Syria Is Neither Safe Nor Stable

For a brief moment last month, Britain’s Home Office seemed to have joined other European interior ministries in a legal fiction about a failed state. On January 9, The Guardian reported that the Home Office declined a young Syrian man’s application for asylum because it was ‘not satisfied that he had a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’.

The anonymous man had fled Syria in 2017 to avoid conscription into the armed forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He arrived in Britain in 2020. ‘It is not accepted’, the Home Office wrote to him in December, ‘that you will face a risk of persecution or real risk of serious harm on return to the Syrian Arab Republic due to your imputed political opinion as a draft evader’.

In effect, this appeared to be a declaration by the British government that Assad’s Syria is safe – the first reported statement of this kind by Britain since Syria’s civil war began over a decade ago. A country safe enough to deport failed asylum seekers to, in any case.

After this report elicited a public outcry, the Home Office recanted. It said it accepts the judgement of the United Nations that no part of Syria is safe. Jonathan Hargreaves, Britain’s Special Representative for Syria, insisted that the ‘UK position remains unchanged: Syria is not currently safe for refugee returns. We are not sending people back to Syria’. Syrians in Britain breathed a sigh of relief. Their fear was real. If the UK position had changed, it would not have been unprecedented.

Denmark has maintained for months that Syria is safe and therefore that Syrian refugees and migrants can be legally deported. When Syrian asylum seekers left Denmark to try their luck in the Netherlands and Norway, they quickly ran into new barriers to their residency.

Syria is not safe, of course. The civil war continues. Returnees – such as Mazen al-Hamada, who was viciously tortured by the regime and formerly sought asylum abroad – often disappear without a trace into the hands of the security state. Assad’s regime is not in danger of overthrow, but it totters, dependent on its foreign backers and hungry for foreign capital. It continues to engage in violence in Idlib and in the so-called reconciled south, while becoming quietly known in its near abroad as a lawless narco-state engaged mainly in exporting refugees and drugs.

Syrian diaspora media shows the fear of refugees  that more of Europe will follow Denmark and Sweden in declaring Syria safe enough for return. For now, thankfully, European legislators broadly condemned Denmark’s actions – thirty-three members of the European parliament wrote to the country’s leadership demanding a change in course – and the leader of Denmark’s Social Liberals expressed her puzzlement that her country, alone with Hungary, at that time considered Syria to be safe for refugee returns.

Arab states likewise edge towards the full-scale normalisation of relations with Assad. They do so under the cloud of Syria’s unfinished war. Syria is an unstable place. Political change is not inevitable, but it is possible. Congratulating a tyrant before he has truly succeeded in winning his war has some downsides.  Many of Syria’s neighbours have sizable populations of Syrian refugees. These people are frequently mistreated in the labour markets and are subject to nationalist and sectarian violence.Turkey and Lebanon contain millions of refugees – people whom local politicians blame for unemployment and strain on the public purse. But these refugees are people whom even shabby treatment cannot send packing.

Lebanon and Turkey are suffering their own economic crises; they would rather be deporting refugees to Syria, in whatever shape it is, than taking more in –yet keeping an unvictorious Assad in power risks more violence, more displacement, and possibly greater tides of people.

The fear of refugees is a powerful motivator. That was made clear by the debate on Afghanistan in Europe.Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate for chancellor in the recent German election, insisted that ‘2015 mustn’t be repeated’. Greece insisted as Afghanistan fell that it would never again be the ‘gateway’ for refugees entering Europe. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that Europe needed a ‘robust’ plan to prevent future mass migration.This attitude is widely spread among the governing classes of Europe. In the years since the Arab Spring, and following the Mediterranean refugee crisis of 2015, Europe has fortified its borders and hardened its lines. Quietly, a consensus has emerged: no new migration into Europe can be tolerated. A new bid at ‘stabilisation’ must reshape Mediterranean states and fortify European borders to prevent forever the mass movement of people.

This apparatus was originally designed to restrain Syrian immigrants from crossing from Turkey to Lesbos and being rescued from sinking ships off the coast of Libya. But over the years, it has taken a more general purpose flavour. The same agencies have since been deployed to resist Iraqis pushed into Poland’s border by Belarus, and have now been redirected to hold back an expected human tide from Afghanistan.

But there’s also an element of distraction, as well as deliberate callousness. Especially in the last six months, international actors have forgotten the continued destabilisation of Syria. Their minds are otherwise occupied, by transient but intense interest in nuclear negotiations with Iran, the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and, perhaps just as briefly, the fall of Afghanistan.

Yet Afghanistan should be a reminder of just how far from stable Syria is. The Syrian state, like the Afghan one, has degraded in more ways than it remains. Assad’s Syria has seen many of the essentials of government collapse, including the provision of fuel and energy and grain for bread, which has driven Syrians to leave. Those parts of the regime that remain are the violent and corrupt parts, continuing the devastation and further stoking the exodus.

Yet while worries about instability colour how states are responding to the immediate crisis in Afghanistan, Syria goes under the radar: a decade-long conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, provided a haven to terrorist groups that have built large global operations, displaced millions of people, and led millions more to flee the country. More violence will produce more displacements and more refugees.

Given the state of domestic politics in Western countries, humanitarian arguments may mean little, but there are realist justifications to taking a more holistic and less transitory approach. European nations must understand that the end of diplomatic efforts to isolate the Assad regime does not mean the end of the war. As violence continues in Idlib, and as periodic conflicts flare up in the south of the country, Europeans must realise that they cannot simply deport all their Syrians back to where they came from without changing the continuing conflict – unless they are willing to anticipate the same result as before.

By trying to prevent the continued lawlessness and state and militia violence within Syria, the country might be made safer over time. The Europeans might have to scramble less to defend their borders at every foreign crisis. And the United States may be less liable to be caught bluffing.

Frederic C. Hof, who was former president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Syria, has despaired at American inattention to Syria. But in a recent essay for New Lines magazine, he wrote that Syria could still, if only the Americans saw it, serve as a linchpin for Joe Biden’s broader efforts at global stabilisation on democratic grounds.

‘The disorderly departure from Kabul may have been an exclamation point of sorts, but it was probably seen in Beijing and Moscow as a continuation of what they have often witnessed in Syria’, Hof wrote.

‘The last thing we would want to do would be to communicate — unintentionally but recklessly — indifference, passivity, resignation and weakness to adversaries seeing and using Syria as a laboratory for measuring U.S. resolve globally’.

Instead, by leaving Syria in a state of irresolution for a decade, passivity has been the international consensus. A wicked problem has been left not only unsolved, but without even an attempt at resolution. If Western countries are serious about stability, which many now claim to be, they ought to look once again at Syria.

This essay was originally published in Foreign Policy.

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