Syria’s refugees face limited choices now and likely in the future
Beirut - If the stakeholders in the Syrian war decide to end a conflict that has caused the worst humanitarian crisis since the second world war, the refugees will be urged to return to their homeland — although not necessarily to the places where they were born or lived.
And, as the world eyes those suffering abroad, thousands are being shipped around internally, moved from their homes to faraway territories. They are known as the internally displaced but they, too, are refugees.
An agreement was brokered in March by Iran and Qatar, which support different parties in the multisided war, that involves emptying the Shia towns of Kefraya and Foua in the north-western province of Idlib and relocating 2,000 of their residents to Zabadani and Madaya, which are predominantly Sunni towns near Damascus.
At the same time, fighters from those rebel-held towns will be sent to Idlib, where opposition forces are in control. That is part of a wider demographic reordering that is injecting war-torn cities with new residents, breaking family and tribal ties that have prevailed for centuries.
But it goes deeper than that, Syrian insiders say. With Assad’s government out of immediate danger from rebel forces, the idea is to shatter the tribal and ethnic ties that held the multi-sect country together and allowed the uprising of March 2011.
That means uprooting entire communities. Omar Sheikh al-Jamee, a resident of Zabadani, said. “They’re taking us to Idlib. Yes, we’re not being moved out of the country as they did to the Palestinians,” he said.
“They’re telling us that Idlib is part of Syria. It is — but it’s not home. We’re being uprooted from our home.”
Ibrahim Hamidi, a native of Idlib who for years headed the Damascus bureau of the Saudi newspaper al-Hayat, said he thought the population switch was the largest such operation of the war and the first to have involved migrating people out of regime-held territory.
This clearly changes the demographic landscape and plays out in Iran’s favour, he noted. Speaking from London, Hamidi said: “The Iranians are worried that the Americans and Russians will strike a deal at their expense.”
This population exchange “calls for the repatriation of Shias between Damascus and the borders of Lebanon, thereby securing supply lines of Hezbollah and maintaining Iran’s political influence in Damascus”, Hamidi said.
When eastern Aleppo was overrun in December 2016, its residents were moved to Idlib, while US-backed Syrian Kurds are preparing to uproot residents of the northern city of Raqqa, once it is liberated from ISIS, and transform it into a Kurdish city, part of the Kurds’ emerging enclave east of the Euphrates River.
Elsewhere, refugees continue to scratch a meagre existence in neighbouring countries, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, where the United Nations says there are more than 5 million homeless Syrians in these lands.
That is not counting the wave of sanctuary-seekers pouring into Western Europe whose fate is, to say the least, uncertain.
Turkey hosts close to 3 million refugees, Lebanon more than 1 million and Jordan 657,000, although the true figure is probably double that. All told, the United Nations estimates that half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced or made homeless.
They have nowhere to go since their cities and towns have been pounded to dust, entire neighbourhoods obliterated. Many people are on the blacklist of Syria’s security apparatus.
Many fled Syria in 2011-12 for what they hoped would be a short time, certain that the regime was about to collapse at any minute. When those hopes were dashed, many looked towards Europe but that too is becoming impossible since the European Union shut its borders in 2015.
The biggest problem lies in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to relocate the bulk of the 3 million Syrians in his country into a 2,000 sq.km “safe zone” on the Syrian border.
The Turks have started building a city there with schools, mosques, hospitals and housing for 80,000 people. Ankara is expected to build two other centres and has pledged to grant Turkish citizenship to an unspecified number of refugees. Some Syrians may opt not to return to their homeland. Others may not be able to.
Unlike the issue of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven out of their homeland by Jewish forces in 1948-49, the fate of Syrian refugees has been largely ignored as international efforts focus on a political settlement in Syria and fighting ISIS.