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Right of return? The fate of Syrians returning to regime-held territory

Approximately 100 thousand Syrian refugees pass to Hatay's Cilvegozu border gate to reach their hometowns under high security precautions [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency]

The wave of Syrian regime “victories” this year has prompted a narrative change among many politicians and media outlets over the past few months. The government of President Bashar Al-Assad is largely considered to have won the seven-year civil war, with many believing his victory to be the lesser of other evils, in a conflict that spurred the creation of Daesh and now plays host to members of at least four nation’s armed forces and an international coalition. Consequently, news of the government stating the war was “almost over” last month and calling for refugees to return, has made headlines, with the Syrian regime keen to show the world that the government is once again in control of the situation.

Foreign governments have followed suit, with neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan encouraging refugees to return to Syria, to the extent that camps on the borders, such as Al-Rukban, are increasingly being neglected in an attempt to hasten their departure. After being cleared by the Syrian government, some 50,000 Syrians reportedly returned home from Lebanon this year, with the numbers expected to increase.

Yet for many, the idea of returning to life under the regime remains unthinkable, with thousands still languishing in the regime’s prisons and more than half a million killed over the past seven-years, the vast majority by government forces. Despite a newfound amnesia amongst many commentators as to the nature of life under the rule of President Al-Assad, the fate of those who have returned indicates that little has changed.

Houses seized

When news broke earlier this year that the Syrian regime was planning to enact a law that would see the homes of millions of people confiscated, the EU and international NGOs slammed the plans. With over six million Syrians living outside the country and a further seven million internally displaced, the requirement of “Law Ten”, that Syrian homeowners submit their paperwork to an official local council within the month or face seizure of their property, was deemed impossible in the extreme.

READ: Refugee camps flooded, 6 dead as heavy rains hit Lebanon, Turkey

After the international outcry, earlier this month UN Humanitarian Advisor Jan Egeland announced that Syrian ally Russia had informed him that the plans had been scrapped. Yet reports from the ground indicate otherwise. Over the past few weeks, residents of the towns of Darya and Qaboun in rural Damascus found themselves prevented from returning to their houses, confronted by Iranian Shia militia who had reportedly purchased the properties from the local authorities instead. Last week, Human Rights Watch also confirmed that the regime had prevented refugees from returning to a number of towns, with government forces even demolishing their properties without warning.

Attacks against 4 hospitals in Idlib, have left more than 40,000 people without healthcare in a conflict zone - Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Attacks against 4 hospitals in Idlib, have left more than 40,000 people without healthcare in a conflict zone – Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Despite Russian promises, Law 10 was issued with a presidential decree, and there has been no decree to abolish it, Syrian legislator Mohammed Kheir Akkam told AFP.

When Law Ten was first announced in May, commentators accused the Syrian regime of attempting to use the legislation as a tool of demographic planning, favouring pro-government residents and Iranian migrants over the original Sunni residents. Yet this is a plan that Assad himself has already endorsed, having stated in a speech last August: “We lost the best of our youth and our infrastructure [in the war] … But in exchange, we won a healthier and more homogeneous society in the true sense.” Last July, head of the Air Force Intelligence administration Jamil Al-Hassan, also argued that “a Syria with ten million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals”.

Whilst the Assad government wishes to see the homecoming of refugees to solidify its legitimacy in post-war Syria, the fate of those who return is left in their hands.

Conscription enforced

Whilst the Syrian government attempted to present itself as generous in its offer of amnesty to army deserters and draft dodgers earlier this month, as per the declaration, many of those in regime-held areas are once again facing forced conscription into the military.

READ: Idlib ceasefire deal is ‘temporary’

Those in former opposition territory of Daraa, who did not travel to the north following the reconciliation agreement in July, which spared the area further bombardment, have found themselves drafted in local militia with promises that their service will be restricted to Syria’s southern region. The Fourth Division is one such unit, located in Al-Muzayrib town and in Zayzoun. Whilst the idea of being part of an armed force that was involved in war crimes against its own civilians remains unattractive for many, there are few other choices available to them.

The Fifth Corps was another regiment in Daraa that was overseen by Russian forces, a unit specifically created to integrate former opposition fighters as regime allies. Recruits were again promised that their service would not take them elsewhere in Syria, but this condition was later suspended by Russia, resulting in many leaving the militia and its eventual disbandment. Yet once again, the only alternative that remains is to join the Syrian army and risk deployment to fronts against other opposition groups.

The prospect of amnesty also does not apply to the thousands of Syrians that joined Islamist factions, which are designated as terror groups by the regime, with hundreds having already been subjected to arrest and intimidation.

Arrest and torture

Amid the breaking down of various reconciliation agreements, regime forces have additionally attempted to consolidate their control through a campaign of arrests and detentions. Despite violating the terms of the negotiation deals, hundreds of refugees who have opted to make the precarious journey home, as well as former fighters, have found themselves arbitrarily detained.

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Over the past two weeks, at least 50 civilians have been arrested by security services in Eastern Ghouta, the Damascan suburb retaken in a brutal campaign in May that leftover 1,500 dead, with raids becoming an almost daily occurrence. Dozens of individuals, including minors and the elderly, have been targeted in the towns of Saqba, Hamouriya, and Jisreen, on the pretext of having been in contact with opposition forces elsewhere. This week alone, more than 27 people were arrested in Daraa on similar charges.

Syria: 560 killed, 2,000 injured in Eastern Ghouta in 9 days - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Syria: 560 killed, 2,000 injured in Eastern Ghouta in 9 days – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Whilst a cease in the fighting has allowed Syrians to once again travel to nearby towns and villages, government checkpoints and mandatory searches are often used as an excuse for detention, with many consequently in fear of leaving their homes.

In Daraa, despite also violating the terms of the reconciliation agreement, more than half a dozen opposition leaders have been arrested, with claims of criminal cases against them. Even those who were not involved in the fighting, including members of the civil defence unit the White Helmets, have been targeted. Over the space of three days in September, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that more than 75 other former White Helmets volunteers and medical practitioners were arrested in Douma, Saqba, Hamouriyyah, Mesraba, Zamalka, Ein Tarma, Hazza and other areas in eastern Ghouta.

READ: White Helmets ‘first witness’ to Syria massacres: Chief

More than seven years after the kidnapping, torture and murder of 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khateeb which sparked nationwide protests, Syria under Al-Assad remains unchanged. Despite a growing campaign to recognise Syria as a safe country for its citizens, the underlying issues that sparked the revolution are far from resolved. The very real threat of retributions remains the main issue preventing the return of refugees, with little indication that the government seeks to provide Syrians with any guarantees.

From the regime’s recent reconstruction of the statue of Hafez Al-Assad in Deir Ez-Zor, that was symbolically pulled down in some of the earliest days of the revolution, to the 1.5 million people still listed on a regime database of wanted people, it is clear that the concept of Syrian refugees’ right to return needs to extend to what will be waiting for them when they arrive.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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