Recent Initiatives Offer Some Possible Answers
In the aftermath of the Helsinki Summit and references to moving forward on humanitarian assistance to the Syrian refugees, there were questions about what would be proposed as initiatives for longer-term solutions. Hezbollah’s Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah had already announced its initiative for a tripartite mechanism with Syrian authorities and Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security to move forward on the issue. According to a Reuters report, “In a televised speech, Nasrallah said Hezbollah was establishing a mechanism to return ‘the biggest possible number’ of Syrians refugees who want to go home safely and voluntarily. We are ready to help ... and we will continue helping until this matter is settled politically and officially between the Lebanese and Syrian governments,” he added.
The announcement indicated that Hezbollah was not acting independently of the Lebanese government. Rather, it was acting as an interlocutor between the two states since there was no consensus on the Lebanese side on how it should negotiate with the Assad government on any issues. Given that the General Security had been given the refugee return portfolio by President Aoun, Nasrallah’s statement sidestepped that concern. It also noted that “In the next few months, Hezbollah will directly collect requests for returns from refugees, deliver them to Syrian authorities, and coordinate with General Security.”
This opening was greatly enlarged last week with the Russian announcement of its initiative to move aggressively on refugee resettlement. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, “It sent Washington a proposal for drawing up a joint action plan to bring Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere back to the places where they lived before Syria's civil war broke out in 2011 -- a goal repeatedly espoused by US President Donald Trump since taking office. Specific proposals on how work could be organized to ensure that refugees can return home have been sent to the American side."
In specifying that the refugees would be returned “back to the places where they lived before Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011,” the announcement challenges allegations that the Syrian regime is planning to use resettlement programs to strengthen its presence in certain areas. Given that this was a state-to-state proposal, without specifying Hezbollah as an intermediary, it was endorsed quickly by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
His office said that “Prime Minister Hariri welcomed any efforts by Moscow to ‘develop a joint plan for the return of Syrian refugees, especially from Lebanon and Jordan, and the formation of a joint working group in accordance with the Russian declaration.’” It is not known if there is any US role envisioned for the eventual plan that is yet another move diminishing the US presence in the region.
As the Reuters article continued, “…US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the UN that ‘There was a discussion between President Trump and President Putin about the resolution in Syria and how we might get the refugees back. It's important that at the right time, through a voluntary mechanism, the refugees are able to return to their home country. There is lots of work to do to figure out how to implement that, but the United States certainly wants to be part of helping to achieve that resolution in Syria.’"
The US seems to be playing catch-up, issuing no corresponding statement after Russia’s announcement. This is not surprising since senior policy leadership at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs is still awaiting Senate confirmation. One concern about Russia’s move is that it may lead to increased pressure on the US to reduce its footprint in the east of Syria, a goal sought by Assad and by Iran, and by President Trump.
In fact, according to an ABC News story, General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, expressed his reluctance to jump on the proposal. “I think if we went beyond that [current military cooperation], I think there would have to be some level of trust, confidence-building, that would need to take place before we would feel confident that we were moving in the right direction. I think it's a different step when you go to coordination or synchronization or some level of mutual support or alliance between each other.” Votel cited Russia’s continuing support for the Assad regime in Syria following chemical attacks on civilians and false claims of Russian troop reductions as reasons to be hesitant about possible future cooperation.
Russia also proposed a joint group with the United States to finance the reconstruction of Syrian infrastructure, which has been over 70% destroyed in some areas. So far, Western countries have not signed onto any effort that does not involve the UN or UN-sponsored negotiation efforts to end the civil war. As the Reuters article concluded, “The proposed deal with Trump may be the first to officially endorse Russia's leading role in efforts to rebuild and resettle the country without UN involvement and with Assad still fully in control of the government.”
While the US and Russia continue to pursue their interests, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are anticipating good news with the opening of border crossings as the last resistance fighters leave the border areas. Jordan and Lebanon saw more than half of their export markets dry up when the Syrian civil war effectively closed access to their largest markets for agricultural and manufactured products. Now that security is gradually improving, and with the promise of improved infrastructure to move goods, there is strong anticipation that next year will be the re-start of regional cross-border trade.