Syrians are coming back

UN estimates that about 800,000 Syrians have explicitly stated that they want to go home right now

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Singapore last week, seemingly spent as much time with his Iranian and Turkish colleagues there, as he did with Asean foreign ministers. 

We are talking about the annual Ministerial week, when Asean top diplomats are supposed to discuss South-East Asian’s affairs with their partners from the outside.

But why anyone in the region should mind some of these partners taking a break to discuss one the world’s most important conflicts, namely the Syrian one.

There are two main features of the Syrian situation by now. One is that virtually all the post-war settlements have been managed by Russia, Iran and Turkey (not to mention Syrians themselves).

So, they meet and talk everywhere all the time. Two, the main subject of these discussions is the return of about one million Syrians back home in the nearest future, with more to follow.

To note, about 1.5 million of refugees have already returned between September 2015 and now, according to the United Nations (UN) data.

The UN estimates that about 800,000 Syrians have explicitly stated that they want to go home right now. Ten thousand of those are based in Lebanon, while 200,000 in Jordan.

Turkey, which houses 3.5 million of estimated 6.8 million who left their country, is cautiously mentioning “hundreds of thousands” wanting to go back.

So, Russia has proposed to the UN to create a comprehensive database of everyone who left Syria in the wartime and wants to go back — or doesn’t want it. The people at the UN immediately liked the idea.

That simple fact demonstrates the role Russia has started to play in the whole Syrian tangle by now.

Russia is, simply speaking, finding itself in a position of a top manager of the post-war restoration of a nation and the surrounding region.

You have to remember that the Russian military did a lot of non-military things even at the active stage of hostilities.

Like, say, directing the huge humanitarian effort at the times of the Aleppo siege.

As a result, the civilians were safely guided out, the city was mostly intact, and finally the people just went back home.

The fate of Mosul in Iraq is somewhat different, there are no homes to go to in many cases.

There is a military cum diplomatic side of the current Russian effort. When Israel recently began to hit targets in Syria, Russia — being in constant contact with Israel — has learned that the real reason for its fretting is the prospect of seeing Iranians on the Israeli border at the Golan Heights (taken from Syria in 1967).

So Russia talked to Iran and, as a result, Israelis now see only the Russian peacekeepers across that line of control.

There is also a question of global negotiations about next to everything, from refugees to a problem of the post-war rebuilding.

By now all the action is in the “Astana process” (launched in the mentioned capital of Kazakhstan), with the same Russia, Turkey and Iran at the centre.

So far, there is only France and, tentatively, Japan who decided to join the “Astana” team and give some aid to returning Syrians. How about the rest?

Here we have a most puzzling problem. The US and some of their close allies are suspended in an awkward position.

Joining the Russian team, with Iran in it, looks preposterous. Admitting that the Syrian government has won looks sad. Doing nothing looks un-superpowerish… but that’s what happens anyway.

And there are people in the US who dislike that suspended state of things. Look at the recent article in the Foreign Affairs magazine.

It said: “The US must accept that ignoring Syria will lead not to a clean victory for (Syrian president) Bashar al-Assad who establishes a stable peace, but to more chaos down the road. To avoid that, the US should invest now…in strengthening the military and governance capabilities of its partners on the ground, regaining the trust of Syria’s rebelling population, rebuilding rebel forces.”

That’s interesting. So peace is war, and “rebuilding rebel forces” is… peace? There may be some logic here, if you really believe that the war was about Syrians hating their leader and rebelling against him.

But wait a minute, how about all these hundreds of thousands Syrians going back home? Surely, if all of them hate Bashar, then Bashar has no chance in a very near future. And also, in that case, he’d want these people to stay out of Syria. But he doesn’t.

So how about the simple truth that the war had been won, thanks not only to Russia or Iran, but also due to an obvious domestic support to Bashar, or at least a wide public acceptance of his rule, and that support will stay on, or increase, after his victory?

Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia.