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Sam Hamad

Assad's sham Syrian refugee conference marks dark 50th year of regime

There are now at least 5.5 million refugees outside of Syria [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 November, 2020

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Comment: Displaced Syrian refugees know all too well that 'reconstruction' can never happen under the grip of a Russian-backed Assad regime, writes Sam Hamad.
It was 50 years ago on Friday past that General Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a dynastic nightmare.

Al-Harakah at-Tashihya, literally the "Corrective Movement", was orchestrated by Hafez al-Assad under the guise of pragmatism against more revolutionary elements of the Baath Party. But the reality was, Hafez sensed an opportunity to brutally concentrate power and wealth around himself, his family and a handful of elite party allies and Damascene kleptocrats.

Though things have changed in Syria in very many ways, none of them has been for the better. The nightmare that Hafez began 50 years ago has been taken to savage extremes by his son in the face of the inevitable popular revolt against the dynastic totalitarianism he established.   

Syria, as an independent nation state, has crumbled. Over the course of nine years it has been transformed by means of war into a broken, genocidal rump state, formally ruled over by Bashar al-Assad, though ultimately controlled by Russia and Iran. 

All that remains in Syria is loyalty to Assad - the alternative is imprisonment, torture, exile or death. 

It's therefore only with with extreme scepticism that we should approach Assad's Russian-organised conference in Damascus last week that claimed to seek the return of Syrian refugees to the country. 

The nightmare that Hafez began 50 years ago has been taken to savage extremes by his son

During the lavish affair, Assad claimed "millions of Syrians want to return" and that his regime was "working hard for the return of every refugee who wants to come back and help rebuild the country".  

Unsurprisingly, both the EU and the UN's refugee agency boycotted the event. To state the obvious: refugees don't want to return to a foreign-controlled, ultra-corrupt, economically-crippled rump state, one in which the regime's apparatuses of torture, assault and extermination have worked overtime during nine years of genocidal war. 

The vast number of refugees, at least 5.5 million outside of Syria, mostly based in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as 6.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), are not just victims of war, but of targeted ethnic cleansing.

In other words, no matter how much he postures, it's extremely unlikely that Assad truly wants the overwhelming majority of refugees to return to his rump state, and he also knows that they would not want to. Assad's economy is struggling to survive, so he'd be more than willing to shakedown the international community for investment under a humanitarian guise. 

Despite touting $1 billion of Russian investment for "reconstruction", this is a drop in the ocean of what Assad requires to keep the current state afloat, never mind the addition of millions more refugees. But he and particularly his Russian allies are also acutely aware that any reconstruction funds from the international community would be contingent on the return of refugees.

Read more: Syrian refugees struggle for healthcare in Lebanon

Russia will eventually want a return on the huge investment it has expended on keeping Assad in power.  But it is stuck in a conundrum of trying to capitalise on investment in Syria's "reconstruction", which it has attempted to sell as a predatory opportunity, while it also must support Assad, who remains, in the eyes of the international community, the greatest roadblock to any such investment. This paltry conference is essentially Russia attempting to exploit the refugee issue to legitimise Assad.  

Beyond the geopolitics, Assad's legitimacy even within the areas he controls, while not on the verge of complete collapse, is severely hampered by the severity of the economic situation. Millions of Syrians are living on the verge of starvation, surviving off subsidised bread with the Syrian pound nosediving and leading to extreme inflation.

The combination of the relentless economic hits related to  Covid-19, a hardening of
sanctions, the economic turmoil in Lebanon and the inability of the regime to meaningfully reform its life-sucking kleptocratic corruption has left the country in a state of near economic implosion. There were even rare, if contained, protests among Syrians, many of whom are themselves looking to get out of the sinking ship that is Assad's rump state. 

This is why Assad and Russia must posture about the return of refugees - hoping to present to the world a false sense of stability, despite the volatility and fragility of a state that only has terror and violence left.

As ever with the Assad axis, any appeal to humanitarianism' is performative and layered with malicious intent. Though Assad, thanks to massive intervention from Russia and Iran, has essentially won the war, it doesn't mean that the war is over. Idlib - controlled by rebels and precariously protected by Turkey, home to over 2 million people, many of whom are IDPs, and trapped within a mere 3000 square kilometres - still remains a very clear target for Assad. 

This paltry conference is essentially Russia attempting to exploit the refugee issue to legitimise Assad

Assad and Russia also understand that refugees can be used as a weapon. Russia in particular has used Syrian refugees for leverage over western liberal democracies, relying on what has been their often shameful attitudes and policies towards non-white and Muslim immigrants to destabilise their EU and NATO enemies.

The so-called "Syrian refugee crisis" has been used to widen the chasm between Europe and Turkey, as well as fuel the rise of many Russian-linked far-right, anti-immigrant populist forces and movements among western countries.

With many European countries looking for excuses to rid themselves of Syrian asylum seekers, Assad's deceitful appeal for return will be grist to the mill for the racist Fortress Europe project that seeks to deport as many Syrians as possible, regardless of their fate.    

Syrian refugees, outside of a few islands of civility, find themselves trapped in a purgatory of dehumanisation, caught between Assad's sinister mendacity and Europe's racist hostility. 

This is what makes Assad's call for their return all the more cruel. The brutal, precarious lives within the sprawling refugee camps in Europe, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are seen by most Syrians as preferable, to return to a statelet that is controlled by the criminal who forced them into those camps.

The priority now, should be for liberal democracies to welcome Syrian refugees with open arms, while also doing more to ensure that the criminal Assad and his backers are banished from the homeland and lives of all Syrians. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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