“How can refugees return if the reason behind their refuge still exists?”, former detainee in Assad’s prisons Omar Alshogre asks.
The Arab League’s decision to reinstate Syria on Sunday has left Syrians who have been living under bombardment for over a decade “disappointed and betrayed, experts have told Doha News.
While the bloc’s decision to reinstate Syria with the Bashar Al Assad regime still in power was expected in light of recent regional movements, Syrians are finding the new reality difficult to swallow.
“As an Arab today, I find it difficult to believe that the Arab League serves the Arab. It rather serves the Arab dictators and the leading politicians. As a Syrian, we have never found the Arab League to be an ally of ours,” Omar Alshogre, Director for Detainee Affairs at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told Doha News on Monday.
The Arab League’s move came after the shuffling stances of countries that had once boycotted the regime for its crimes against humanity—namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Qatar, meanwhile, has maintained its stance against normalising with Assad.
Last month saw Riyadh become the latest state to rekindle with Damascus, just weeks ahead of the upcoming Arab League summit, scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia on 19 May.
Senior visits by officials from both countries took place for the first time since 2011, when Assad had become a pariah in the region.
Since 2018, Assad regime has been on a trajectory to reinstate his authority in the region. Countries such as Jordan and Tunisia began resuming their economic relations with the regime, opening up their airspaces and recommencing trade. By 2021, Jordan had normalised with the Assad regime restoring full diplomatic times, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Oman.
“We can’t [help] but feel disappointed and betrayed. Arab leaders cannot stop talking about brotherhood, courage and Arabic morality, however, when it comes to actions, they are on the side of evil,” Alshogre, a former detainee in Assad’s prisons said.
Alshogre had spent his teenage years suffering from starvation, physical and psychological torture between different prisons in Damascus, including the notorious Branch 215 and Sednaya Prison.
While he was imprisoned, the regime killed his father, brothers and cousins. The former detainee, who fled Syria at the age of 20, was even tasked to number and remove the bodies of his own relatives.
Alshogre was among the millions Assad committed crimes against, one of the reasons the Arab League had initially cited when it isolated Syria in 2011.
“The Syrian regime has called many of the Arab countries, among other things, exporters of terrorism, half men, traitors, trash, etc. Now, these countries welcome back the regime without even asking it to apologise for its earlier insulting statements,” he said.
Since the onset of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime has continued to commit massacres against the people of Syria with increasingly more reports exposing the use of chemical weapons against civilians.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 1057 civilians, including 251 children, and 133 victims of torture were killed in Syria in 2022 alone.
In 2018, the Assad regime, with the backing of Russia, led a chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma, where at least 70 civilians were killed.
Moscow, however, denied the use of chemical weapons, accusing the OPCW of providing factual and technical errors.
In January, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Arab Air Forces were the perpetrators” of the deadly attack.
The statement added that the regime “continues its horrific policy of massacres, scorched land and destroyed cities” while crossing “all red lines imposed by morals and required by law.”
Alshogre does not see the regime changing “its criminal behaviours” even with its return.
“It would use chemical weapons again and again because they know that the neighbouring countries won’t respond. There is no voluntary return of refugees if Assad is still in power,” he said.
The reason behind refugees’ refuge still exists
In its statement on reinstating Syria’s membership, some of the Arab League’s demands included enabling the safe return of millions of refugees scattered globally back to their homeland.
However, Alshogre believes welcoming Assad back will only further embolden his crimes against civilians, some of whom have been subjected to forced disappearance for years or have been detained.
One of the former detainee’s many concerns on the matter include a shift in the international community’s stance on Assad.
“What Assad and every politician and Arab ruler can learn from this is that; you can kill, rape, displace and torture your people one by one, and you will still be welcome. How can refugees return if the reason behind their refuge still exists?” Alshogre said, questioning the bloc’s decision.
The Assad regime created the world’s biggest refugee crisis when he plunged Syria into war by violently cracking down on peaceful pro-democracy protests.
The refugees who managed to flee the country fear a return to Syria due to the horrors they believe Assad may put them through, in retaliation for standing against him. Alshogre believes that Assad simply “does not want the Syrians back”.
“People know that their return will lead most of them to prisons in which they will be tortured, raped, and most likely killed. The solution for the refugees crisis and the motivation for their return is the same: bringing the Syrian regime down and bringing Assad to justice,” Alshogre said.
By 2021, the registered number of refugees from Syria reached 5.5 million.
In addition to the shelling of civilians, the Assad regime has carried out horrifying methods of torture, some of which were exposed in 2014 through the Caesar photographs.
Leaked by a defected Syrian military photographer, more than 28,000 photos of deaths under government custody displayed the cruelty of the regime.
A 2017 Amnesty report also found that at least 17,723 people had been killed in the regime’s custody between March 2011 and December 2015, with an average of 300 deaths occurring each month.
“Presidents die, regimes fall and the only one that stays is the people. Assad will die, the Syrian regime will fall and the only one staying is the people of Syria. The people will remember who stood on their side and who welcomed their raper and killer!” Alshogre added.