Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

The year 2021 has been a decade since Syria’s uprisings erupted, and the country is still trapped in poverty and violence.

What began as a brutal repression of protests against the government later became a complex battlefield involving international armies, local militias and foreign fighters.

Some 500,000 people have been killed in the past 10 years, and millions have been forced to flee the country, but President Bashar al-Assad remains entrenched in power, thanks to military support from Iran and Russia.

This year saw a significant increase in efforts to restore normalization of ties between al-Assad’s government in Damascus and countries that once called for its downfall.

But analysts say it was also a year in which normalization efforts failed to disguise the continuing brutality of life in Syria, marked by extreme economic hardship, authoritarianism, human rights abuses and conflict.

Many exiled Syrians have been reluctant to return to the country in 2021, while many people in Syria are still trying to flee.

Standardization Attempts

In particular, the United Arab Emirates sought in 2021 to rekindle relations with al-Assad.

In October, the Emirati Ministry of Economy said it had agreed with its Syrian counterpart promote trade and economic cooperation after the economists of both countries met on the sidelines at Dubai Expo 2020.

Next month, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Assad visits in Damascus, the first Emirati official to do so since 2011, and discussed the improvement of bilateral and commercial ties.

The moves came after the UAE concluded that al-Assad “won the war”, according to Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International, as the Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian government forces occupy the vast majority of territory occupied by rebels was taken, recaptured. last few years.

“[The UAE] “I do not like al-Assad’s close relationship with Iran, but on the other hand he was also an enemy of their own enemy, Turkey,” Lund told Al Jazeera.

Abu Dhabi’s deepening ties with the Syrian government are part of a broader policy to broaden its “outreach across the region,” Lund said.

“They are retreating a bit from conflict and confrontation, and rate-correcting after a very intense decade full of conflicts … to establish working relationships,” he added.

Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian author and researcher at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, agreed. He said the UAE’s decision to resume ties came because they saw the threat to Iran grow amid a weaker approach by the United States in the region.

“The UAE has consequently decided to adopt a ‘no enemy, no problem’ approach in its foreign policy,” Kabalan told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, neighboring Jordan and Lebanon have also taken steps to restore ties with Syria, urging the US to ease sanctions against Damascus to strengthen trade.

At the end of September, Jordan fully reopens the Nassib-Jaber border crossing to help strengthen its debt-ridden economy, which was further damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On October 3, King Abdullah II receive a call of al-Assad, their first conversation in a decade. Abdullah expressed Jordan’s support for “efforts to preserve Syria’s sovereignty, stability, territorial integrity and people”.

Lebanon, which is facing a crippling economic crisis of its own, has also taken steps to restore ties with Damascus for security coordination, trade and facilitating the return of refugees.

The country is home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, of whom about 90 percent live in extreme poverty, according to the United Nations. The cash-strapped country is also finalizing a U.S.-backed agreement to supply it with electricity with Egyptian natural gas through Jordan and Syria.

But Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera there was “no profitable investment” in Damascus – politically or economically.

“Politics has in the first place shown no willingness to deviate from the reasons behind its isolation. “It is also difficult to imagine that any Arab investment can balance against a deep – rooted Iranian influence in Syria,” Khalifa said.

Syrian reconciliation efforts fail

Lund says normalization efforts will not lead to any viable political reconciliation in Syria.

Ultimately, normalization seems more like a “political government-to-government issue that will not immediately seep through to affect individual Syrians,” Lund said.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which set out a transition to a viable political resolution in Syria, continued in 2021 to continue.

The UN-moderated rounds in January and October on constitutional reforms hit the rocks as representatives of government, opposition and civil society have failed to make significant progress. UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen called it a “major disappointment”.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government held presidential elections in May in which al-Assad 95 percent of votes cast. The polls were widely condemned by opposition groups and Western states as not free or fair.

And within Syria, government-reclaimed territories are struggling with their own reconciliation agreements.

A 2018 Russian-mediated de-escalation between the Syrian government and opposition forces in the southern province of Deraa fell apart this year after the Syrian army besiege the city of Deraa al-Balad for more than two months, depriving some 20,000 people of adequate food and medicine.

Armed clashes, assassinations and violent crime take place daily to this day across the southwestern province.

‘Economic Desert’

The economy in Syria – whether in government-controlled areas, opposition-controlled Idlib, or areas in the northeast controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces – is dire.

Lund calls the country an “economic wasteland” as 80 percent of Syrians live a poverty.

In northeastern Syria, an ongoing water crisis caused a public health and economic disaster for tens of thousands of people, amid drought and with water pumping facilities not in use.

According to humanitarian agency Save the Children, since April 2021, there have been more than 56,000 cases of acute diarrhea in northeastern Syria and more than 17,000 cases of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease.

Meanwhile, Turkish-backed opposition forces and Kurdish-led forces continue to exchange fire between the provinces in sporadic flares.

The Turkish financial crisis spilled over into the northwestern province of Idlib, which adopted the Turkish currency more than a year ago.

For 4.4 million people living in the province, fuel, bread and basic expenses are out of reach as they struggle to cope with the declining lira and inflation. The Syrian and Russian armies continue to bomb Idlib with airstrikes that have killed many civilians.

Parts of Syria controlled by the government are particularly struggling with an electricity crisis due to ill-fated infrastructure of the conflict, and Western sanctions against the al-Assad government.

‘Safe zones only for the regime’

In 2021, many countries tried to facilitate the repatriation of Syrian refugees – despite continued hardship and security fears in the country.

Over the past five years, more than 282,000 Syrian refugees have returned home to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch.

Most told the New York-based right-wing dog their reason was the lack of jobs and access to health care and other services in their host countries and their interest in trying to reclaim their homes and property. Some also believed that the security situation was indeed safer.

However, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other organizations have a myriad of human rights violations documented and offenses that returnees faced in 2021, including extrajudicial killings, torture, kidnappings and sexual violence.

Despite this, countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Cyprus have expressed an interest in facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to what they call “safe zones”. Cyprus, Greece and Hungary reopened their embassies in the Syrian capital this year.

Denmark, meanwhile, was set on 90 deporting Syrian refugees to the war-torn country, but reversed the decision to international pressure.

Many Syrians remain reluctant to return, while many in Syria are still trying to leave the country. Syrian asylum seekers in Cyprus told Al Jazeera that they were unable to lead a safe life with the economic crisis and unpredictable security situation.

Khaled *, a 26-year-old from Azaz, left for Turkey via the European island in 2020 and hopes his wife and children can join him if he gets refugee status.

“You can not ensure a decent existence for your children, and you do not know when the next round of clashes will take place,” he told Al Jazeera.

Another Syrian, 47-year-old Mahmoud *, told Al Jazeera that he had left for Syria via boat with his wife and four children. He lived in Lebanon for most of the conflict and was able to deal with the economic crisis there which brought more than three-quarters of the population into poverty.

He does not believe that the areas where the conflict has subsided in Syria can still be considered safe for return.

“Safe zones are safe zones for those who are with the regime,” Mahmoud * said. “But you know the Syrian intelligence agencies. It is impossible for us to really know if we are safe with them in the area. “

Jasmine Lilian Diab, director of the Institute for Migration Studies and assistant professor at the US University of Lebanon, says the threat of forced return, or the deployment of other obstacles to safe migration such as setbacks at sea, will not combat migration.

“At best, they endanger migrants. “It only allows them to use more difficult ways to cross a border, and also puts them in more danger and in aggravated contexts of vulnerability, especially for women and children,” Diab said.

“They are more likely to work with human and sex traffickers and cross borders in a very violent way.”

Syrians increasingly chose to take more dangerous routes to find a new home in Europe in 2021. In December, many Syrians were among asylum seekers and migrants trying to enter Poland through Belarus in harsh winter conditions, with several Syrians dying.

Despite this, Karam Shaar, research director of Sirian think-tank Operations and Policy Center, expects more Syrians to try to leave the country in the coming year.

“Young people, displaced people and those who are struggling economically really want to leave – I would say it’s a combination for both security and economic reasons,” Shaar told Al Jazeera.

He adds that although the conflict has subsided, “the nature of the violence has changed” in government-controlled areas that are often considered safe zones.

“Instead of running the risk of being bombed, you are now running the risk of being arbitrarily detained for repression.”

* Name changed for security reasons.

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