A whole new phase is starting as the state recovers control of its borders and refugees begin to return
By Abdel Bari Atwan
The surprises keep coming in Syria, one after the other. They reflect radical changes in the local, regional and international dynamics that have long governed the conflict ravaging the country. Following the Syrian Arab Army’s recovery of the town of as-Sukhna in the governorate of Homs, it has now taken control of the an-Nusaib area bordering Jordan for the first time in five years, during which the local crossing between the two countries was completely closed.
After the Syrian military first withdrew from the area, the Jordanian authorities established, armed and trained the so-called Tribal Army to fill the resulting vacuum. They maintain that this force was only ever created to fight the Islamic State (IS), and has now been officially ordered to evacuate its positions and leave the way open for the Syrian army to retake them.
Whatever the real reasons for this move, and regardless who was behind the decision to withdraw the militia, the Syrian army’s comeback to Nusaib is a strategic achievement. It affirms that the Syrian state is steadily regaining control of most of the country’s major border crossings.
The Bab al-Hawa crossing to Turkey in Idlib governorate in the north is the main border crossing that remains outside the influence of the Syrian state and army. It is held by forces affiliated to Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham – formerly the Nusra Front – which seized it from the Ahrar ash-Sham coalition in bloody fighting. A campaign to bring the crossing, and Idlib as a whole, back under state control can be expected to launched soon, given that Nusra – designated as terrorist by the Americans and Russians alike – is, along with IS, not party to the recently negotiated de-escalation zone agreements.
What can be said for sure is that the MOC – the Amman-based Military Operations Centre established by the US and its allies to supervise, arm and train armed opposition groups and run the war in southern Syria – has finally shut up shop. It has washed its hands of its erstwhile clients and left them to face their inevitably painful fate alone.
The return of the Syrian Arab Army to the south is potentially a bad omen for the Israeli occupation state, and good news for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Bad for Israel because it means it will be face-to-face with Syrian army forces from Quneitra and the occupied Golan Heights. Good for the refugees because it opens the road wide for their return to Syria from the misery of the refugee camps.
According to UN statistics, more than 600,000 Syrian refugees have returned to their country since the start of this year, over half of them to Aleppo due to improved security and economic conditions, prompting many to try to recover their properties. This may be a modest figure in comparison to the six million who have been turned by the war into refugees or displaced persons. But it is hugely significant: it indicates that a reverse exodus has begun.
Many of the Syrians who have experienced unprecedented suffering as refugees, whether in Arab countries or elsewhere, appreciated that they were subjected to a grand deception at the hands of both global and regional powers. They would rather return to live in their towns and villages, even if in the ruins of homes destroyed by the war, than put up with the deprivations and all manner of racism and discrimination they encountered in exile.
The signs are mounting that the war in Syria may be nearing its end: The externally-backed opposition, both its political and armed variants, is in complete disarray. The US has halted its programmes for arming and training rebels. Most of the Arab and Western states that were determined to topple Bashar al-Asad now concede that he will remain in power for the time being. Saudi Arabia’s decision to broaden the participation of Syrian opposition groups and figures in its client High Committee for Negotiations (HCN), bringing in the Cairo and Moscow platforms, plus the resignation of Riad Hijab as HNC president and growing speculation that Ahmad al-Jarba will be named as his successor, are further indications that the Syrian scene is changing fast and a new and completely different phase is beginning.
Against this backdrop, increasing numbers of displaced Syrians can be expected to return home, both from neighbouring countries and internal exile. There is an urgent need for them to be provided with a minimum level of assistance pending the start of a proper large-scale reconstruction process. It is incumbent on the Arab states that played such a big part in the destruction of Syria, along with their US and European allies, to set up a fund to assist these returning refugees, and bear some responsibility for the devastation they have so recklessly wreaked.
End in sight
Syria is capable of recovering from the trauma it has experienced and resuming its pioneering role. Its people are among the most dynamic, proactive, creative and productive in the world. The knowledge that their country, its social fabric and its national and territorial unity have been targeted will redouble their determination to rebuild.
The Syrian state is making a come-back, with ever-quickening steps, thanks to the steadfastness of its army and the support of its allies throughout the worst years of the crisis. This is a development of exceptional importance which is worth watching closely. It means that one phase is ending and another is beginning.
The next ‘surprise’ to be anticipated could be a broader normalization of relations between Jordan and Syria in the security, political and economic spheres, with a Syrian ambassador returning to Amman and Jordanian officials showing up in Damascus. This may happen within a matter of weeks, if not days.