Despite the Bashar al-Assad regime’s recent recapture of swathes of southwestern Syria, notably in Eastern Ghouta and Deraa, security concerns hamper prospects of return for the Syrian refugee community in Jordan. Over half of Jordan’s 660,000 registered Syrian refugees originated from the contested south, which includes Deraa, Quneitra, Suweida, and rural Damascus. This number could in fact be greater, as many of Jordan’s estimated 643,000 unregistered Syrians crossed into Jordan from the neighboring southwestern provinces, particularly Deraa, during the kingdom’s “open-border policy” that ended in 2015. For this reason, the southwest is likely to be the primary destination for returnees.
Prior to the regime’s southwest offensive, perceptions of improved safety and security, as well as a desire to reunite with family members, were incentive enough for about 17,000 Syrians to self-organize their return between January 2016 and June 2018. However, demographic shifts, widespread destruction, fear of arrest or detainment by the government, and forced conscription are likely to deter further returns. Mohammed, a refugee in Jordan who was formerly detained in Syria, explained, “The regime can send me back to jail. I know two or three men who were detained when they returned. Even though I did not do anything, there is a high chance that the government will detain me.” Ismail, another Syrian refugee, said, “We have no place to return. We lost many family members… If I decide to go back, I might be forced to [fight in] Idlib.”
Attempts by the Russia-led Astana process to provide safe de-escalation zones to incentivize Syrians to go home have largely collapsed after Russia and the Syrian military launched full-scale offensives to recapture these areas, particularly Deraa and Eastern Ghouta. Most refugees from Deraa interviewed in Jordan did not trust these zones because they were created to fit the interests of the conflict’s major players—Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Jordan—not Syrians. Fatimah, a Syrian student in the Zaatari camp, expressed, “I love my country. I want to go back to my hometown in Deraa, but unfortunately, my family and I do not trust anyone there, not even the Free Syrian Army.”
For Jordan, securing and rebuilding southwestern Syria to create conditions suitable for refugee return would require diplomatic engagement with Russia and the Syrian government. Jordan has expressed that it is waiting to open its borders for trade, commerce, and civilian traffic until it is safe on the other side. More specifically, they are waiting for the removal of potential spoilers, such as Iran-backed groups, who might send Syrians fleeing across the border again. Russia’s thin presence in the south is likely not enough to secure the region from a resurgence of violence, but Jordan has the opportunity to work with Russia to create a counter-terrorism and security force out of “reconciled” opposition groups—who have the choice to leave an area the regime has retaken or be integrated into the military. These forces could dismantle the residual terrorist networks on Jordan’s northern border and provide security in the southwest to enable reconstruction.
Importantly, securing southwestern Syria would allow Jordan to reopen the border, which has been closed since 2015 due to security concerns, and lessen its economic burdens. An open border would give it access to markets in southern Syria and trade routes to the broader region. More specifically, should reconstruction begin, this could generate business for Jordanian companies that produce and export construction materials and food to Syria. This would also create reconstruction jobs in Syria and incentivize return for refugees, many of whom have slid into poverty without access to jobs.
Given its strategic location, Jordan is determined to play an important role in Syria’s reconstruction efforts and has attracted international investment to ensure it can. China, which has already invested over $2 billion since 2015 to strengthen Jordan’s infrastructure and energy sectors, expressed a desire to invest in Jordan as a center for reconstruction efforts in Syria and Iraq. On July 10, China followed up on these statements by announcing an ambitious development plan for the Middle East, to include $20 billion in loans for regional development and nearly $100 million in reconstruction assistance for Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Additionally, the kingdom receives some financial assistance and investment from the United States and the European Union, which are actively working in Jordan in preparation for the reconstruction stage in Syria and Iraq.
Return will not be feasible for all Syrians, but those who remain in Jordan can still contribute to the reconstruction. For many, hopes of return are eclipsed by poverty. Active Syrian labor integration into the Jordanian market, one of the major recommendations of the European Commission, trains Syrian refugees within sectors that will be critical for rebuilding their country. The internationally-agreed upon 2016 Jordan Compact, which aims to integrate Syrian refugees into Jordan’s labor market into a few limited sectors—notably construction, agriculture, and textiles, industries in which Jordanians do not typically seek employment—could provide a framework for this. However, implementation has been slow, particularly as there are limited job opportunities within the prescribed sectors. Only 87,000 of the intended 200,000 Syrian work permits have been issued, representing only a small percentage of Jordan’s total Syrian population. Despite the sluggish progress, the industries and sectors that permit Syrian employment under the Jordan Compact would likely expand if the borders open due to renewed access to the southern Syrian market and the need for reconstruction. The boost to these sectors could translate into more jobs, both for Syrians who go home and those who remain in Jordan.
Beyond the economic hindrances of return, many Syrians are afraid of the risks if they go back. For the many families in Deraa whose relatives either participated in or were affiliated with members of the opposition, fear of government retribution remains a critical barrier to return, even more so after the fall of the southwest. Jordan hosts a variety of opposition leaders, fighters, activists, and Syrian military defectors who are particularly vulnerable to regime violence if they go back. Although the Syrian government has offered a general amnesty to fighters who “reconcile” with the state by joining the military or affiliated fighting force within a six month period, this does not provide any long-term legal protection or safety guarantees. The options currently on the table—fight for Bashar al-Assad, meaning likely systemic abuse or deployment to the front lines, or be displaced to Idlib—are all likely to deter Syrians from going home.
Jordan’s foremost challenge remains the protracted displacement of up to 1.3 million Syrian refugees within its borders. Addressing this will require long-term strategic planning between the government, UNHCR, other UN agencies, and international aid groups—not just to ensure refugees’ voluntary, safe, and sustainable return to Syria but also to ensure Jordan’s own stability. But with Assad consolidating power in the south, Jordan has an opportunity to pave the way for the long-term stability necessary to give Syrians in Jordan hope for return.
Lina Haddad Kreidie is a Tobis Fellow at the Ethics and Morality Center at the University of California, Irvine and a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Amman, Jordan. Jesse Marks is a Fulbright fellow and Scoville Peace fellow based in Amman, Jordan.
* This article is based on interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan between January and July 2018.