No war in recent history has been as divisive as the war in Syria. In addition to fracturing Syrian society, it has galvanized, polarized, and even radicalized those who have reported on it. While President Bashar al-Assad’s cheerleading squad has brought together an amalgamation of unlikely supporters, ranging from White Nationalists to Shia militants, the advocates of regime change have at times forged a confusing coalition that has combined Muslim Brotherhood supporters with liberal New York Times readers. Several varieties of leftists, also known as “anti-imperialists,” have even united with elements of the far right in defence of Assad’s regime.
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 3 Autumn 2018 by Nizar Mohamad
A fresh round of violence brings more displacement
According to the United Nations, in 2018, Syria has experienced the largest and most rapid displacement of persons since the start of the war in 2011, with nearly a million displaced in the first four months.
From June 18 to July 31, following a Russian-backed offensive, the Syrian army began a campaign that retook virtually all southwest Syria. In the first two weeks, close to 270,000 civilians were uprooted, resulting in the war’s most intense displacement. By the end of the first month, the total was 320,000. The displaced were turned away by Israel and Jordan, both of which have played distinct roles in protracting the Syrian conflict.
Jordan has, for years, trained and equipped rebels at a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency outpost in Amman. Israel has allegedly supported more than seven different rebel factions. But now, due to Russian diplomacy and U.S. indecisiveness, these states have decided to align with Russia and end their support for opposition groups. They have concluded that Russia, which has heavily invested in the war, is the prime global broker of Syrian affairs and is intent on preserving the Assad regime. This is in stark contrast to the United States, which has shifted its stated priority from toppling Assad to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Except for Idlib in the northwest and areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria, the Assad regime, with the help of Russia, Iran, and a host of pro-regime militias, has retaken most of the territory lost over the course of the war.
The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia recently estimated that the civil war has cost Syria $388-billion in economic damages. In 2017, the World Bank stated that a third of the country’s residential structures and close to half of its medical and educational facilities had been damaged or destroyed in the war.
Syrian and Russian airstrikes on rebel-held areas have intensified in recent years, allowing the regime to recapture several opposition strongholds, including many areas that had been subjected to sieges. Operations conducted by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS have also caused considerable destruction. In November 2016, U.S. airstrikes drastically escalated following an offensive to capture Raqqa from Islamic State militants. During an 11-month campaign, aerial raids damaged or destroyed more than 11,000 buildings in Raqqa.
All parties to the conflict have contributed to the destruction of a once functional state. From airstrikes to mortar fire, rival sides have destroyed homes, churches, mosques, hospitals, schools, and businesses. Entire neighbourhoods have been levelled across the country.
The Syrian regime has turned a blind eye to the actions of those fighting alongside it. In the “liberation of every inch” of the country from “terrorists” (read: all armed opposition to the regime), pro-regime militias have subjected previously rebel-held areas to mass lootings, stealing everything from couches to refrigerators and selling them in makeshift markets in nearby towns.
Neighbourhoods once inhabited by people thought to be sympathetic to the opposition are being gentrified after their recapture by the government. These efforts, often funded by Iranian, Russian, and Chinese construction firms, are meant to ensure that the Syrian regime can rule over populations loyal to Assad.
Neighbourhoods “cleansed of terrorists” are repopulated, often by foreigners. Since Assad and many of his supporters are Alawites—a syncretic offshoot of Shia Islam—and most opposition fighters are Sunni Muslim, Shias seen as loyal to Assad and Iran are often imported to Syria.
Assad has essentially sold off large areas of Syrian real estate to Iran in return for its continuing support. Iran, which is ruled by a Shia theocracy, has facilitated this demographic reengineering by incentivizing Shia Muslims from Iraq, Iran, and even Afghanistan to relocate to Syria. In August 2016, more than 300 Iraqi Shia families moved into the Sunni-majority suburb of Darayya, southwest of Damascus. Many Syrians, including residents in the ancient Christian, Sunni, and Jewish quarters of Damascus, have been forcibly evicted to make way for these new populations.
On April 2, 2018, the “Absentee Law” was passed, which allows the government to officially seize land and property from those lacking proper documentation, such as proof of ownership. Many Syrians have lived in shantytowns and informal settlements for decades and have no documents of ownership, while others have been forced by the conflict to abandon their homes and flee the country.
A scattered population
Approximately 5.6-million Syrian refugees are scattered across the globe, while roughly 6.1-million are displaced within Syria. Although the greatest concentration of refugees is in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, some refugees have been officially resettled in Western countries such as Germany, Canada, the United States, and Australia. According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of May 1, 2018, 259,558 refugees had been officially resettled in 27 different countries. The director of the UN Refugee Agency for the Middle East and North Africa has stated that close to 82 per cent of Syrian refugees have expressed a desire to return to Syria.
Meanwhile, host states like Lebanon and Jordan are fatigued and are growing increasingly hostile to Syrian refugees.
The Syrian civil war is winding down, with Assad appearing to emerge victorious. But what will the end of the war mean to Syrian refugees?
According to the UN, by August 2017, close to 600,000 Syrian refugees had returned to their homes. Thousands more have returned in the last few months. Recently, joint Syrian-Russian initiatives have resulted in separate deals struck with Jordan and Lebanon to expedite their return.
While Syrian and Russian authorities are publicly urging refugees to return, many have reported being harassed, interrogated, imprisoned, and tortured by security forces. Some have had their passports confiscated. The head of the Syrian air force intelligence service recently stated that three million Syrians, including refugees, are wanted by the government.
The economy has all but collapsed. More than 538,000 jobs have been lost. Youth unemployment levels are as high as 78 per cent. The cost of living has gone up; gas, water, and electricity shortages are routine. Syria’s infrastructure has been devastated by war.
With the country in ruins, it is hard to envision an immediate large-scale return of displaced Syrians. Dealing with the displaced is only one of many problems now facing all Syrians and the larger global community.
Nizar Mohamad is working on his Master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Waterloo. He was an intern at Project Ploughshares during the Spring term.