‘Embrace of the nation’: How the Syrian government seeks to control, obstruct refugee returns

A Syrian man carries a suitcase as refugees prepare to leave Beirut in September. Photo by Anwar Amro/AFP.

In his speech at the UN General Assembly last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem claimed that the situation on the ground has become “more secure and stable,” with Syria’s “war on terror...almost over.”

“Every displaced Syrian is a priority for the Syrian government,” al-Muallem said in his speech. “The doors are wide open for all Syrians abroad to return voluntarily and safely.”

With the Syrian government now back in control of the majority of the country—leaving only the opposition-held northwest as well as areas of northern and eastern Syria which are under the control of US-backed forces—the Syrian government and its Russian allies have increasingly been promoting an image of Syria as a country transitioning out of conflict and into a reconstruction phase.

As part of this post-war narrative, the Syrian government has repeatedly called on Syrians displaced abroad to “return to the embrace of the nation.” Buses have already taken at least two thousand refugees in Lebanon back across the border into Syria, in concert with the Syrian government and its allies, while there is growing talk of returns in neighboring countries and Europe beyond.

But with reports of returning Syrians being detained or disappeared, and key infrastructure in ruins in the wake of a devastating seven-year conflict, the reality on the ground can appear radically different.

“Sure, [the Syrian government] can say that they want refugees to return to ‘the embrace of the nation,’ but what are they doing to secure this outcome?” asks Samar Batrawi, research associate at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute for International Relations, who recently published a policy brief exploring the ways in which the Syrian government seeks to control refugee returns.

Batrawi and co-author Ana Uzelac argue that over the course of the past seven years the Syrian government has gradually laid out a number of legal, political and economic obstacles that now stand in the way of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) considering return.

“It would be false to say that the Syrian regime entirely forbids return, because it doesn't,” Batrawi says. “But it uses a selective mechanism to dissuade certain Syrians over others.”

In this interview with Syria Direct’s Alice Al Maleh, Batrawi lays out the four different tools that the Syrian government uses to manage the return—tools, she says, that range from laws that allow property dispossession and plans for urban development “pricing out” residents and disincentivizing return, right down to how Syrian officials omit refugees from a national post-war narrative.  

“Think of it from the perspective of a refugee. You've been completely omitted from the official Syrian narrative of the conflict, apart from when it mentions terrorists or traitors or cowardsare you really going to return?”

Q: In your policy brief, you argue that the Syrian government uses different tools to encourage and discourage the return of refugees and internally displaced persons selectively. Can you elaborate a little on who exactly it is that the government wants to encourage and discourage from returning?

We don't have any transparency from the Syrian regime or its allies about what exactly their thinking process is, but we can deduce it from their past actions—legislation, speeches and interviews with Bashar al-Assad—that can give us some clues.

The term selective returns, or selective encouragement or discouragement of return, is a very important way to frame this. It would be false to say that the Syrian regime entirely forbids return, because it doesn't. But it uses a selective mechanism to dissuade certain Syrians over others.

The Syria that the regime is trying to create is ‘demographically engineered,’ if you want, along lines of class, political allegiance or loyalty. These are the main factors the regime cares about. Sometimes they overlap with sectarian lines—especially as the war has become more sectarianized—and certainly the regime has used sectarian discourse to bolster itself and demonize certain groups over others. But sect in and of itself is not really the core of the issue here. It's about class and loyalty.

Q: So how does the Syrian government control returns? What tools do they use?

The first tool is political negotiations—and by this I mean the negotiations in Geneva, Astana, Sochi. If you look at the transcripts and press releases of these negotiations, you see that refugee return is simply not discussed. It is not seen as an integral part of the resolution of the conflict, even though more than half of Syria's pre-war population isn't in Syria at the moment.

A really good way to think about this is through the idea of a social contract, that is the way in which any state receives legitimacy from its people. Nominally in societies that are based on democratic norms this means that the state is accountable to its citizens.

Syria’s new social contract does not include refugees, and is largely based on fear and a desire for safety and stability. The Assad regime remains authoritarian, meaning that it is barely accountable to Syrians who are currently in Syria, let alone refugees.

From the regime’s perspective, it matters very little what refugees think of the Syrian state.

This means that we could hypothetically have a situation where a final settlement on Syria is reached—whatever that means—without actually answering the refugee question.

The second tool consists of legal and administrative measures. Some of these pieces of legislation haven't been specifically designed to prevent refugee return, but they could be used to make it more difficult.

For example, the Syrian nationality law specifies that a Syrian citizen may be deprived of their nationality if the person settles in a non-Arab country for more than three years and has been notified to return and has failed to respond or provided unconvincing reasons. While the law was implemented in 1969, far before this conflict broke out, it could be used [now] to deprive people of their nationality.

There are also pieces of housing, land and property legislation that could be used, and are being used at the moment, to selectively deter the return of certain refugees. The most infamous is Decree 66, which basically sets out a blueprint for reconstruction that makes use of crony capitalist links to fund urban planning in major cities.

[Ed.: Decree 66 for the year 2012 is a presidential decree issued by Bashar al-Assad designed to “redevelop areas of unauthorized housing and informal settlements.” The decree would become a blueprint for future legislation related to reconstruction—namely Law 10 for the year 2018—which human rights groups warn risks dispossessing countless refugees and IDPs inside and outside the country.]

The new infrastructure that is being established in these areas—some of which were informal settlements—is basically luxury housing. So there has been a lot of concern about the forcible displacement of residents out of these areas because the people who used to live in these informal settlements just can't afford it. I have found no evidence of planning that meets affordable housing needs.

Q: In which case, refugee return becomes a socio-economic issue as well?

The interest in establishing these villas and basically pricing previous residents out of the market is to avoid the concentration of poverty and dissent around major cities again because major cities are key strategic areas for the government. So this idea of settling previously disloyal, poor populations in the peripheries or more rural areas is really important. It doesn't really matter where these people go as long as it isn't around the cities.

Think about all this from the perspective of a refugee looking into Syria right now: There is no structural economic assistance for people going back to Syria and you can't afford any of the new or existing houses that are in the urban centers, which is where most of the job opportunities and infrastructure are located. So your [only] option is to go to a rural area, potentially one that you have never lived in before and that you have no connections in. It would take a very dire current living situation—which admittedly many refugees experience—to make that decision.

The last tool is the fear and defamation that refugees experience, which is a deeply personal experience.

I did a media analysis of the Syrian state media [SANA], where I basically searched through for the term 'refugee' from 2011 to 2018. There were eight search results for that entire seven-year period for the term refugee in English and four for the same term in Arabic.

[Instead], they use a term that translates to 'those who have fled.' It’s a very interesting matter of semantics because it places the agency for fleeing entirely on the refugees. It implies that you ran away from bullies in the street because you are too cowardly to fight them.

And that's the only way in which refugees feature in the official state media narrative of the conflict. They're just not there. They're entirely erased.

Another example is a speech that Asma al-Assad held for female soldiers where she says to them: 'You are far stronger and more courageous than many men, because when the going got tough you were on the frontlines but they were running away or hiding.'

Here, she is not just using defamation but also using this very gendered language, emasculating male refugees who have fled.

Discourse is really important and it plays into this climate of fear and defamation.

Again, think of it from the perspective of a refugee. You've been completely omitted from the official Syrian narrative of the conflict, apart from when it mentions terrorists or traitors or cowards—are you really going to return?

Q: If the government is taking all of these measures to deter refugees and IDPs from returning, why is it that we repeatedly hear Syrian officials calling for refugees and the displaced to "return to the embrace of the nation?"

Let's pick that apart: returning to the embrace of the nation. What does that mean? What is the nation that the Assad regime has established? What is the image of this nation that it has put forward over the past seven years, since the beginning of the protests in 2011? It's not an inclusive, forgiving, diverse nation. It is, to use a term that Bashar al-Assad once used, a more 'homogenized' Syria. He spoke proudly about all the sacrifices that were made during the war, saying that is was a positive thing after all since Syria has now cultivated a more homogeneous society.

So the 'embrace of the nation' is the embrace of a homogenized society, in the eyes of Assad. It is per definition an exclusive society.

Refugee return is something, if you read into the regime's actions over the last seven years, that is against the regime's interests. If you look at the mere costs of reconstruction—estimated by the World Bank to be more than 200 billion dollars, [not including] what it will cost to bring refugees back and to reintegrate them. They need medical care, they need rehabilitation, they need jobs, they need everything.

So the investment it takes to make refugees into 'productive members' of Syrian society again is substantial. Purely from a cost perspective, it isn't in the regime's interest.  

But in its rhetoric, sure, refugees are now periodically called upon to return. For the Syrian regime, survival of the war obviously has been the main goal in the past years. But after that comes its reconsolidation on the international stage. In the spirit of trying to re-establish itself as a legitimate actor, it knows that it rhetorically needs to say these things.

But we need to judge these statements based on the actions of the regime in the past years. These actions have actively contributed to the flow of refugees, they've actively contributed to the marginalization and demonization of certain groups in Syrian society, among which are opposition, rebels, terrorists or whatever term you want to use for them—as well as refugees.

Sure they can say that they want refugees to return to the 'embrace of the nation,' but what are they doing to secure this outcome?

The answer to that is very little.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.