The return home - GulfToday

The return home

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Bashar al-Assad

When Arab foreign ministers met on May 7 to lift Syria’s suspension from the Arab League, they called for a “voluntary and safe return of refugees [as] an urgent priority” and argued that essential steps much be taken “immediately.” Repatriation was to be organised by hosting states and UN organisations and a time-frame was meant to be set. However, refugee return and resettlement depend first and foremost on the Syrian government and the country’s ability to absorb the 5.5 million Syrians now living outside the country.

Turkey hosts 3.6 million UN registered refugees, Lebanon 814,000, Jordan 661,000, Iraq 260,000, and Egypt 144,000. Additionally, there are 6.8 internally displaced Syrians who are living in difficult conditions in Syria. Many depend on grudging international aid. This number increased after the Feb.6 earthquake struck northwest Syria, particularly in Aleppo province.

Turkey and Lebanon are especially eager for the Syrians to go home. In Turkey, both incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu are pledging to repatriate the Syrians who have become deeply unpopular because they have been, unfairly blamed, for that country’s economic melt-down. In crisis-ridden Lebanon, Syrians are being deported. They are accused of taking Lebanese jobs, stretching the country’s food and medical supplies, and harming the environment. Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt are also underdoing hard times and long to see the Syrians go home.

At the Jeddah Arab summit, Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati argued that repatriation of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees cannot take place without Arab and international support. The refugees return can only go forward under a “united Arab framework that would stimulate projects and build and revive destroyed areas.”

Since I have just spent two weeks in Damascus and Aleppo, I must point out that mass repatriation cannot take place until the large swathes of the countryside have been provided with infrastructure, power and water and entire urban areas destroyed in warfare have been rebuilt.

While the United Arab Emirates and other countries have expressed readiness to invest in Syria, US and European sanctions threaten any country, firm, and individual funding projects in Syria. Heavily sanctioned and cash-strapped Iran has promised material for reconstruction but cannot hope to meet the demand. Syria needs a Marshall Plan, like the $13 billion US investment plan which helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II. While the UN estimates that Syria will need $250 billion to rebuild and recover, Western governments insist that Syria must undergo a “political transition” before sanctions are lifted. They mean there must be a settlement which involves Assad’s departure.

This is not going to happen. He has control of 70 per cent of the country and has been welcomed back into the Arab fold. Sanctions have not undermined his government but have unfairly punished the Syrian people, 80-90 per cent of whom live below the poverty line.

On the return of refugees, Gulf Today was told by Farid, a Damascene small-scale businessman struggling to survive, “We don’t want any more Syrians. We have enough Syrians.” However, prosperous Yezid said, “The refugees must come home. We need them and their skills to rebuild. They will restore the economy.”

Since 2016, nearly 750,000 Syrian refugees have gone home, 500,000 to areas under Turkey’s control in the northwest Idlib province, Afrin, and enclaves along the border. The government favours returnees from rural areas as the country’s cities are overwhelmed with internally displaced people.

There are large stretches of Syria which are unpopulated due to the war. While travelling from Damascus on the direct highway to Aleppo I passed through northern Hama, eastern Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Here I found an empty countryside where entire villages were abandoned. Houses were without doors, windows and roofs. However, fields were cultivated and millions of short scrubby pistachio trees stretched as far at the eye could see. Commenting on the absent farmers, my driver Joseph said, “They live in Hama or Aleppo and come here to look after the trees and harvest their crops.” Before government forces captured the eastern half of Idlib, armed groups picked the nuts and sold them to Lebanese middlemen who exported them to Europe, he said. Alepines suffered without “fustu halabi,” the nuts of Aleppo, when crops were commandeered by the anti-government militias.

Because the farmers’ homes are rather modest, the main road is excellent, and some infrastructure has survived, it should be possible to resettle both refugees and displaced persons from the empty villages without a lengthy building programme and great expenditure.

While Western Aleppo largely survived the war, the situation is very different in the former battleground of eastern sector of Aleppo. There hundreds of thousands of local and displaced people have settled in partially damaged residential apartment blocks. Businesses and infrastructure have been wrecked. As fresh damage was inflicted by the February quakes to buildings weakened by warfare, reinforcing repairable buildings must be an urgent matter.  The ravaged souk in the Old City which lies between west and east Aleppo is under reconstruction by the Aga Khan foundation and will provide employment for thousands of merchants and artisans, including internally displaced and refugees, when the work has been completed.

The road from eastern Aleppo to Homs passes through the devastated Khalidya suburb which will have to be levelled and rebuilt from the ground up. The only building of note on this side of Homs is the mosque of Khaled Ibn Walid which survived. It was looted by armed elements and damaged in fighting but has been beautifully restored as has been the souk in the Old City of Homs with some finance from the UN Development Fund.

The Arabs cannot allow the US and its European allies to continue to use sanctions to transform Syria into a socio-economic disaster zone comparable to Cuba and North Korea where sanctions were imposed in the 1950s and 1960s. Syria and US-devastated Iraq constitute the politico-economic-cultural heartland of the Eastern Arab World (Mashreq) and cannot be isolated forever like these two countries.

Photo: TNS

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