Refuting the populist mantra "Syrians go home"

Middle East expert Kristin Helberg has published an authoritative book on Syria. In it, she explains why the conflict there is by no means over. In her home country of Germany, however, the Syrian debate is short on hard facts and more often than not clouded by populist repatriation fantasies. By Rene Wildangel

By René Wildangel

In late April 2019, posters started appearing as though from nowhere in various locations in Berlin. They announced an astonishing piece of news: "The war is over. Syria needs you."

The group responsible for the illegally-disseminated message was the right wing radical splinter group of the Identitarian movement. Its aim was to call for the deportation of Syrian refugees back to their country of origin. Using a language that seeks to conceal its misanthropic goals and latches onto a discourse that has already gained traction in Germany. After all, not only are the voices now tabling the idea of a return to Syria increasing in number, they are also not limited to the extreme right wing.

The latest push came from Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in the BILD newspaper: "As soon as the situation allows, we will carry out repatriations," he said. This was his response to reports about Syrian nationals returning to Syria for short trips. Editor Mohammed Rabie also claimed in BILD: "For me, those who travel to Syria on holiday are pro-Assad refugees; otherwise they wouldn't fly to Damascus or Latakia."

Populism that can have dangerous consequences for Syrians. For example for those who undertake a risky home visit to see sick relatives or bury their dead.

No end in sight

Cover of Kristin Helberg’s "Der Syrien Krieg. Loesung eines Weltkonflikts" – The war in Syria. Resolving a global conflict (published in German by Herder)
Helberg macht als langjährige Beobachterin auch in ihrem neuen Sachbuch deutlich, mit welchen Mitteln der Assad-Clan in Syrien bereits seit Jahrzehnten die Macht sichert und Loyalitäten schafft: Äußerste Brutalität und eine ausgeprägte Klientelwirtschaft.

"The war appears to have reached a military conclusion, but does that mean it is over?" asks Helberg at the start of her book "Der Syrien Krieg. Loesung eines Weltkonfliktes" (The war in Syria. Resolving a global conflict) published in German in 2018. 

Her unequivocal answer is no and the reasons she gives numerous: the persistence of the Syrian regime, the discord within the opposition and the many foreign interests at play. She analyses these reasons in detail, thereby providing the very facts necessary for objective debate. That this book was barely noticed in Germany speaks volumes: not a single publication found it worthy of review.

As someone who has observed the progress of this conflict over many years, Helberg makes it clear how the Assad clan in Syria has secured power and cemented loyalty down the decades: with extreme brutality and a well-defined system of patronage.

As well as the classic pillars of Syrian control such as party, military, intelligence agencies and business elites, the war has also facilitated the rise of new criminal networks: war profiteers guilty of serious felonies who have ruthlessly lined their pockets. And paramilitary forces deployed to fight opponents characterised by their particular proximity to the regime.

Sectarian manipulation

Helberg shows how the Syrian regime has adapted itself in its dealings with its own society and how it has demonstrated true mastery in the oppression of its opponents. This is especially true of the way in which the main religious denominations and ethnic groups are cleverly played off against each other by the regime.

But Syrian society was fractured long before the start of the current conflict. An already traditional hesitancy and fear when talking about political issues has been massively exacerbated yet again by the war, arbitrary persecution of individuals by the government, and the rise of jihadist groups at a local level.

Rightly, Helberg draws attention to the fact that due to omnipresent spies and the threat of retribution, uttering personal views on the government can be fatal. Levels of popular mistrust are greatest in areas that were temporarily under opposition control. Even in the traditional ancestral homeland of the Assad family, there can be no assumption of safety these days.

Helberg reminds us again how far-reaching the hopes for democratic change were in different parts of the country. She recalls the civilian forces of the failed revolution, people who took to the streets without ideological blinkers because they wanted one thing above all else: change and an end to paternalism by the dictatorship.

Among them were many who had been involved in reform efforts or political protest long before 2011. People like Yassin al-Haj Salah, one of the most important secular, democratic visionaries of the revolution. Across the entire country, there were impressive experiments in local self-administration and direct democracy.

Failure across the board

But there was little support from abroad for this. The militarisation and radicalisation of the rebellion pushed other interests to the fore – and left behind a hopelessly divided opposition.

While Russia and Iran backed the Assad dictatorship, Helberg accuses the E.U. and the U.S. of indecisiveness: above all in their dealings with the genuine democratic Syrian opposition in the country, which they allowed to fall very early on. And in the protection of the civilian population they failed across the board. This means Europe itself played a part in the situation that is today so de-contextualised with the term "refugee crisis", as though this were a phenomenon of nature.

This situation has not come to an end, not by a long shot: while Russian-Syrian bombardments continue in Idlib, the UN says up to two million people may try to flee the province.

Syrian democracy activists from the north Syrian town of Kafranbel in Idlib province (photo: Dawlati)
Helberg ruft in ihrem Sachbuch nochmal in Erinnerung, wie weitreichend die Hoffnungen in verschiedenen Landesteilen auf einen demokratischen Wandel waren. Sie erinnert an die zivilen Kräfte der gescheiterten Revolution, die ohne ideologische Scheuklappen auf die Straße gegangen waren, weil sie vor allem eines wollten: Veränderung und ein Ende der Gängelung durch die Diktatur.

There have been frequent targeted attacks on humanitarian targets such as hospitals, the co-ordinates of which the United Nations had passed on to Russia for their protection. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people subjected to torture in Syrian prisons are still waiting for political initiatives to end their suffering and that of their loved ones. Meanwhile nations such as Turkey or Lebanon, hosting millions of refugees, are breaking international law by deporting Syrians back to their homeland.

No protection for persecuted persons

Things aren't nearly as bad in Germany yet. In a 2018 status report, the Foreign Ministry issued the following assessment: "In no part of Syria is there full, long-term and reliable protection for persecuted persons."

Nevertheless, German politicians are also increasingly adopting the "reconstruction" narrative. The views of the many Syrians now in Germany who are politically active here are rarely heard in this discussion. The reconstruction discourse, Helberg explains, is used by Assad specifically as an instrument of power. It is a way for him to exclude millions of refugees and expropriate their property by law.

His cronies are the intended beneficiaries. There is also a danger that international aid will flow indirectly into coffers propping up the regime via the United Nations, which is working together with the government. Helberg is certain that the nation's internal conflicts cannot be solved with Assad still in power. For this reason she is against a "normalisation" of policies towards Assad.

But several politicians are constantly working on exactly that. The right-wing AfD is not the only party to have already sent a parliamentary delegation to the Syrian capital. Back in 2018, Bavaria's Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann called for the deportation of "those who pose a threat" and criminals back to the war-torn nation.

Ahead of the most recent conference of interior ministers in June 2019, he is on record as saying that "there has been some stabilisation" of the situation in Syria. He is not the only one for whom Kristin Helberg's book should be compulsory reading.

Rene Wildangel

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon


Rene Wildangel is a historian and writes on a range of subjects but with a special focus on the Middle East.