Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

The Assad regime is using refugees for leverage against its neighbours

However, if the regime wishes to build and maintain relations with nearby nations, it will have to find a pathway towards the safe return of displaced people

A Syrian man carries luggage as refugees prepare to leave the Lebanese capital, Beirut to return to their homes in Syria. AFP
A Syrian man carries luggage as refugees prepare to leave the Lebanese capital, Beirut to return to their homes in Syria. AFP

There has been an assumption in recent years that the regime of Bashar Al Assad will not take back most of the millions of Syrian refugees now residing in neighbouring states. While that may be the intention of Syria’s leadership, much suggests that the situation is more complicated, and that the president does not hold all the strong cards.

Let us assume for a moment that the Syrian regime re-establishes links with two of its Arab neighbours, Lebanon and Jordan,it would be less keen than it is today to mar those relations by continuing to load them down with refugees. The Assad regime may see the refugees as valuable leverage to get what it wants out of its neighbours in terms of normalisation, but the implicit quid pro quo is that once they make concessions, Damascus must respond in kind.

Then there is the particularly sensitive reality that one of the Syrian regime’s closest allies, Hezbollah, is wary of an indefinite refugee presence in Lebanon. Most of the refugees are Sunnis, creating a Sunni majority in the country that can only worry a Shia party if the refugees were to mobilise politically. Lest this be considered unlikely, that is precisely what happened with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during the 1960s, one of the factors that facilitated the civil war of 1975.

At some point, Iran and Hezbollah, having used refugees to make the Lebanese government yield with regard to Syria, will want to put that problem behind them. Syria will be in no position to block this if the refugee presence represents a strategic threat to Hezbollah. The refugees are controllable today, but there is no guarantee they will be so indefinitely.

The refugees are controllable today, but there is no guarantee they will be so indefinitely

The same with Jordan. One of the priorities of the Assad regime is to regain a measure of Arab recognition. That means playing on Arab differences to work its way back into the regional mainstream. Jordanian approval will be important in this regard, as the monarchy can play a key mediating role with other Arab states, and the West. The refugees may provide leverage against Jordan, but the urgency of normalisation also means that Amman can have influence over Syria.

Then there is the most significant obstacle of all, Syria’s devastated economy. Today, neither Russia nor Iran is in a position to save Syria from years of economic ruin. With reconstruction estimated conservatively at $250 billion (Dh918bn), Syria is very far from having the financial means to pay for it. By way of example, the national budget for 2019 was only around $7.5bn. For decades, this inability to rebuild will represent a sword over Syria’s head.

Some might assume that because Mr Al Assad slaughtered his own population, he will not have much compunction in delaying reconstruction indefinitely. Yet the regime must also place its own supporters into the equation. There is widespread discontent even in pro-regime areas with Syria’s debilitating economic situation. For the regime to alienate its own base could threaten its durability.

The international community, with the United States in the lead, realises this. That is why it will continue to block foreign aid to Syria. The Syrian regime might try to create a flood of migrants to Europe to break European resistance, but it is far from certain that a blatant resort to blackmail will push the Europeans to say yes. If anything, it may alienate states otherwise willing to deal with Mr Al Assad.

The need for reconstruction funding will make the Syrian regime acutely vulnerable, particularly in the coming years, when Mr Al Assad will need to consolidate his political and military victory to strengthen his hold on power. This is a crucial time for the Syrian dictator, when he has to recycle himself into a leader who can win the peace. Failing to do so will very probably provoke new challenges to his rule, and this time there are no guarantees the regime will stay united if the discontent comes from within pro-government ranks.

Mr Al Assad is by no means out of the woods. The Russians and Iranians know this, but benefit from a Syrian regime that remains dependent on them. That is another reason why the Syrian leader will be under pressure to strengthen himself domestically and expand his margin of manoeuvre with regard to his hard-nosed allies. This can only be done if he can secure Arab support and outside funding for reconstruction, which would mean accepting some kind of settlement on a refugee return.

In assessing Mr Al Assad, one shouldn’t overstate his victory in the Syrian war. He sits atop a rubble heap. He is detested by millions of Syrians, tolerated by his allies, and despised worldwide. His state is bankrupt. These are so many reasons to assume that there will be many avenues to force Mr Al Assad to one day take back all those Syrians he drove away.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut

Updated: July 24, 2019 06:26 PM

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