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Assad grins at the Arab League summit, and Syrians in exile recoil

The images of Bashar al-Assad’s return to the Arab League summit on May 19 sent chills running through displaced Syrians in exile.

24 May 2023

ATHENS — For eight years, Marwa had managed to avoid seeing any video or audio recording of Bashar al-Assad. But this past Friday, videos of Syria’s leader greeting Arab heads of state at this year’s Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia flooded her phone.

“For the first time in eight years, I heard his voice,” she said from Jordan, which she fled to from Syria in 2013. “It was like an internal tragedy.” 

After nearly 12 years of suspension from the Arab League for its repression of the Syrian uprising, the Assad regime was reinstated into the regional body  this month and invited to its May 19 summit in Jeddah, in the culmination of a series of regional moves towards mending ties with Damascus. For Syrians living in exile, it felt like a betrayal.

With normalization gaining speed, Marwa fears the Assad regime’s well-documented crimes during the 12-year-old conflict could be dismissed for the sake of political interests. Her brother was executed in a regime prison and her husband is among Syria’s thousands of forcibly disappeared people. “Assad was being welcomed and greeted with smiles as if he was a respected and legitimate leader…the Arab League is not a league of Arab people, it’s a league of Arab leaders and it doesn’t represent me,” Marwa told Syria Direct

Assam, a human rights lawyer from Daraa who also fled to  Jordan in 2013, said he was not shocked to see Arab leaders warming up to Damascus. “Every Arab country has political detainees, the return of Assad to the Arab League was natural,” he said. Out of respect for the “dignity of Syrian victims,” Assam called for Arab leaders to at least ask Assad “about the fate of the tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared people.”

Speaking from Iraqi Kurdistan, Adel, a refugee originally from the northern Aleppo city of Azaz, felt “defeated” when he saw videos from the summit. “It brought me back to the memory of my friends who died under shelling or were tortured to death,” he said.  “Assad was laughing as if he had waged war against a foreign country and not his own, as if he had not destroyed the country, its cities and its people,” he added.

Hassan*, who fled Syria in 2000 after being imprisoned by former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, in the 1990s, was outraged by regional normalization efforts. “Assad is responsible for thousands of deaths and sending people into exile. He burnt the land and destroyed cities. Arab leaders are normalizing enforced disappearance, demographic changes, detention and torture,” he told Syria Direct from Lebanon.

And Anas, who was detained twice by the Syrian regime and witnessed the Syrian army storm his home in Damascus and kill his father in 2012, felt “hopeless” watching regime officials smiling in Jeddah from his exile in Germany. “Even if they normalize relations with the Syrian regime, that doesn’t mean that we will ignore justice and accountability,” he said. “No justice, no peace.” 

The effects of reintegrating Damascus into the regional diplomatic sphere go beyond Syria and its people. “With all the atrocities documented over a decade, this normalization sends a signal for any war criminal and dictator that you can commit as many atrocities as you want. As long as you emerge victorious, the world will move on,” explained Ibrahim al-Assil, an analyst at the Middle East Institute (MEI) who is himself a former detainee in a regime prison.

For Arab leaders, particularly in the Gulf, curbing Iranian influence in Syria and stopping the flow of Syrian-made captagon towards their borders are key priorities driving normalization, al-Assil said. “They are trying to lure Assad away from Iran, but I doubt that will happen because Assad owes his survival to Tehran and Moscow,” al-Assil explained. 

“This normalization is the result of the region seeing that the United States and the West have no endgame in Syria,” al-Assil said. Amid perceived US withdrawal, China has sought to increase its own diplomatic role in the region, brokering a breakthrough deal to move towards mending ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in April. 

Shortly after the deal was announced, Saudi leadership hinted at Assad’s return to the Arab League summit. Syria and Saudi Arabia also said they would reopen their respective embassies. The same, Tunisia and Damascus also announced they would reopen their diplomatic missions, ten years after severing diplomatic relations. 

Reopening embassies and reviving diplomatic ties with Damascus as part of broader regional normalization could pose a risk to Syrians living outside their country. In early May, the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) published a report analyzing 14,108 pages of Syrian embassy documents between 2009 and 2012 and concluded that surveillance through Damascus’ embassies abroad threatened Syrians perceived as opposing the Assad regime. 

“We found that the Syrian government used its embassies abroad to surveil and collect data on Syrians,” Mohammad al-Abdullah, the Executive Director of SJAC, said. “As embassies reopen, the Syrian government will find new opportunities to spy on its citizens.”

He warned countries that planned to reopen embassies to “be aware they could be facilitating the growth of Syria’s international spy network, allowing the state to further coerce its people no matter where they live.”

In response to regional normalization, earlier this month US lawmakers introduced the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023, a bill that seeks to deter governments from normalizing ties with Damascus and expand existing Caesar Act sanctions. Al-Assil said the initiative was important but “it will require the administration to enforce it: having legislation is one thing and enforcing it is something else.” 

On the ground, some Syrians fear Western powers may give up and join normalization efforts.  “Our fear is that the normalization goes beyond a regional one and becomes international,” Adel said. “As long as the European Union and the United States remain committed to justice for Syria, along with the UN Resolution 2245, Arab countries will not be able to rebuild Syria and declare it a safe country,” in Anas’ view.

The return

The question of Syrian refugees’ return has taken center stage in recent rhetoric surrounding normalization with Damascus. Many Syrians in exile—but mostly those in Lebanon and Turkey—are under increasing pressure to return to an uncertain fate in Syria.  

“Assad is being invited back to the club but we see no concurrent change in the human rights situation on the ground. Syria is not safe,” Nadia Hardman, researcher in the Refuge Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. In 2021, HRW released a report documenting human rights abuses and persecution against returnees, including torture and extrajudicial killings.

“In Türkiye, and especially in Lebanon, the economic issues facing the populace are quickly turning public opinion against Syrians,” SJAC head al-Abdullah explained.

Turkey has forcibly deported hundreds of Syrians in the past two years, and Lebanese authorities launched an unprecedented deportation campaign in April that has seen more than 600 refugees returned.  

“Although Iraq and Jordan have not turned against their refugees to the extent seen in Lebanon and Türkiye, these states will face increasing pressure as the strain on budgets and public services are balanced with the belief that Syria is now safe,” al-Abdullah noted.

Al-Abdullah expected the international support to refugee host countries “will likewise decline as normalization continues.” Hardman warned about a possible shift in donor funds. “We don’t want to see funding shift from the refugee destination to the return process, because it is massively premature,” she said.

As a consequence of normalization and increased pressure against refugees, Hassan, who like 83 percent of Syrians in Lebanon, lacks a residency permit, has seen his safe space shrink. “I barely leave the house anymore,” he said. Back in 2015, Hassan said he was beaten up by Hezbollah forces for expressing his sympathy for the Syrian revolution. 

“I wish they would treat us like animals. In Lebanon they treat animals better here than they treat Syrians,” he said. He has applied to be resettled through UNHCR and completed two interviews with the agency in 2018, but has heard nothing since. Today, he is considering fleeing Lebanon by sea. “Between the Syrian regime and the danger in the sea of death, I choose the sea. I prefer death to going back to Syria and being detained,” he said.

Anas spent a decade in Lebanon as a refugee activist after fleeing Syria. But a few months ago, Lebanese authorities arrested him and ordered his deportation because of his activism, he said. “In Lebanon, they don’t want Syrians who advocate for refugee rights, who speak loudly. They want people who are living without making noise so if they want to send them back, no one will speak about them,” he said. After facing deportation in Lebanon, Anas received asylum in Germany. 

Adel, too, first fled to Lebanon, but in 2021 moved to Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, where he was able to obtain residency and work permit. He feels safer there. “The law regarding residency here applies to all nationalities, not just for Syrians, that’s why we have a sort of security,” he said. “We are less impacted by normalization than Syrians in other Middle Eastern regions, but will Kurdistan enter in this game of returning refugees?” he added.

In Jordan, both Marwa and Assam feel safe from the threat of deportation. “I don’t think the government will pressure us to return to a country where our safety and life would be under threat,” Marwa said, while adding that Syrians who—unlike her—depend on aid  “may be under pressure to go back if aid is cut.” For now, little has changed, Assam said. “We are waiting to see what will happen.”

 *Pseudonym used due to security concerns.

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