Syrian rebels holed up in Idlib may soon be fighting off their former allies. As opposition fighters have surrendered by the thousands in recent months, the government has pressed them into military service. Many have been sent to fight the Islamic State group, or ISG, in southern and eastern Syria. But many others are being deployed to Idlib to battle the men they fought alongside until early summer, local journalists report.
The desperate choices before the former rebels is another indication that Syria is very far from normal, even if it increasingly gives the appearance of being so. In recent conversations, refugees in Lebanon and Jordan cited forced conscription as their greatest fear in returning to their homes. As the United States wraps up its campaign to retake ISG territory, and as Kurds in eastern Syria accelerate their efforts to reach an autonomy agreement with Damascus, Washington has lost most of its leverage in Syria. But it can still withhold financing for the return of refugees and Syria’s reconstruction, and it should do so until the Assad regime offers guarantees about government behavior and constitutional reform — changes that will reduce the enduring threat to the United States and its allies.
When Assad’s forces retook swaths of territory in southern Syria earlier this summer, “reconciliation” deals negotiated by Russia presented defeated rebels with three main options. They could lay down their weapons and accept regime control, agree to evacuation deals and be shipped to Idlib (the last rebel-held stronghold in the north), or attempt to flee Syria as refugees. Knowing that the regime is preparing for a crushing offensive to retake Idlib and that most of Syria’s neighboring states had closed their borders to refugees long ago, many believed they had no choice at all. Thousands laid down their arms and were soon enlisted in the military. A Syrian government official boasted recently that the regime had conscripted so many men that it no longer had the capacity to process them all.
The regime’s negotiators promised former fighters who surrendered that they could defer conscription to the army by several months and that they would be kept away from the front lines. The Minister for Local Administration recently made similar promises to returning refugees. However, the regime will need a large force to retake Idlib—a battle likely to be one of the bloodiest of the war—and so it is breaking its promises to former rebels already. Local monitoring groups have documented high casualties among former rebels in the fight against the ISG in the Sweida desert, which has left hundreds dead. Such reports increase refugees’ fears that the regime is using new recruits as cannon fodder and also raise questions about how the regime can ensure the loyalty of former rebels. Ensuring that existing forces do not avenge the deaths of their comrades on the new recruits, and ensuring the new recruits remain loyal to their new masters, will be an enduring challenge for the Syrian military. The desperation of many of the new recruits and their financial needs appear sufficient incentive for now.
For the government of Syria, the predicaments of former rebel fighters are merely part of a return to normalcy for the country. Damascus denies mistreating new conscripts and has renewed its attempts to entice refugees to return to Syria. The return of refugees serves various objectives for the regime. In addition to the legitimacy it would bestow on Assad, returning refugees could act as a critical source of manpower to revitalize Syria’s beleaguered economy. But more importantly, Assad’s allies see refugee return as a way of opening the taps to reconstruction funds and sanctions relief for Syria from the United States and other Western countries.
The Syrian government has set up processing centers in Syria and neighboring countries and claims it is ready to accept returning refugees. However, it has rejected or delayed many applications to return, indicating that it is not actually ready at all. With houses destroyed, infrastructure in ruins, and critical documents missing, the process is complicated and expensive. The World Bank estimated last year that reconstruction will cost between $200 billion and $350 billion.
The European Union has long maintained that it will only provide reconstruction assistance when a serious process of political transition is in place and is holding firm for now. The U.S. State Department also reasserted its commitment to that approach, requiring the United Nations to validate that a “credible and irreversible political process” is underway before releasing reconstruction funds.
Yet, pressure is mounting on Western powers to surrender their political conditions and to cooperate on refugee return. Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil argued that there is “no reason” for refugees to stay in Lebanon at this stage, explicitly stating that their return should not be linked to a political solution. Both the Lebanese Directorate of General Security and Hezbollah have separately begun processing refugees to return to Syria, and over 7,000 returned last month.
Despite the State Department’s assertions, there are signs that the Trump administration is preparing to help facilitate returns. The details of what President Trump and President Putin agreed to at the Helsinki summit remain unclear, but the Russian Defense Ministry said the two leaders agreed to coordinate on refugee return. Russia then sent the U.S. government a formal proposal to collaborate on the matter and contribute to its financing.
The United States never fully committed to Assad’s ouster and has been outmaneuvered by Russia. At this stage, the promise of reconstruction support is the last key source of leverage it can wield to help create a more stable Syria and protect its broader regional interests. Reconstructing Syria will inevitably entrench the Syrian regime and its cronies, but with the hope of regime change having faded, a more stable Syria is in U.S. interests. Assad’s desperation for reconstruction funding, and Russia’s increasing concern that reconstruction will fail, gives the United States influence over the shape of the Syria that emerges from the conflict.
Three areas are particularly important. First, the United States should explicitly tie contributions to reconstruction assistance with tangible progress on constitutional reform. Even though the UN’s initially ambitious Geneva process has been largely limited to constitutional reform, it still appears stalled. Demanding specific reforms to allow for a more open political climate in Syria, rather than continuing unrealistic and imprecise calls for political transition, would help contribute to Syria’s longer-term stability.
Second, the United States should link reconstruction with chemical weapons attacks, making clear that it will provide no financial support if there are any further chemical weapons attacks. The threat of such an attack happening in Idlib is particularly acute as Russian and Syrian media is spreading disinformation just as it did in advance of previous chemical weapons attacks.
Third, ensuring that refugees are only returned to Syria in coordination with the UNHCR to safeguard against forced return is another concrete, if modest, stipulation that the United States can tie to reconstruction assistance.
For Syrian refugees in the region, the future is particularly bleak. The very conditions from which many refugees originally fled still exist in Syria, and their fears of being forced to fight – and die – for Assad now appear well-founded. The United States cannot fix Syria, and it should not try. But can help ensure that the conditions that led to Syria’s crisis in the first place do not grow.