As the bombardment of civilian targets in northern Syria by Assad’s regime and Russian forces continues, a key battle for the country’s future looms under the fog of war.
This battle centres on the rights of some 13 million displaced Syrians and the return to their homes in a safe and dignified manner.
It is precisely the displaced who hold the key to the future of the country and stability of the region. And even beyond the region, the political dynamics of Europe will also be significantly impacted if another wave of Syrian refugees hits its shores.
The narrative of Assad’s victory in the Syrian conflict permeates international discourse, and serves to fortify the false legitimacy of a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and expelled millions, but is now considered the authority that is supposed to now guarantee the rights of those returning from displacement.
Not only is this narrative a perversion of the basic internationally recognised rights of the displaced, it is also patently false.
What has Assad won? Russia, Iran and its proxies are today the real owners of Syria, not Assad’s regime.
Nothing testifies to this as vividly as the reality of an Assad “victory” in areas under the “control” of his forces. They are a textbook example of a failed and illegitimate state on the brink of a complete social and economic collapse. The regime’s political decisions are dictated by Russia, while Iran’s penetration of the security, military and economic sectors of the country has reached unprecedented levels.
It is not the myth of Assad’s “victory,” but the safe return of the 13 million displaced – more than half of country’s population – that will define the country’s future and any chance of durable stability.
Assad knows this and is frantically trying to demographically engineer a new reality through various means, including dubious legislation. Examples of this are the notorious Decree 66 and Law 10, designed to effectively strip the displaced of property ownership (mainly in areas where people first took to the streets in 2011), under the guise of reconstruction and rubble removal.
Once flattened, these areas are to be developed, to house loyalists and mercenaries, thus affecting lasting demographic change and control.
However, neither Assad nor his allies in Russia and Iran have money for reconstruction, and they are looking to the EU as the only viable funder of such a vast rebuilding effort.
As part of its EU-focused strategy, Russia has launched a persistent diplomatic offensive to promote the return of displaced Syrians to Assad-held areas, claiming that conditions – including security – already exist. As the situation in the Rukban camp in the north illustrates, the reality is drastically different.
Syrians pressured to return from Lebanon to the areas that witnessed “reconciliation agreements” with the Syrian regime (with Russian guarantees), were subjected to arbitrary detention and persecution by the security services.
There is clear evidence that many of those returnees have died after being detained by security forces. The men who return risk being forcibly recruited into Assad’s army, and sent to the frontlines in other parts of Syria as cannon fodder. This practice has been seen across most of the areas controlled by the regime, forcing more young Syrians to flee the country in recent months.
There is not a shred of doubt that securing genuine conditions for a safe and dignified return will be possible only under strict and meaningful international supervision.
The consequences of continuing down the “Russian path to return” would be catastrophic. It is highly likely that most of the refugees currently housed in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, if they are forced to return to Assad-held areas without proper international guarantees, would rather chose to risk it all, and reach the perceived safety of Europe.
On the other hand, if the status quo is to continue indefinitely, with millions housed in camps in humiliating living conditions and without the prospect of education or employment, refugee camps will likely become the target of ideologues, apt at turning despair into radicalism.
As a result, the issue of return must be front and centre of any effort to reach a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict. And it is the displaced Syrians who must be called upon to define what those conditions constitute in reality.
First and foremost, there must be a realistic and practical political solution to the conflict with the relevant international guarantees and sponsorship. Such a political solution must include clear provisions on the voluntary, dignified and safe return of displaced persons and refugees to their homes. There must also be mechanisms for monitoring the security, rights and freedoms of the displaced people, especially those seen by the Syrian regime to be affiliated with the opposition.
In addition, no meaningful return can take place until there are constitutional amendments that limit the powers of the security services in general, and limit the authority of any Syrian government to prosecute individuals without the necessary and due judicial procedures.
Detainees held by the regime for political reasons must be released. Laws passed by the Syrian regime in recent years that give it the right to pursue and arrest political opponents must be repealed, as well as the laws that deprive Syrian citizens of their possessions, homes and properties because of their political background.
Syrian security services must be restructured to ensure that they adhere to the political agreement and the amended constitutional provisions, and their integrity ensured. This would include sacking the heads of the security services responsible for crimes committed against the Syrian people, and building a clear road map, under international supervision, for building a professional security apparatus.
These are just some of the minimum conditions for a voluntary, safe and dignified return that must be included in the agenda of peace talks.
Until this standard is reached, the international community must step up efforts to provide humanitarian support to the displaced wherever they are, to prevent forced early and unsafe return. Such conditions would include protecting their legal status, basic services, as well as providing education and employment opportunities.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of how it all started: People rose up demanding their rights as free citizens of Syria.
Assad responded with brutal crackdown and murder of his own people, which ultimately led to the civil war.
Anyone who thinks that all these years later – after hundreds of thousands were killed by the regime and its foreign allies, and after more than 13 million have been displaced – our demands for rights have disappeared, is grossly mistaken.
On the contrary, we have suffered too much to give up on our dignity and inalienable rights that we are entitled to, whether in Syria or in displacement. And there are more than 13 millions of us. We are Syria.
Nader Othman is a member of Board of Trustees of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity from Damascus. He is a civil engineer and co-founder of the Local Administration Councils Unit (LACU) based in Gaziantep, Turkey. He is the former head of Strategic Unit and former Deputy Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government.
Follow him on Twitter: @naderothman_
Mazen Kseibi is a member of the Homs Assembly of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity. Kseibi is a dentist, entrepreneur and community activist from Homs. He took part in the civilian uprising against Assad’s regime and was eventually exiled to Istanbul, where he currently lives.
Follow him on Twitter: @mazen_kseibi
Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.