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.