HomePoliticsAnalysisAs countries normalize with Syria, refugees remain in limbo

As countries normalize with Syria, refugees remain in limbo

Over the past few years, several countries in the region have begun normalizing relations with Syria, but it has done little to help refugees in Lebanon who are being increasingly targeted amid the worsening economic crisis.

Children stand in front of a refugee camp in the impoverished northern region of Akkar in Lebanon. Photo: Nicholas Frakes, NOW

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stood smiling with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates’s foreign minister, as they met in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Assad was smiling with good reason. After years of being on the outside, he is finally being welcomed back into the Arab fold, albeit slowly.

This was al-Nahyan’s second visit to Syria since 2021, a clear sign of the warming relations between the two countries.

There has even been talk that Assad might meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although this has yet to be confirmed.

Despite Assad’s apparent joy at the prospect of further regional normalization, for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the situation is anything but happy.

Around two million refugees are facing increased poverty amid the economic crisis that has now entered its fourth year, all the while being labeled as the cause of said crisis by a growing number of people in Lebanon.

“A lot of them have fallen outside of the UN support scheme because there was a reassessment of vulnerability done by the UNHCR and a lot of families no longer meet the criteria,” Anna Fleischer, the director of the Beirut office for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, told NOW. “There’re definitely many families that no longer fall within the support scheme. Here we are talking about one million lira a month which is minuscule at this point.”

Even as the Syrian government begins to normalize relations regionally, it does little to help the refugees’ situation as they remain trapped in Lebanon, reluctant to return to Syria for fear of their safety, and not being able to leave Lebanon for better opportunities abroad.

The path to normalization

When the civil war in Syria started following a crackdown on nationwide protests in 2011, the reaction from the vast majority of the international was swift.

Upon seeing the brutal tactics used by the government against its citizens, Syria was essentially isolated, with countries in the Middle East and abroad breaking off diplomatic relations with the regime. Some even went a step further by supporting the rebels in their fight to oust Assad.

Over a decade later, though, things have changed.

Thanks to Russia and Iran’s support, Assad was not only able to cling to power, but also to regain control of most of the country.

While the West continues to refuse to normalize with Syria, stakeholders in the region have decided that it is time to begin reestablishing ties.

The UAE and Bahrain both reopened their embassies in Syria and Assad even made a surprise visit to the UAE in March 2022.

In October 2021, King Hussein of Jordan received his first call with Assad since the civil war began.

Turkey has its own interests in controlling its borders with the Kurdish groups and for Damascus, this could be seen as a final nail in the coffin of the Syria uprising with the opposition’s biggest backer in Ankara now brought into the picture.

Now, after a trilateral meeting in Russia, Turkey and Syria could be on the verge of normalization despite having been on opposite sides of the war.

However, Danny Makki, a journalist and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, says that we should not be surprised by this recent trend toward regional normalization.

“The process of normalization between Damascus and countries in the region such as Turkey and Jordan has been years in the making,” Makki told NOW. “Syria and Turkey particularly have had intelligence relations below the table for years, even at a time when both countries were openly hostile to one another. What we are seeing now is a political coup for both counties led by convenience and an alignment of mutual interests and concerns.”

Turkey has an interest in establishing a security corridor along its southern border with Syria, a predominately Kurdish area that Erdogan would like to see cleared out so that Turkey can begin sending refugees back to Syria.

Should Erdogan and Assad normalize relations, Fleischer said that this would be a “surprising” shift in policy given Ankara’s backing of the rebels in the civil war, but it would fall in line with Erdogan’s calculus, especially with the presidential elections coming up in a few months where Erdogan is looking to maintain his grip on power.

“Turkey has its own interests in controlling its borders with the Kurdish groups and for Damascus, this could be seen as a final nail in the coffin of the Syria uprising with the opposition’s biggest backer in Ankara now brought into the picture,” Makki explained.

Outside of dealing with Kurdish groups on its southern border, Turkey has also voiced that it is willing to work with the Syrian government if it acts “realistically” in order to send refugees back to Syria.

Still, most countries are still refusing to restart relations with Syria for the time being, which is why Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, argues that this recent trend will not have as much of an impact as it might initially seem.

Specifically, Hage Ali pointed to the worsening economic crisis in Syria as a major reason the thawing in relations with Syria will do little to change the situation that refugees in Lebanon are facing.

“While it’s a change and shift from the past, I don’t see it as significant enough to help the Syrian regime recover from the economic difficulties they’re facing at the moment,” he told NOW. “They seem to be deepening. If that’s the case, I just don’t see how they can return Syrian refugees.”

Nowhere to go

Not all countries broke off relations with Syria after the start of the civil war, however. Oman, for example, maintained relations.  

Lebanon is another one that never truly cut ties.

“They have a different relationship. They have a different exchange,” Fleischer said. “They share that very porous border. The Lebanese government is not necessarily looking to international actors on how to decide its own relationship with the Syrian regime. This is a relationship that runs independently of international considerations.”

Because of this continued relationship, the Lebanese government has, for several years, tried to coordinate with the Syrian government to return refugees to Syria.

While the Lebanese government claims that those returning are doing it out of their own volition, human rights groups have cast doubt on these claims.

Even most recently, in November 2022, the UNHCR refused to take part in the repatriation of refugees to Syria after it was paused for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has not stopped the Lebanese government from publicizing plans to return 15,000 refugees per month, although nothing has so far come from this plan after it was announced in July 2022.

As more countries warm ties with Assad, Fleischer says that refugees in Turkey are worried about what might happen if normalization does occur as the Turkish government could try to force them back to Syria.

The same is not likely in Lebanon despite the ongoing normalization trend.

“Until now, we haven’t seen any serious attempts to return Syrian refugees. We only saw a small percentage which kind of signals that this is not as serious as first thought,” Hage Ali stated. “If the normalization expands much more than we are seeing now and if there is an attempt to normalize Syria’s relations across the world, which is kind of a long shot, if that happens, then there will be some sort of impact on Syria’s economy and encourage a more notable return of Syrian refugees.”

According to Hage Ali, even if most refugees had no problem returning to the repression of the Syrian government, something that he said was extremely unlikely, the ongoing economic crisis in Syria presented them with little incentive to return.

Look at the flow of refugees from Lebanon. Compare the hundreds who left to Syria with the thousands who left via the treacherous sea routes that they are taking. The picture kind of says a lot at the moment. A Syrian refugee, now, is more likely to travel and take that treacherous route to Europe with their families rather than take a risk and go back to Syrian regime-controlled areas.

Makki agreed with Hage Ali’s assessment, saying that the economic situation in Syria is so “stagnant that the authorities would struggle to provide adequate services for returning refugees” and that “it has enough on its plate with the millions already suffering economically in the country at the moment,” making it unlikely that the Syrian government even has that much of an interest in having millions of refugees return.

Hage Ali also pointed to past attempts to return refugees as reasons why many are not interested in going back, given that many of those who did return were disappeared into the notorious Syrian prison system.

When human rights groups and media outlets mentioned this issue during recent attempts to return refugees, Lebanon’s General Security pushed back against such claims, calling them “rumors” and “false news.”

What is more likely, according to Hage Ali and Fleischer, is that the rhetoric in Lebanon against Syrian refugees will worsen and that there will be “more efforts to push people out and push people back into Syria.”

Even individuals and groups that once defended refugees, Fleischer says, are starting to have a change of heart as Lebanon’s economic crisis continues to worsen, and have begun to argue that it might be better for Syrian refugees to return.

The most notable individual who has pushed for Syrians to be sent back to their home country is Gebran Bassil, an MP and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement.

Bassil has repeatedly urged for the Lebanese government to repatriate the refugees and has cast them as the cause of the economic crisis.

On Thursday, January 12, the FPM, during a conference that the party organized about returning refugees to Syria, ironically called “Leave No One Behind,” once again urged the government to cut the number of refugees in the country.

Specifically, the FPM asked the international community to stop pressuring Lebanon about its duties to provide refuge to asylum seekers and to stop “financing the residency of the displaced on its land while intimidating [Syrian refugees] from returning to their land.”

The event was also attended by Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade as well as Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Both Hungary and Turkey have been open about not wanting refugees in their countries.

Due to the economic crisis, the notion of the international community cutting off aid for the needy in Lebanon is no longer realistic as a growing number of Lebanese have become dependent on it as well.

Instead, Fleischer argues that there will be a growing effort to “illegalize” Syrian refugees in Lebanon through policies that exclude them from the rest of society.

Most recently, the Ministry of Education announced that “classes will be suspended in the afternoon in public schools for non-Lebanese, in accordance with the principle of equality.”

Making Lebanon unlivable for Syrians leaves them will few options except to try and make an exit.

However, most are not attempting to return to Syria. Instead, they are attempting to flee the country to Europe by boat, something that can have deadly consequences, and has already left countless people dead.

“Look at the flow of refugees from Lebanon. Compare the hundreds who left to Syria with the thousands who left via the treacherous sea routes that they are taking,” Hage Ali said. “The picture kind of says a lot at the moment. A Syrian refugee, now, is more likely to travel and take that treacherous route to Europe with their families rather than take a risk and go back to Syrian regime-controlled areas.”

The situation for Assad might be improving slightly with the growing number of countries willing to normalize with him, but the Syrians who fled the government’s bombs to Lebanon remain stuck in a country that has become increasingly hostile towards them, with nowhere else to go.

Nicholas Frakes is a senior reporter with @NOW_leb. He tweets  @nicfrakesjourno.