At the mercy of Assadʹs troops
The agenda of German chancellor Angela Merkel during her official visit to Jordan and Lebanon in mid-June was dominated by refugee-related issues. While she established that working towards the return of Syrian refugees is the aim of all parties involved, such a return could only be considered once safe conditions had been created for them. She had yet to board the plane back to Berlin when the Syrian regime launched its next major military offensive. The target this time: the province of Daraa in the south of Syria.
Daraa had been deemed the calmest of the four so-called de-escalation zones set up by Russia, Iran and Turkey in Astana in 2017. The ceasefire agreed upon by the U.S., Russia and Jordan precisely one year previously had no doubt played a significant role. The end of these de-escalation zones, however, was heralded with the approach of the World Cup in Russia, with the U.S. warning rebels in Daraa not to react to "provocations", while at the same time dismissing any expectation of assistance from the United States.
Shortly after, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared a unilateral end to the ceasefire. The Syrian air force launched a series of massive bomb attacks in pursuit of Bashar al-Assadʹs goal to promote the fragmentation of rebel territory and to push towards the Jordanian border crossing.
Assadʹs ally, Russia, previously reluctant to fly attacks over that particular region, was soon participating in the aerial bombings. Within just two weeks, more than a quarter of a million people had fled. Up until then, they had chosen not to leave, despite the lack of prospects in their situation – yet now they are trapped. Neither Israel nor Jordan is prepared to open its borders.
Surrender is not enough for the regime
The pity is that it was precisely this region that would have been passable for civilians, even without the introduction of substantial protective measures. "Daraa is a prime example of something in Syria that should have been supported and protected," filmmaker and activist Orwa Mokdad explains. "Neither IS nor other extremist groups have been able to gain a foothold here" – at least not to the extent that they did in the north of the country. "The uprising here has always been a local matter."
That is the reason there are so many more fighters in Daraa than in other regions – fighters who defend their localities and therefore enjoy far more backing from their communities than is the case elsewhere. Furthermore, their mere numbers suggest that a transfer to Idlib would be unrealistic.
We are witnessing typical regime tactics: area bombings and targeted attacks on civil institutions like hospitals and schools are intended to aggravate the suffering of the civilian population, to a point where local councils are forced to surrender. In light of the military advantage of the regime and its supporters, it is clear that the rebels stand no chance.
Yet they have good reason for refusing to give in before arriving at the ultimate escalation: experience across Syria has shown that the regime is not capable of being satisfied. A surrender – cynically referred to as a "reconciliation agreement" by the regime – is not enough. Instead, the regime seeks revenge on those it has defeated. To that end, it is known to have de-populated entire cities. A return of residents is not planned. Instead, the campaigns form part of a brutally enforced demographic restructuring.
More afraid of Assadʹs militias than the daily bombing raids
And so the persecution continues. "The most recent examples reported come from several places in Daraa province. In contravention of an existing agreement, the regime chose to execute fighters of the Free Syrian Army immediately once they had captured one of the localities. In another case, the bombings simply continued."
As long as there are no guarantees to ensure that agreements are adhered to, many cannot hope to be spared. They fear the physical presence of the regime and its militias more than the bombings they are subjected to daily.
"As well as demanding that all weapons be turned in, the Russian negotiators are also insisting on lists bearing the names of all Free Syrian Army members," says Mokdad. That alone suggests to many that they will either be arrested, subjected to relentless persecution, or will become targets for forcible recruitment for the next front – the northern province of Idlib.
Europeʹs interest in the Syrian conflict is limited to not wanting to take in any more refugees and to return those who have already been accommodated as soon as possible. A Europe in which the discourse is dominated by right-wing parties has seen this become its dictum: the perception that Europe has been especially affected by the war in Syria has been quick to spread.
And yet, only a fraction of the approximately five million people who have fled Syria have even made it into Europe. In fact, Syriaʹs neighbouring states – Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – have taken in the majority of refugees.
Fondly awaiting the return of "each of its sons"
While the most convenient solution for Europe is to close its borders and to financially support other states in exchange for their admission of refugees, the most urgent matter for the most impacted neighbouring states is to find a solution that involves a return of refugees to Syria.
There has been no shortage of lip service from Damascus insisting that the regime fondly awaits the return of "each of its sons" – messages foiled by Assadʹs statement last August that although the losses were unfortunate, Syrian society had become much "healthier" and more "homogeneous" in the process. The latter stance is illustrated by various examples.
For one, the deliberate game circulating this year under the guise of "Law No. 10", which permits the expropriation of Syrian citizens, unless they report to their locality within a short space of time to claim their possessions – impossible for many and a practice which will present a massive obstacle should they return.
In addition, the Syrian regime has at times indicated to neighbouring states that it has no interest in even permitting those who have fled across its border to return.
The regimeʹs reasoning is not even principally based on the suspected opposition of those who have fled. The majority of them were not politically motivated. Yet, in looking to avoid an increase in tension in the regions under its control by refusing to take back Syrians in need, the regime has made the latter personally responsible for their own desperate straits.
Europe backpeddling from its responsibility
Over the course of last year, Lebanon has ensured with drastic measures that thousands "volunteer" to return to Syria. Following the raid of a refugee camp, four of those detained were tortured to death in Lebanese prisons within the space of a few days. Those "returning" were not brought back to their regions of origin; they were transported to the rebel-held province of Idlib and besieged localities.
This summer again, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil boastfully announced that 3,000 Syrian refugees would be returned from Arsal. Evidently, however, the regime only allowed a fraction of them to return. Possibly even that came at a cost, for Lebanese president Michel Aoun appeared in the process to be enforcing a decree that would allow dozens of wealthy Syrian businesspeople to gain Lebanese citizenship at the same time.
The Syrian regime is using refugees as a weapon to exert pressure on its neighbouring countries and on Europe – and with some success, when one considers how many parties are now prepared to resign themselves to the dictator.
The timely coincidence of Merkelʹs visit, focussed on the support of refugees on the one hand and the onset of a new wave of displacement on the other hand could not be more emblematic. Europe is circumventing the ramifications and withdrawing from the actual debate: why it is not willing to hold those responsible for these and many other human rights violations to account, while being happy to further its own agenda at the expense of those affected.
Daraa has gone from being the cradle of the uprising to the grave – not only of the rebellion – but also of the rules of humanity so often invoked in Europe.
© Bente Scheller 2018
Bente Scheller is bureau chief director of the Heinrich Boll Foundationʹs Beirut office. Her book "The Wisdom of Syriaʹs Waiting Game – Foreign Policy under the Assads" was published in 2014.