The difficult route of returning to Syria
Now that the balance of power is tilting toward the regime, who will be able to go back?

Beirut — Um Ma’moun talks about her home like an absent family member.

“How can I describe my homeland?” she says. “Your country is like a mother … Can you ever have the same feeling for another country? It is love, feelings, everything. How can I even describe it?”

A widowed mother of two from the north Aleppo countryside, Um Ma’moun lives in Reyhaniyeh, a refugee camp situated in the rolling foothills of north Lebanon’s Akkar province. When Mada Masr met Um Ma’moun at the end of last year, Reyhaniyeh camp had just been saved last-minute following an eviction order issued by Lebanese military intelligence on November 10.

“We rebuilt ourselves through the community of the camp,” Um Ma’moun says, explaining how important it was that they’d not been forced to leave. “We fled destruction in Syria … and don’t have the strength to be displaced again. This, within the borders of this camp, is my new homeland.”

Refugee camps are never meant to be permanent. Um Ma’moun plans to go back to Syria — but when the time is right.

“Of course, the best thing for us is to return [to Syria], but we don’t feel that it’s secure at all now. But would someone have the opportunity to go back and not return? Can you choose your mother?”

Talk of repatriation

The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul Rahman, estimates that since July 2012, the number of the displaced from Aleppo alone is more than two and a half million.

Already hosting an estimated 1.5 million Syrian migrants escaping the civil war, Lebanon led by Hezbollah-allied President Michel Aoun is now trying to expedite “voluntary” returns of Syrians, and more than two ministers have put forward actual plans for returns. More importantly, there are signs of the beginning of cooperation between the opposition, Damascus and its allies on returns.

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On February 10, Lebanese media reported on a possible deal being negotiated between Hezbollah and a local Free Syrian Army faction in Qalamoun that would see thousands of Syrians currently in camps close to the Lebanese-Syrian border returned to a dozen villages in Qalamoun in Syria’s western countryside. This was later confirmed by a Hezbollah official who says that, “through mediators and under specific conditions, a certain amount of refugees will be returning to select villages in the western Qalamoun.”

“The final agreement is yet to be worked out and the process is still ongoing,” adds Hezbollah spokesperson Mohamed Afif.

A day before reports of the Qalamoun negotiations broke, a Beirut hotel hosted a Syrian Initiative for Peace meeting attended by opposition and regime-affiliated representatives as well as advisers from the French, German and Russian embassies in Beirut. A document circulated at the meeting proposed “work on return of refugees and displaced persons to their areas after the rehabilitation of the infrastructure of affected areas and the approval of the Syrian state and relevant international bodies.”

During a televised address on February 12, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that refugees should not be coerced into returning, rather that “military victories in Syria, the most recent of them the victory in Aleppo … have turned large areas into safe and quiet spaces.” He called on the Lebanese government to cooperate with Damascus.

Although the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees supports repatriation of refugees under the right conditions, UNHCR’s Lebanon representative Mireille Girard argued at the Beirut meeting that talk of actually returning Syrians now was “premature.”

A home not ready: The case of Idlib

Idlib is one place that received tens of thousands of civilians and militants who have been evacuated from Aleppo, in the biggest wave of Syrian internal displacement.

The War Studies Institute, an American research center, estimates the number of fighters inside Idlib alone to be at 50,000, belonging to different groups with varying ideologies and degrees of extremism. They were forced to emigrate from their cities, in a policy that the institute deemed intentional to accumulate the biggest number of fighters in one place, “as a preparation to take them out.”

With a high population density in the center of Idlib and the presence of fighters in most neighborhoods, as opposed to only the countryside, the consequences could be dire.

Forcing the fighters of the opposition to migrate to Idlib started with a series of implicit truces and individual ceasefires with armed groups in several cities, mainly concentrated in southern Syria, in Damascus’ countryside, Hama, Kenitra and Homs.

The Russian Defense Ministry, which operates a center in Syria to monitor these agreements, had declared last December that the number of villages that joined the truce with the regime has reached more than one thousand villages. Usually each fighter was allowed to carry one piece of weaponry on their way out of these cities and villages.   

Many observers warn of the eruption of violent clashes between the regime’s army and Jabhet Fateh al-Sham fighters in Idlib, and of subsequent airstrikes as carried out by the regime did in Aleppo. With a high population density in the center of the city and the presence of fighters in most neighborhoods, as opposed to only the countryside, the consequences could be dire.

Injy Sedky, the head of the press office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus tells Mada Masr that a lot of the displaced people who have been evacuated are now staying in evacuation centers, which were not ready to receive such big numbers.

“One of these centers is an old cotton plant, close to the Jibrin area [in the western countryside of Aleppo]. It is just a concrete construction, not ready for anything. No bathrooms, no beds, no water facilities nor showers nor heating,” she says.

Sedky explains that Jibrin, which borders Idlib, is the last point where the Red Cross can work, and that along with the Syrian Red Crescent, they neither they have presence inside of Idlib, nor any other regions controlled by the opposition, as the only places where they can work are where the regime is in control. The opposite happens with organizations working in opposition-controlled areas, as the government does not allow them to work in places it controls.

In December, the Aleppo’s Command Council, a coalition of a number of armed groups, released a statement demanding the forces of the Syrian government open a safe passage for civilians and the wounded to move to the northern countryside of Aleppo and not Idlib, because it “can no longer contain more internally displaced people.”

Fear of return

Refugees like Um Ma’moun want to return. A 2015 survey gauging the intentions of almost 900 Syrian refugees in Germany found that 90 percent plan to return to Syria: 52 percent said that would depend on the removal of Bashar al-Assad, compared with 68 percent who said it depended on the end of the war.

Abu Ibrahim, also from the northern Aleppo countryside, cradles his youngest daughter as he recounts how the war arrived; regime jets first, followed by Islamic State SUVs.

“There is death in Syria, but here it’s like another kind of war … Whenever the war stops in Syria, we will absolutely go back.”

“IS destroyed a lot of the buildings [in our village] to build a wall,” he remembers. “Before IS reached the village, there wasn’t even a bullet. We would watch the planes for over a year, but it only started when IS came.”

He is sitting inside the family’s dingy three-room apartment in Nab’a, in an area of Beirut that has absorbed several migrant populations over the years: Armenians fleeing genocide, Palestinians, Shia migrants from the south, as well as Ethiopian and South-East Asian migrant workers. Although the area is generally more hospitable than the camps, his is just a waiting room, somewhere Abu Ibrahim intends to leave when he can.

“If we’re walking in the street, we could be detained at any moment. We don’t feel safe,” Abu Ibrahim says, complaining about the Lebanese government’s deliberately exclusionary residency regulations that has kept all six of his children out of school and him out of work. In late 2014, the Lebanese government endorsed restrictive residency regulations requiring a US$200 renewal fee, valid ID and other documents — effectively blocking the majority of Syrians from renewing and maintaining legal status. The Lebanese government announced last month it would waive the renewal fees.

“There is death in Syria, but here it’s like another kind of war,” he adds.“Whenever the war stops in Syria, we will absolutely go back.”

But as the war turns heavily in Assad’s favor, return may not always be possible for tens of thousands of dispossessed, displaced Syrians.

For one, evacuations and truces in areas back under government control are often accompanied by stories of “mass detentions and other security-state tactics,” the Washington Post wrote last month. There have been reported arrests of dozens of internally displaced people originally from Daraya, the first Damascus countryside town to accept an evacuation deal in August, and similar reports have emerged in Eastern Aleppo, the Palestinian ‘camp of return’ in Rural Damascus and Wadi Barada — one of the latest areas to witness forcible evacuations.

And fears of the security services may make refugees and migrants think twice — especially those with relatives and loved ones who either joined the uprising as activists or fighters, or who were detained.

Damascus has long been known for its relentless, almost pathological record-taking — from a national archive of every speech ever made by former President Hafez al-Assad to the reams of notebook observations of security informants and plain-clothes mukhabarat (intelligence agents).

Activists and former detainees (as well as their relatives) may have well-founded fears of Syria’s notorious mukhabarat and allies on the ground, who have detained tens of thousands of people since 2011.

Conditions inside government prisons and security branches are notorious; an Amnesty International report recently found that up to 13,000 people had been executed by hanging in the notorious Sednaya prison between 2011-2015.

But according to research by Swedish researcher Emma Lundgren Jörum, Syrians in Europe also face surveillance, intimidation and small-scale acts of repression; a kind of “homeland repression across borders” that has grown since 2011 as the mukhabarat sought to monitor exiled and displaced Syrians’ political activities abroad.

A 2011 Amnesty International report documented cases of violence and harassment against Syrians in the diaspora as well as their families back home, but the trend has only continued with the conflict.

Based on interviews with 30 Syrian anti-regime activists in Sweden, Jörum’s 2015 study found that “anti-regime mobilization in Sweden has attracted the attention of Syrian authorities.” So much so, in fact, that all 30 interviewees who’d been able to travel to Syria before 2011 believed “they would not be able to return to Syria until after a regime change.”

In one case, Jörum wrote how details from a quietly uttered conversation inside a Swedish mosque came back to Damascus through an informant.

Two Syrian-born activists confirm to Mada Masr they had experienced surveillance or intimidation as a result of their activism in Europe — in one case, very recently.

Word of Syrians’ activism in Europe has also reached family members back in Syria by way of the mukhabaraat — often, in some detail. These potential threats to family members still inside Syria can be used to encourage displaced anti-government activists to stop their activities, but it also means that activists who might try to return to Syria in the future would likely walk into well-maintained case files, prison, or worse.

No homes to go back to

Aside from fears about actually going back to Syria, in many cases people will simply have no homes to go back to.

Land registry offices have been destroyed — some say deliberately — meaning former residents no longer have proof they once owned homes. Both Syrian security forces and rebel groups have billeted and requisitioned vacant homes since the beginning of the conflict, and between 2012-2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented how the Syrian authorities “deliberately demolished thousands of residential buildings, in some cases entire neighborhoods in Damascus and Hama. Demolitions often occurred once the government and its allies reclaimed a restive neighborhood, as they did in Tadamon in south Damascus in 2012. Although often targeting civilian homes and infrastructure, in October 2012, rural Damascus governor Hussein Makhlouf said demolitions were “essential to drive out terrorists.”

Homs is testament to Syria’s complicated rites of return, and the many factors that can keep refugees in the diaspora.

Syrians in areas under government control similarly face Kafkaesque bureaucracies dictated by endless security clearances and middlemen, as well as wasta (regime connections), even for something as routine as renting a new apartment. A recent report by independent media collective Syria Untold described how “some families have found it a wiser investment for what little savings they have left to use them to flee the country all together.”

“With no solution in sight in the foreseeable future, living conditions getting worse with every season, some say renting a house in their own country feels as challenging and ‘illegal’ as paying their way into asylum in Europe,” Syria Untold reported.

Homs is testament to Syria’s complicated rites of return, and the many factors that can keep refugees in the diaspora. Reconstruction is underway — albeit slowly — and the UN is overseeing a project to rebuild the Old City’s historic market in an attempt to reinvigorate local commerce.

At the same time, Syria’s government estimates only 40 percent of former residents from Homs’ Old City have returned, despite the area being open to residents after the last rebel-held neighborhoods capitulated following a siege and evacuation deal more than two years ago. Opposition activists suggest even those numbers are exaggerated.

UN caseworkers, reconstruction planners and refugees themselves, many are already anticipating an end to the conflict in Syria. But whatever happens in the coming months, Europe and neighboring Arab countries may well face the protracted displacement of unknown numbers of Syrian refugees, a “Palestinian-ized” diaspora that will outlast the conflict in its current form.

Tent canvasses become corrugated iron and brickwork. And like the Palestinians after 1948, there are countless numbers of Syrians that risk becoming manseyeen (forgotten ones), their diaspora memories of peacetime harvests and the encroaching sound of gunfire counted in decades, not years.

Tom Rollins  @rollinz
Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.

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