Al-Assad’s Election Victory Offers the Perfect Pretext for the Return of Syria’s Refugees

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Louai Beshara

When, late on the evening of May 25, the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain and three other major European countries jointly declared that the next day’s elections in Syria “will neither be free nor fair,” it seemed like a statement of the obvious. The subsequent declaration of victory from Damascus was unnecessary as well. Yet simply because a new presidential term for Bashar Al-Assad was expected does not mean it will not be pivotal. If, for Syrians, seven more years of Al-Assad signals more of the same, for countries abroad it is the opportunity for a change: in particular, an Al Assad victory offers the perfect pretext for the return of refugees.

That process has started already. Last month, Denmark became the first European country to revoke residency rights from Syrian refugees; more will follow, arguing, as the Danish authorities did, that Syria was significantly improving.

The Danish argument for returning refugees turns on a narrow definition of “safe.” Danish authorities have so far only revoked the residency permits of Syrians who lived in or around Damascus, areas that have seen little fighting for three years. What the Danish government really means is not “safe” but “stable” – and seven more years of the regime will be a powerful argument for those, from northern Europe to the Mediterranean, who wish to argue that Syria is once again stable, and it is therefore time for Syrians to pack up and go home.

Yet the reason the areas around Damascus have seen little fighting is because the regime shattered them so comprehensively, in order to protect the center of its power. Remember, the five-year siege of Ghouta – what the United Nations called the longest siege in modern history – took place just outside the capital.

The area around Damascus is safe because the regime brutally destroyed any opposition. What it did around Damascus it went on to do writ large across the whole country – and it is ready to do it again.

That’s why “safe” is too elastic a term. For one thing, anyone who returns is likely to be, at the very least, questioned by the regime. The very fact they fled the country in the first place will be grounds for suspicion. The fear of arbitrary arrest, and worse, is real. Syrians will be concerned that, with a new term secured for Al-Assad, more countries will declare at least parts of Syria “safe,” and begin attempting to return refugees there.

Other Nordic countries are already moving in that direction. Sweden, which has taken around six times as many Syrian refugees as Denmark, initially declared the whole country to be unsafe and therefore granted residency to asylum seekers from across Syria.

But in 2019, that assessment was changed and some parts were declared safe. Crucially, many of those supposedly safe parts remained under the control of the Al-Assad regime, including Damascus and Latakia, the very heartlands of regime power. So far, Sweden has not attempted to revoke residency, but Syrians will fear it is only a matter of time.

Nor is it only European countries that will see an Al-Assad victory as a step toward the repatriation of refugees. Of all the Middle East countries that host Syrian refugees, none is more vocally opposed to them staying as Lebanon. Gebran Bassil, foreign minister until last year and the son-in-law of the country’s president, has waged a public campaign against Syrian refugees for years, claiming many are economic migrants and suggesting hundreds of thousands could go home. A fresh term will merely reinforce his conviction.

Al-Assad’s victory will also draw to a close the attempts to rewrite the Syrian constitution, and therefore call into question the whole basis of the international mediation efforts in Geneva. The current Geneva process, such as it is, is based on the premise that representatives from the Syrian regime, the opposition and civil society can agree on a new constitution, paving the way for a transition away from Al-Assad’s regime and free and fair elections.

Over the six years since the plan was decided, the regime’s military victories have forced the international community to mute their expectations of a transition. Even as late as February this year, when the committee last met, the best outcome was expected to be a new constitution and free and fair elections.

That last round of talks ended in failure. The Syrian government representatives continue to stonewall, aware that, with the war winding down, the international community has very little leverage. “This is not a debating committee,” Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy, told the press in February, clearly exasperated. “[We cannot] continue debating forever.”

That is true, and indeed with Al-Assad’s victory and a new seven-year term, that debate is largely over.

A new constitution was meant to be a prelude to elections, not a postscript. Now those elections have taken place, without any rewriting of the constitution – meaning unless delegates are willing to keep meeting for another seven years, the fiction of the process is over.

Seven more years of a paranoid regime will bring little but anxiety to those who fled, who will fear being returned to cities made “safe” by war. A regime that rules by fear is still able to terrorize even those in exile.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.