Syrian War: Can we all go home now?
With President Bashar al-Assad claiming victory, and Islamic State on the verge of defeat, there is anticipation that Syria’s eight-year war is coming to a close. US troops and Syrian refugees have begun heading home. In most cases, this is premature.
“We left for good reason,” said Syrian refugee Mostafa Ali, now living in the UK. “That reason – Assad – is still there, but now our loved ones are dead, our houses are rubble and our heads are wanted. It is not the end, it is less than square one.”
Civil war broke out in 2011 when a violent crackdown on protesters triggered nationwide outrage. After years of setback, Assad’s regime steadily regained western Syria with pivotal support from Russia and Iran.
The global push for refugees to return home has steadily begun. In July 2018, Russia implemented a strategy to repatriate more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees. In regional host countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – whose economies have struggled to support Syria’s mass exodus – the pressure to return is strong.
But a country in which 6.2 million people are internally displaced is ill-suited to repatriate refugees. Unexploded mines pepper ruined cities, where people must queue for gas and food. Significantly, the same regime rules— and it is a punitive one.
“Syria will have a crippled economy for the indefinite future,” said Professor Scott Lucas, a Middle East expert at the University of Birmingham. “With $400 billion damages and a 75% drop in GDP, the burden of reconstruction is greater than its allies – Iran and Russia – can shoulder.”
Reconstructing Syria’s economy will be an uphill battle. Infrastructure has been pulverised, the workforce depleted by death or conscription, and strategic industries such as oil and construction remain in government hands. After years of bombing, the major industrial city of Aleppo harbours 14.9 million tonnes of debris that could take six years alone to clear, according to the World Bank.
In the long term, rebuilding relies on the nation’s children, millions of whom have been displaced or disabled.
“Their sense of home and belonging has been lost. For months, and sometimes years, they are likely to have missed out on regular schooling, proper nutrition and health services,” said Sonia Khush, Syria Response Director for Save the Children. “Much more needs to be done to help these children.”
While Russia and Iran cannot foot the aid bill, Assad’s former rivals could conceivably see it as an opportunity to combat Iranian influence. Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have already reestablished diplomatic ties with Syria. Even Turkey – who has been decisive in opposing Assad – has indicated cooperation if democratic elections are held.
Still, Arab neighbours and the Western world will have an awkward job accepting Assad after nearly a decade of fierce condemnation. The Arab League expelled Syria over the regime’s vicious crackdown in 2011. Just last week, an international investigation confirmed Assad’s illegal use of chemical weapons, an incident that provoked US, UK and French airstrikes in April 2018.
Assad’s tenuous control does not even extend beyond the Euphrates river. Turkish-backed rebels hold the northwest while majority-Kurdish forces control the east. With US support they have fought IS back to its final stronghold. Far from signalling the end of war, this reveals a whole new chapter.
In December 2018, US President Donald Trump declared premature victory over IS and called on all US troops to withdraw. This was widely seen as an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies, who now face the promise of attack from Turkey. Turkey perceives Kurdish forces in Syria as an extension of terrorist groups within its borders, and has pledged to establish a “security zone”. Assad, meanwhile, has vowed to regain the oil-rich region for himself.
“The risk to Kurds is prominent,” said Kurdish human rights lawyer Rez Gardi, “and this volatility suits IS, who is still recruiting and could regain strength if the US leave a political vacuum. Iraq should be testimony to that”.
In February 2019, faced with resignations and criticism from advisers, Trump decided to leave 400 troops as a stabilising force. But predatory ambitions had already been declared: the settlement for eastern Syria is still to come.
For US troops as for Syrian refugees, homecoming must wait.
WATCH: Why is Syria still at war, nine years on?
Video produced by author for Evening Standard on March 9, 2020