Extremism and Syria’s Internally Displaced
As Syria’s conflict enters its fourth year, nearly half of the country has been forcibly displaced. Today, Syrians are fleeing the city for the countryside, reversing more than 10 years of rapid urbanization in the country before the 2011 uprising. One official we spoke to from the Relief and Civil Defense Committee in the southern province of Deraa this spring emphasized that displaced persons no longer move to the city, but instead “migrate from village to village.”
This is due to the urbanization of Syria’s conflict, with government air raids intensely targeting its cities. The urban centers themselves are also divided, with control often split between the government and the rebels. Most refugees come from rebel-held urban areas, the target of near-daily aerial attacks that kill civilians and destroy basic municipal services.
At present, Syria’s de-urbanizing trend of displacement is bucking traditional flows, which usually see floods of rural migrants overwhelming urban areas. But this trend will only last as long as the conflict: Once Syria’s cities appear safe, they will become havens for the country’s most vulnerable populations seeking easier access to aid and publicly available services. Aleppo and Damascus once swelled with the ranks of recent urban migrants. These cities will grow even larger with the influx of those displaced by the conflict. This is a massive, vulnerable urban population in an unstable, divided state. If the US wants to develop measures to counter the growth of terrorist groups in the region—not just in neighboring countries, but in Syria—it must look closely at the hundreds of thousands of recently displaced persons expected to descend on Syria’s cities.
Homs is an example of what that repopulation might look like. Last month in the once-besieged city, government and local opposition officials reached a ceasefire agreement in which the last rebel soldiers were evacuated from the city center. The agreement led former residents to think fighting there was subsiding enough that it was safe to return.
“Our house is in the Hamidiyeh district of old Homs,” said one resident we interviewed who had fled two years earlier. “We went back to our neighborhood and were very nervous. We knew from pictures that buildings were destroyed and that our house [was included].” The resident estimated that over 90% of the houses in his neighborhood were at least partially destroyed. “Without exception,” he added, “all the houses had been opened and people had tampered with its property—smashing and stealing furniture and taking precious items.”
The Assad regime trumpeted Homs as a success, and encouraged families to return. But the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) slogan, spray painted on Homs’ city walls, tells a more enduring story about the city’s future: “ISIL will remain [in Syria] no matter what.” ISIL’s challenge rings truest for Homs’ poorest residents, whose homes have been utterly destroyed. These people are from areas that the Assad regime will not rebuild. ISIL’s resistance language will endure among Homs’ returnees if post-conflict reconstruction aid channeled through the U.N. and the World Bank does not aid these destroyed communities.
When Didem Aykel Collinsworth, the Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, returned to the Turkish-Syrian border in February of this year, she was in Gaziantep and Kilis, further east. “Almost all of the refugees I talked to came from Aleppo or the surrounding villages,” she explained. “Entire villages picked up and left.”
More and more, people said that they had come to Turkey, and not chosen to flee elsewhere in Syria, because of the double threat faced from the regime and jihadist groups that were gaining power along the eastern border.
Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, may have faced the greatest exodus. After the government increased its barrel-bombing offensive in December of last year, there was mass displacement from the city to the rural areas, with thousands then trying to enter Turkey. Several neighborhoods in Aleppo City are completely abandoned.
While some of Aleppo’s displaced plan to stay in the villages, others use them as way stations from which to leave Syria.
Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch’s Syria researcher, visited the Turkish border region in March, including the rural Bab al-Salaam camp, near Azaz, which houses nearly 16,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Nearby, in the countryside, another three IDP camps house 13,000-15,000 people.
“These are all people who have fled Aleppo city or other parts of Syria and who are now on their way out,” she said. “They were uniformly fleeing the aerial bombardment. Entire families and communities have fled.”
In early 2014, the refugee stream from Aleppo was one of the largest seen since the beginning of the conflict, and directly correlated to the increase in aerial attacks. Since the start of the year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates almost 2,000 people in Aleppo have been killed from aerial attacks. Of this number, 43% were women and children.
Right now in the south, a renewed government offensive in rural and urban areas has led to the self-evacuation of thousands. But those attempting to flee Deraa are unable to enter Jordan through the border crossing closest to them, which has been closed by the Jordanians. Civilians have had to flee either to regime-held areas, or been forced to cut through them to reach another border crossing.
For the past year and a half, Turkish border control has also tamped down, only accepting Syrian refugees carrying passports and official documentation.
“We’re not seeing the daily flow of thousands at each crossing that we used to see at the beginning of the conflict, because they’re simply much stricter at the crossings,” Collinsworth said.
This has stemmed the flow of refugees, with many choosing instead to settle in IDP camps near the border. Fakih said there has been a proliferation of such camps near the Turkish and Jordanian borders, where bombings are less likely, and in more stable rural areas of Hassakeh and Latakia provinces.
A more recent phenomenon is displaced persons who are returning to Syria because life is difficult for them as refugees. As Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan feel the strain of the refugee influx, overcrowding, hostility from local populations and border closings are leading more and more Syrians to either stay in-country as IDPs, or to return to Syria, but take refuge in non-native areas.
Shadi, a 25-year-old former activist from the suburbs of Damascus, says that the Syrian community in Turkey—which totals more than one million—is fluid, more so than in Beirut or Amman, where he has also lived since fleeing Syria in 2012.
“Unlike Lebanon or Jordan, where you could find a community, it’s very transient here,” he said. “I feel like a guest or a tourist.”
Meanwhile, in eastern Deir Ezzor province, clashes between extremist rebels from ISIL and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra has led civilians to flee.
“Most of the people who recently left their homes to escape the fighting fled to other villages in the province,” said Valerie Szybala, Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who focuses on the eastern provinces. “Most of the people who fled hope to return after the fighting with ISIS calms down. Since the regime is not a real player in these battles along the Euphrates and Khabur Rivers, there is little chance that the villages will be blockaded, starved, and demolished by air strikes, making return a realistic possibility.”
The current refugee flows have made things easier for the regime; there are large communities of people who, because they are now designated as IDPs and refugees, are being taken care of by international aid organizations and NGOs, and are no longer seen as the government’s responsibility.
The changed dynamics of refugee flows in areas outside of the Assad regime’s control should push international humanitarian assistance to focus on short-term assistance to the rural destination villages for IDPs. In the long term, these transient IDP communities will prefer to return to urban centers. Long-term counterterrorism planning should examine this question of Syria’s cities and how illicit groups and terrorist networks will use them as bases for future operations and recruitment.
Proactive humanitarian aid and long-term counterterrorism planning are rarely implemented in practice. A 2011 study by the United States Institute of Peace reviewing displacement case studies in various conflicts noted that,
When returnees are originally from urban areas… the aid responses must be different. Property restoration involves homes and apartments. People of urban origin are used to urban services, and professionals and artisans often have lost licenses to practice their professions or trades. Unfortunately, there is little international experience in this area.
Research must focus on models for understanding this flow of migrants in order to help Syria’s cities cope with the added strain. These cities will have to withstand the influx of hundreds of thousands more people—both the residents hoping to return home and transient populations of the displaced who will eventually descend on cities for both municipal services and security. A failure to adapt plans to fit Syria’s future population movements leaves already vulnerable communities with even fewer options.
Karen Leigh is the managing editor of Syria Deeply. Nathaniel Rosenblatt is a senior analyst leading Caerus Associates’ analytical initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa.