Why has Assad’s voice calling for the return of refugees diminished?

From Bashar al-Assad's interview with Sky News - August 9, 2023 (Sky News Arabia)

From Bashar al-Assad's interview with Sky News - August 9, 2023 (Sky News Arabia)


Nine months have passed since the last time Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian regime, spoke about the return of refugees to Syria. Since then, these demands have receded, raising questions about the absence of the refugee issue in official discourse.

Al-Assad last spoke about the refugee return issue during a dialogue conducted with the UAE’s Sky News channel on August 9, 2023. He stated that “the past years have seen fewer than half a million refugees return to Syria, and none of them have been imprisoned.”

When asked why refugee returns had stopped, he said, “It stopped because of the living conditions; how can a refugee return without water, electricity, schools for their children, or healthcare? These are the basics of life.”

Al-Assad added, “Logistically, the infrastructure is destroyed due to terrorism, and this is what most refugees we communicate with say; they want to return but ask how they can live, how they can survive.”

Absent voice

After his statements to Sky News nine months ago, al-Assad’s voice demanding the return of refugees has been absent, despite his appearances in several media occurrences, where he avoided discussing the refugee return issue.

Political analyst Ahmad Mazhar Saado believes that al-Assad has always been disinterested in the return of Syrian refugees, whom he views as nurturers of the opposition and a group whose absence eases his governance. In contrast, he is trying to drive out those remaining in Syria, especially since his regime is incapable of providing food and medicine to Syrians under its control, let alone reintegrating those who were forcibly displaced.

Saado added to Enab Baladi that “Al-Assad attended the Arab Summit in Bahrain empty-handed, achieving none of the promises he had made to the Arab Quintet Committee, especially concerning refugees and their return, and the ongoing issue of Captagon exports to the Gulf countries via Jordan.”

The Syrian regime currently enjoys a temporary relief after the halting of the U.S. anti-normalization law with the regime by President Joe Biden, according to Saado, who considers this a reward for al-Assad’s silence on what is happening in Gaza.

He believes that al-Assad’s failure to fulfill promises, such as repatriating refugees and halting Captagon production, is why the Arab Liaison Committee meeting on Syria, scheduled for 8 May in Baghdad, was postponed.

According to the local Al-Watan newspaper, intense diplomatic efforts to schedule the second meeting of the Arab Liaison Committee failed to determine a new date after it was postponed due to one party’s desire for further consultations, without naming the party.

However, Al-Modon website cited a knowledgeable source indicating that Jordan played a role in postponing the Arab Liaison Committee meeting on Syria, suggesting dissatisfaction with the Syrian regime’s non-compliance with Jordan’s requirements.

The site mentioned that the new meeting of the Arab Liaison Committee on Syria is pending on the results of the consultations during its ministers’ meeting with the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, on the sidelines of the Arab Foreign Ministers’ meeting at the Arab Summit in Manama.

Does al-Assad actually want the return of refugees?

The disappearance of al-Assad’s voice calling for the return of refugees raises a question about whether he truly wants their return or discusses it superficially to extort other nations and achieve some gains.

Refugee journalist Sakhr Idris mentioned that bringing back refugees was a critical criterion in resuming relations with the Syrian regime. The regime tried to exploit this in extorting some countries seeking stability in the region, but it did not commit to promises, leading to a cooling in the seriousness of reestablishing these relations.

The regime still uses the right of return as leverage for the stability it cannot provide, according to Idris.

“Refugees represent a significant financial resource for al-Assad, especially due to the remittances they send to their country. Syrians in Europe send around three billion dollars annually in aid to their families in Syria. Al-Assad, as previously stated, is looking for a homogenous Syria, where citizens submit to his authority without objections that the returning refugees might raise, particularly as most of them oppose him,” Idris told Enab Baladi.

Al-Watan newspaper reported that the average external remittances sent by Syrians in Europe to their families in Syria in 2023 ranged between 2.5 and 3 billion dollars, despite inflation in Europe.

Idris also mentioned a structural reason: al-Assad’s inability to accommodate a large number of returning refugees and provide services for them. The continuation of their stay abroad annually brings him billions of dollars. In any event, it has become evident that the decision is not in his hands; he waits for external orders, concerned mostly with how he spends his time on games like tug-of-war to suggest that Syria is fine.

The Lebanese deputy, Ihab Matar, said a few days ago in a tweet via his account on “X“, “Simply, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not want his people. If he wanted the return of Syrian refugees, we would have seen him at the government Grand Serail demanding from our Lebanese Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, to open the border crossings for their return to their country, providing all the required guarantees.”

Challenges preventing Syrians from returning

While al-Assad no longer demands the return of refugees, there are numerous challenges that make the refugees themselves refuse the idea of returning to their country.

Amnesty International mentioned on May 13, via their account on the platform “X“, that the news that the General Directorate of General Security in Lebanon will resume the voluntary return of Syrian refugees is concerning, given the harsh pressures they face in Lebanon, in addition to Syria still not being safe, having previously documented what Syrian refugees faced from torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary arrest by al-Assad’s intelligence after their return.

Enab Baladi asked three Syrian refugees about why they do not want to return to Syria. Yahya Abu Zakaria, a refugee in Konya, Turkey, working in a mobile phone shop, said, “The deteriorated economic and service conditions in Syria do not encourage refugees to return. There are no job opportunities, the prices are very high, and services are almost non-existent such as electricity and water supplies, and fuels, so what return are they talking about?”

Mohammed al-Khatib, a Syrian refugee in Sweden from the al-Khalidiya neighborhood in Homs, has a different view, as his current reluctance to return to Syria is not due to poor economic and service conditions.

He said, “Every Syrian refugee deep inside wants to return to his country, but return is impossible under the presence of the criminal al-Assad regime that killed two of my brothers in detention as he did with thousands of Syrians.”

“Although I have obtained Swedish citizenship, I would be the first to want to return to my country if this regime falls,” added al-Khatib, “even if the economic and service conditions are bad.”

Muayyad (24 years old), a Syrian refugee in Lebanon working in construction, said, “We live in a constant state of terror while the Lebanese government continually talks about returning the refugees.”

Muayyad estimates the pressures faced by Lebanon as a country hosting about a million Syrian refugees, but returning to Syria “means sentencing us to death at the hands of al-Assad’s intelligence… because a Syrian might return and endure hunger, thirst, and cold, but will not withstand the torture in detention.”

Neighboring countries demand return of refugees

The neighboring host countries for Syrian refugees continue to demand their return, where the Minister of Interior in the caretaker government of Lebanon, Bassam Mawlawi, calls for reducing the Syrian presence in Lebanon, asserting that the presence of Syrians in this way is “unacceptable” and unbearable for Lebanon, and should be limited clearly, and that Lebanon will not accept the Syrians staying on its territory for financial gains, as reported by Lebanese media, including TV channel “MTV.”

At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023, both Jordan and Lebanon confirmed their inability to host more Syrian refugees, calling on the United Nations to find a solution to this crisis.

The Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah stated that Jordan “does not have the capacity nor the resources” to host more Syrian refugees and care for them, adding, “The future of the Syrian refugees is in their country, not in host countries. But until they can return to their homes, we must all do the right thing for them.”

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Najib Mikati, expressed his country’s concern about the number of Syrian refugees in it, saying, “We are concerned about the number of Syrian displaced persons, and Lebanon’s inability to bear any more in light of the severe economic and financial crisis we are suffering from.”

In the same context, the Turkish government continues to tighten the screws on Syrian refugees to push them to return to their country, with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stating the file of the refugees’ return in September 2023 during his attendance at the Concordia Summit in New York, where he affirmed his country’s support for the safe return of the Syrian migrants.

The final declaration of the Manama Summit emphasized the necessity to end the Syrian crisis, in line with UN Security Council resolution “2254”, and in a manner that preserves Syria’s security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, fulfilling the aspirations of its people, freeing it from “terrorism”, and providing an environment conducive to a dignified, safe, and voluntary return of refugees.

The registered number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon reaches 815,000, while the government estimates their number at about 1.5 million. Jordan hosts around 670,000 refugees, while there are about three million refugees in Turkey.


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