportunity to achieve any political goals that it failed to achieve militarily.
Meanwhile, what the Assad regime, Iran and Russia are doing is they’re trying to win through politics what they couldn’t win militarily. So militarily, all frontline project, there is no interest for Iran and Russia to move forward, especially in the northwest, because of agreements with Turkey and because from a security perspective, it would entail taking in a large population that is considered hostile to itself. And that applies also even more to Syrian refugees, especially around the region. So moving from that path, we know for sure that the regime is not going to be willing to engage with any process of returning refugees back to Syria.
…as long as the step for step process is focused on regime-international community engagement, or regime-United States engagement, then this is a bridge that the regime is going to utilize to cancel the political process, and focus on getting what they failed to get militarily, from the international community through that process.
Paul Seils addressed a point about the dehumanization of refugees as a more general problem beyond simply the Syrian conflict. He described that he began his career as a refugee and asylum lawyer in 1993, and has since seen a repeated trend of refugees being viewed with suspicion or delegitimization. In addition, Mr. Seils agreed with the other speakers on the need for greater unity and political organization by Syrians, as any solution to the conflict will ultimately have to be political rather than humanitarian. He noted that this conference, and SACD’s efforts in general, are an example of this.
Mr. Seils explained that as of yet, it is unclear how the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s weakened position will affect the prospects for a solution. Finally, he agreed that any political negotiation with the regime will have multiple, sometimes unforeseen consequences, and that therefore any process like the Step-for-Step process needs to be approached in an extremely clear-eyed and careful manner.
Finally, Dr. Talal Sunbulli renewed his call for each Syrian to act to the best of their abilities in order to seek out a solution. He noted that Syrians must not be satisfied with minor steps, and must continue to demand justice. And finally, he called on Syrians to seize the current opportunity to come together in a movement that will disturb the paralysis of the political process and be a strong voice for displaced Syrians in the struggle for their rights a safe environment in Syria:
This is an opportunity. And I’m not sure that this opportunity will come to us in the future. It may come to your children, or your children’s children—God forbid—but I’m not sure it will come to me and you, if we don’t take this opportunity now, and act.