Chapter 8 The Return of Refugees and the Reconstruction in Syria

Ibrahim Awad

*Ibrahim Awad is Professor of Practice in Global Affairs and Director of the Center for Migration and Refugees Studies (CMRS) at The American University in Cairo (AUC). He holds a BSc in Political Science from Cairo University and a PhD in Political Science from the Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development Studies, University of Geneva, Switzerland. His research interests encompass global governance and international organisation, regionalism and regional integration, international migration and refugee studies as well as employment, and human rights. Dr. Awad’s research particularly bears on the Arab World, the Middle East, Africa, and the Euro-Mediterranean region.


The active intervention of Russia and Iran, and the practical support of Turkey, have allowed the authorities in Damascus to emerge as victors in the military confrontations that have plagued the Syrian civil conflict. The authorities in Damascus are now in control of almost the entire Syrian territory. The return of the millions of refugees has become a priority issue in attempts at finding a settlement for the Syrian conflict for two reasons. First reason is the insistence of some hosts (e.g. EU) who refuse to subject the return on prior conditions. Secondly, for the prevailing national-regional-international alliance (e.g. Syria-Iran and Hezbollah-Russia), the return of refugees would signal recognition of the control of Syrian territory by the Damascus authorities, which would reinforce their legitimacy. This is particularly true for these Damascus authorities as well as for their Russian and Iranian allies.

Regardless of these prevailing actors’ preferences, in international refugee law, the return must be voluntary, which involves not only the free will of refugees but also preparedness. Current studies show most of the Syrian refugees have a strong feeling to go back. The very modest actual return so far, despite the refugees’ avowed wish to go back home someday, reveal their lack of preparedness. Of the 5,648,000 registered refugees, only 2.8 percent returned to Syria between 2016 and April 2019.

Reconstruction of the destroyed country is necessary to prepare the environment for the return. However, neither actors directly concerned by the presence of refugees nor those that have buttressed the Damascus authorities have the necessary resources to finance reconstruction. In principle, all Lebanese actors agree on excluding local integration as a durable solution for the Syrian refugees in their country. The economic burden borne by Lebanon to host the refugees is one argument repeatedly articulated. Russia does not have these resources for the reconstruction, but has made the refugees’ return to Syria an incentive for Germany to finance reconstruction. Last but not least, China appears to be in a better position to contribute to Syrian reconstruction than Russia, Iran and the EU. However, China’s geographic distance from and absence of historical traditional ties to Syria do not support China’s potential role as a major actor in Syria’s reconstruction.

Those who do have them, particularly the European Union, condition their participation in financing reconstruction on the establishment of political discussions in which all parties are involved and the subsequent achievement of a political settlement. The EU’s attitude towards the authorities in Damascus, whom they have considered responsible for the conflict from its very beginning, constitutes the first factor conditioning its participation in Syria’s reconstruction. Moreover, EU would not like their participation in Syria’s reconstruction to contribute to the reinforcement of Russia’s position in the Middle East. As for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, may pursue through participating in Syria’s reconstruction to balance against Iran’s influence in Syria. However, controversy exists with regard to the financial resources at the disposal of particularly Saudi Arabia. The cost to Saudi Arabia of the war in Yemen most likely weighs in some arguments used in this controversy. In addition, a complete reversal of Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards the Damascus authorities may be difficult to realize without a face-saving political settlement.

Thus, a linkage between refugee return, political settlement, and reconstruction is established. The relationship between these factors are in a stalemate. Breaking this stalemate requires all involved parties to reconsider their own priorities progress may also be realized through a delicate process of political reconstruction that takes account of realities on the ground, as well as the positions, aspirations, and interests of concerned national, regional, and international actors. For the actors with resources, the promise of participation in reconstruction is a lever to modify the terms of the political situation resulting from the Damascus military prevalence. Because the Damascus authorities do not feel compelled to bargain with the militarily vanquished, reconstruction is in a stalemate and, by way of consequence, so also is a significant return of refugees. The stalemate will only be broken when the Damascus authorities realize that for reconstruction to materialize they need to bargain directly or indirectly with its potential financiers.