Earlier this week, the Russian police opened a reconciliation center in the countryside of Homs, Syria. The purpose of this center is to facilitate the return of people living in opposition-held areas to their original places of residence that are under the control of the Syrian regime. This comes after the regime’s security services arrested people returning to their home areas. However, in view of these arrests, can this strategy increase the number of displaced returning to their areas?
The Amman-based Syrian writer and journalist, Mohammed Abdul Sattar Ibrahim, ruled out the success of the Russian center in attracting displaced Syrians to reconcile with the regime and return to areas under its control, citing several reasons. At the same time, he suggested the return of a small number of people from a particular camp whose residents suffer from difficult living conditions.
Ibrahim told Majalla, “The Russian center cannot succeed in returning people from the opposition areas to their original areas. They have already lost confidence in the regime after it controlled, along with the Russians, the majority of the areas that were held by the opposition. This is what happened in Daraa Governorate in 2018. Therefore, the presence of the Russians in these areas today raises their fears even more, which prevents them from returning to their original areas under any pretext, whether it might be reconciliation or settlement, etc.”
RECONCILIATION IS POSSIBLE IS RUKBAN CAMP
He added to Majalla: “In the Rukban camp, the situation is somehow different. Many of its residents have returned to the regime’s areas and were subjected to violations by the regime after their return. However, despite the bad and difficult conditions inside the camp, where aid is not allowed to enter, water is not available nor are medical centers, yet some people return. I think it is possible that the elderly residents of the camp will agree to return to their villages, unlike the young men who fear of death under torture after their arrest.”
Rukban camp is located in a desert area on the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi borders. It is an irregular camp where thousands of Syrian families have lived for years. Most of its residents refuse to return to the regime-held areas for fear of arrest or conscription by the army. However, the Russian reconciliation center is located in Homs countryside, which is the area from which most of the camp residents come, and this may contribute to the return of some of them from the camp to their villages and towns. Then why do most of them refuse to return?
Ibrahim stressed that, “people no longer trust Russia. The reconciliations that took place in all areas of Damascus countryside, Daraa governorate, and the northern countryside of Homs have proven that the Russians were not reliable guarantors. Many of those who made reconciliation or settlement with the regime in Daraa governorate, for example, did not face any problem in the first six months. After that, however, there were those who were arrested, others who were forced to join the army, and others who were assassinated. Therefore, those experiences proved to be a failure and Syrians were not encouraged to repeat them in the countryside of Homs.”
MOSCOW FAILED TO CONTROL SECURITY SERVICES, IRANIAN-BACKED MILITIAS
Ibrahim also revealed the reasons for the failure of this reconciliation and settlement. He said they are related to the failure of the Russians “to compel the regime and the Iranian-backed militias not to harm people and to prevent violations of their rights upon their return.”
In this regard, he also said that, “in 2018, Moscow tried to open reconciliation centers in Jordan for the return of refugees, but it failed to do so, considering that it is a participant in the conflict and is not a neutral party, which prevents the refugees from trusting it.”
Although the reconciliations and settlements made by Russia in the past did not contribute to the return of the displaced and refugees to their home areas, Moscow seems to see this initiative as the only solution for the return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their original locations.
MOSCOW COMMITTED TO RECONCILIATION AND RETURN OF SYRIA TO PRE-2011 ERA
Russian political analyst Andrey Ontikov said, “Russia is still open to everyone who wants reconciliation. It is no secret that many of the Syrian population have not yet returned to their normal lives, as is the case in the countryside of Homs province, amidst tensions over Al-Tanf US military base there. Washington encourages some armed groups to launch military attacks, but Moscow nevertheless opens the doors to reconciliation.”
He added to Majalla, “Moscow does not in any way whatsoever discard the idea of returning Syria and its people to their normal life at it was before the current crisis. For this reason, repatriation is open to the residents of the Rukban camp, so that there will be reconciliations in which Moscow plays the role of mediator. The question is, will the US allow the camp residents to go to the new Russian center for reconciliation?”
He also noted, “Russia is ready to provide assistance to those who want reconciliation, as it plays the role of mediator for the return of the refugees to their normal lives. The problem, however, lies in the intervention of Washington, which does not want the Syrian crisis to end. It benefits from it and plays a role in sabotaging any attempts at peace. Moscow nevertheless succeeded in the past in conducting several reconciliations between the government, its armed opposition and civilians alike, and it is doing the same today.”
LOCAL PERSONNEL COOPERATE WITH THE RUSSIAN CENTER
Local sources told Majalla that, “the reconciliation center has already started operating, as the committees affiliated with the center are registering the names of those wishing to return to the regime's areas. The turnout, however, has so far been low.” According to the sources, “the reasons why people are not returning to regime areas primarily revolve around the fact that security services have been recently deliberately arresting those who return to regime areas.”
According to the previous sources, the Fourth Division of the Syrian regime army led by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the regime’s president, undertakes the task of arresting those returning to their areas, whether from the Rukban camp or from other areas under opposition control.
They confirmed that members of the security checkpoints in the countryside of Homs are from the Fourth Division.
Local personnel have been cooperating with the Russian center to convince the people of Homs countryside residing in opposition areas to return to their homelands.
According to local sources, in addition to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the new reconciliation center provides those wishing to return to regime areas with a card bearing Russian seals, containing a warning not to harm its holders for any reason.
A number of residents of the towns of Al-Sukhnah and Al-Qaryatayn who are residing in Rukban camp said that, “the Russian center was opened after a number of returnees from the camp were arrested. The Russians therefore opened this center as a guarantee that those who return from the camp to their original areas would not be arrested.”
Despite the media promotion of the new center in July, only 13 families collectively left the Rukban camp, in addition to the departure of five young men and two children, as reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
MOSCOW AIMS TO SHUT DOWN RUKBAN CAMP
According to sources close to the office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, Moscow's goal in opening the new reconciliation center is to turn the page on the Rukban camp. The committees affiliated with the new center are working to register the names of those wishing to return to their villages and then to return the largest number of Rukban residents in an attempt by Moscow to shut the camp down.
About 10,000 displaced people are currently living in this camp, which was established in 2014 in the middle of the Syrian desert on the borders with Jordan and Iraq. However, years ago, the number of its residents was more than 40,000. They were living in the camp after fleeing the ongoing battles inside Syria, but they were unable to enter Jordan and found themselves stranded near the border.
PROTECTING RETURNEES IS THE REGIME’S RESPONSIBILITY
During the past years, tens of thousands of people left the camp to escape the difficult living situation. Most of them headed to areas under the control of regime forces after the defectors or former opposition fighters signed settlement agreements that were supposed to protect them from persecution by security forces. Still, many returnees were arrested according to human rights organizations, most notably, Amnesty International.
A source from the UN office in Damascus told Majalla that, “the responsibility of protecting the returnees from the camp to the regime's areas is the responsibility of security services.”
At the beginning of this month, the Jordanian authorities expelled five young Syrians from Jordanian territories to the Rukban camp.
The residents of the camp, which Moscow is seeking to empty, depend on smuggled food and medical supplies.
Rukban stretches within a 55-kilometer radius of security zone set up by the international coalition led by Washington. The coalition established there Al-Tanf military base, and anti-Assad fighters backed by Washington are deployed in the area.
CAMP IS BESIEGED
Patients residing in the camp face death due to the lack of medicines. On June 5, a pregnant woman in her eighth month lost her baby due to both a lack of medicines as well as a medical center that could monitor her condition.
Earlier this month, official observers of the war accused the regime forces as well as the Iranian and Russian militias of imposing a heavy siege on the residents of Rukban camp since May, in order to force its residents to return to regime-controlled areas.
This ongoing siege has led to a hike in prices of food and medicine, since they enter the camp illegally through local traders, most of whom are associated with the regime.