Russian media outlets have recently reported the return of 1.2 million Syrian refugees since the direct Russian military intervention alongside Bashar Al-Assad's regime, which was on the verge of falling. The number raised astonishment in international circles following this issue, as confirmed statistics estimate the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries at 5.6 million, 3.5 million of which are in Turkey. About 50,000 of those in Turkey have returned to the Euphrates Shield areas for security reasons and the lack of authority. In addition to this, 15,000 refugees returned from Jordan and less than 1,000 returned from Lebanon.
Russia has a direct interest in the return of Syrian refugees. If this they don't return it has no way of convincing the major powers, as well as some of the countries in the region, to participate in Syria's reconstruction. Without this card, everything will remain the same, and Moscow will not be able to take any steps forward, especially since financially it is unable to carry out the task alone, as the process would require hundreds of billions of dollars.
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Russia is seeking to compensate for some of its economic losses in Syria by means of the reconstruction, as well as to launch an international workshop that would breathe life into the regime's structure, which has been levelled to the ground for many years and is unable to move. If Russia doesn't manage to convince the major donor countries its project will face a dead end. This is what the Western parties, including the US and Europe, are aware of as they bargain with Moscow, and therefore have stipulated that it will contribute financially on the condition that a political process is launched on the bases that determine the future of Al-Assad and his remainder in power for a term determined in the constitution.
Although the refugee card is valuable to Russia, it is not doing enough to utilise it properly. So far, it seems to be working based on the regime's vision in this regard, an issue which is considered one of the most dangerous and serious in Syria. It is no secret that the regime wants the return of refugees who will not be a nuisance and serve his short-term and long-term goals, without legal or political guarantees, thus bearing no responsibility for the seven-year war against the Syrian people. The regime has acted accordingly regarding the refugees who returned to the areas under its control, as evidenced by the refugees who returned from Lebanon as part of pre-arranged settlements. However, the regime re-arrested the youth and sent many of them to fight on war fronts against the armed opposition, which has not encouraged anyone to return, despite the pressure refugees are under in Lebanon and Jordan. They prefer to live a tough and racist life over returning to their cities and towns and live under the rule of the regime.
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The regime, the Russians, and Iran are afraid of a massive return of refugees, as this would impose new realities on the ground that could disrupt or alter the equations imposed by armed force on a demographic level and create a new sectarian map. If the return is accompanied by security and political guarantees, the regime, the Russians and the Iranians will not be able to control the course of developments. This is a major dilemma in light of the Western inflexibility and insistence of countries with financial weight and a hosting of refugees, such as Germany, on security and political guarantees. On one hand, they cannot push refugees to return without any guarantees put in place, and on the other hand they are not interested in funding Russia's project in Syria, as Russian President Vladimir Putin understood from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently.
The refugee card is one of the most dangerous cards that can be used to pressure the Russians. Therefore, the international community must use it properly, in order to produce a political process under international supervision.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby on 4 October 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.