Syria Disintegrating: Where Do Refugees Return?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Mohamed Homs | Ahmad Jamal
“Syria needs its people back,” claimed the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad. “Turkey stipulates safe areas to allow the return of Syrian refugees to their homes,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whereas, Russian Foreign Minister believes that “the war in Syria is over” and the time has come for “the Syrians’ return.”
In addition to these three positions, regional responses are pushing the return of refugees to Syria forward, in adoption of the Russian plan that had been announced a year ago after Russia has made efforts at various levels to control the refugees file.
In contrast, there is still a weak response from the refugees to the calls for return. Russian figures show that 400,000 Syrians are returning, which means less than 6 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees documented by UNHCR.
On the ground, the reality does not bode well for the possibility of the refugees’ return to Syria, whether at the level of infrastructure, or at the level of services and living reality, with the widespread destruction in large areas of Syria and the impossibility of launching reconstruction projects.
This file discusses the calls for the return of refugees to Syria, whether by the regime with Russian support, or by the Syrian Interim Government driven by Turkey. This file also highlights the reality of the areas of control of each side and their readiness to receive refugees, as well as the course of the Russian plan for the return of refugees and the extent of response it gains.
Decaying infrastructure and calls for return
Regime-held areas ‘ineligible’ to receive refugees
There have been repeated official calls by the Syrian regime’s officials for the return of refugees to Syria. The most recent of these was al-Assad’s speech to the heads of local councils in February 2019, when he said that Syria “needs all its people back.
Al-Assad accused at the time the host countries of obstructing the Syrians’ return, saying: “The preparation of refugee camps had started a year before the war, to create human suffering and condemn the Syrian State.”
The regime resorted to the use of religious discourse in an attempt to persuade the refugees and urge them to return. The Mufti of Damascus and its countryside, Sheikh Muhammad Adnan al-Afyouni, considered during the Khutbah (sermon) of Jumu’ah Prayer, on September 8, that the migration of Syrians in Europe is “wrong under the Sharia,” calling on Syrians to return to reconstruct their country.
The regime’s calls are linked to the Russian plan, announced by the Russian Defense Ministry, on July 18, 2018. Back then, Russia started an international and regional movement aimed at persuading host countries to repatriate refugees, along with an internal movement in Syria at the level of the preparation of hosting centers for returning refugees.
However, the international response, especially the European and the US, has linked the return of refugees to the start of reconstruction, which is subject to political transformation; given that UN figures on the destruction in Syria do not bode well for the country’s eligibility for the return of refugees.
‘Old and ruined’
An engineering source, who was a member of the Engineers’ Division in Damascus countryside, divides infrastructures in Syria into two parts: old and new. The source explained that the old part of the infrastructures does not bear the current population density, apart from many areas that have been bombed, which in turn led to the worsening of these infrastructures’ situation.
The source (asked not to be named for security reasons) said that the current situation of the inhabited areas, which have not been affected by battles or bombing, does not allow the increase of population. This is due to the numerous problems from which infrastructures in these areas are suffering (electricity, water, sewage networks, ground communications, roads, public facilities), which have been studied to withstand a certain extent of population pressure.
As for the areas that have been devastated and controlled by regime forces over the past two years, such as Eastern Ghouta, Homs countryside and southern Damascus, these need huge funds to be rehabilitated.
According to the source, the “construction from scratch” is more affordable than rehabilitation operations, which include the removal of debris and the study of the infrastructures’ situation. All this can delay the start of any projects related to the rehabilitation of infrastructures.
The source cited the example of the city of Darayya, which had been widely destructed. Despite the Syrian regime’s control over the city and its depiction of an image that this city has become safe, a limited number of people are returning and working on the rehabilitation of their homes without services.
The same applies to the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, which witnessed the fall of dozens of buildings due to the damage they were subjected to by the bombings during the control of opposition factions over them between 2012 and 2016.
According to a report published by the Syrian state-owned daily newspaper Tishreen on February 3, buildings that pose a high risk on their inhabitants in the city of Aleppo are close to 10,000; the equivalent of 80,000 apartments threatened with collapse.
Residents cannot return today despite the announcement of the rehabilitation of many areas in terms of services, the source said, stressing that infrastructures are “not ready yet.”
Exploitation of inhabitants and returnees
The regime’s government demands that citizens ensure the process of assessing the damage of buildings that have been previously bombed, according to the engineering source. This confirms that the government requires the residents to pay 50,000 Syrian Pounds to the technical committees they need to reveal the technical condition of their houses.
While the regime relies on people to fund part of assessing operations of Syria’s infrastructure damage, it also depends on the return of refugees to push for reconstruction.
Mohammad al-Abdallah, Executive Director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Centre, believes that the regime has a “conditional” interest in the return of refugees to Syria, in order to use it to finance the reconstruction of the country. He clarified also that returnees do not have housing, services or infrastructures that are commensurate with their numbers.
“The reconstruction process requires funds. The regime will take advantage of these funds for its rehabilitation and international recognition,” al-Abdallah said in an interview with Enab Baladi, adding: “Russia’s hope for the EU’s participation in this plan was to rely on Europe’s desire to get rid of refugees.”
Losses worth billions of pounds in infrastructure
The regime needs more reconstruction funds to compensate for the losses in the service sectors and infrastructures. The losses that hit the residential sector are estimated at 5.2 billion Syrian Pounds, from March 2011 to March 2017, according to a statement by the Director General of the General Organization for Housing, Suhail Abdul Latif, to the state-owned newspaper Tishreen.
Indirect losses related to the benefit of the implementation of the housing plans amounted to 93.5 billion Syrian Pounds.
The losses in the electric power sector, as of the first half of 2017, amounted to 2.000 billion Syrian Pounds, distributed over 800 billion Pounds, the value of power generation damages, 300 billion Pounds in the field of energy transfer and 900 Billion Pounds in energy distribution, said the director of the organization of the electricity sector and private investment to Tishreen newspaper.
The value of damage that hit the roads network, bridges and installations of the General Organization for Road Transport reached 50 billion Syrian Pounds, while the damage to the water resources sector amounted to 770 billion Syrian Pounds, stated the Minister of Water Resources, Nabil al-Hassan, to al-Watan newspaper in May 2018.
The United Nations estimates the cost of rehabilitation of Syria’s infrastructure at $ 400 billion, according to a report issued by the UN Economic Commission in Beirut in August 2018.
Does the regime have an interest in refugees’ return?
Through the return of refugees, the regime is looking for a financial benefit by funding reconstruction projects. However, the return of more than six million Syrians abroad, according to UNHCR statistics, is a burden that the government cannot bear.
Mohammad al-Abdallah, Executive Director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Centre, considers that the return of large numbers of refugees will put great pressure on the regime in terms of services, responsibility, commitment and economic burden.
He also pointed out that the return of refugees to Syria constitutes an obstacle to the laws and decrees that allow the regime to own their properties, which are Law No. 10 and before it, Decree 66, which both allow for the acquisition of Syrians’ properties, including houses and properties, under the pretext of urban planning and reconstruction.
“The early return of refugees to Syria will allow them to place real estate signs on their homes and properties or receive financial compensation, which is against the regime’s interest,” added al-Abdallah.
On the other hand, “the regime has an interest in expanding the expropriation area, to put its hands on the real estate, build new real estate cities such as (Marota City) and (Basilia City), and then sell them at fictional prices as advertised and offer them as compensation to its friends, allies and fighters in its ranks. This also allows the creation of a security belt of pro-regime residents around the capital Damascus,” according to al-Abdallah.
From another side, al-Abdallah believes that “the loyalty of returning refugees may confuse the calculations of the regime, because returnees are not necessarily loyal to it. Even if they are forced to return back from the host countries, the regime is not able to control and pressure them.”
Al-Abdallah expects that the regime will carry out a campaign of arrests against the returnees in order to “filter” those desired to return, and start a campaign of arrests to intimidate refugees wishing to return, similar to the adopted campaign against returnees from Jordan and Lebanon, under the pretext that they are wanted by the security authorities. This is in addition to “delivering a special message aimed at making the pro-regime incubator enjoy the largest loyalty.”
According to figures released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in mid-August 2019, 15 refugees returning to Syria were killed under torture, while 638 refugees were forcibly disappeared after their return.
Northern areas are ‘safe’
Perceptions bounded by ‘accommodation capacity’ and political understandings
While the Syrian regime is promoting the return of refugees, there are other calls for their return to Syria, but to areas under the control of opposition factions in the northern countryside of Aleppo, or to the “safe zone” being talked about in a Turkish-US consensus in northeast Syria.
The Syrian Interim Government is leading these calls, supported by Turkey’s official position, while the housing, service or living reality does not provide many possibilities for the implementation of these perceptions, despite moves to make them available in the near term.
Aleppo countryside: ‘relative stability’ and ‘overcrowded area’
The northern and eastern rural areas of Aleppo, which are controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition, are more stable than other areas controlled by opposition factions in northern Syria.
The Head of the Refugee Affairs Department of the Syrian National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Amal al-Sheikhou, pointed out that these areas could receive a large number of Syrian refugees, “especially with the efforts of the Collision-backed Syrian Interim Government in an effort to turn the projects into a reality, on condition of providing the necessary support for the government.”
“Through the Syrian Interim Government, the National Coalition is working to manage this area and turn it into an example to be followed in the region, which may have a positive impact on many displaced people to return to these areas,” added al-Sheikhou in an interview with Enab Baladi.
The region is witnessing a large construction movement linked to relative security stability, through Turkish housing projects or local capitals, while these projects remain within the context of individual investments, without the intervention of the Interim Government. This means that they are unreliable in terms of providing new housing for displaced people in the region or the returning refugees.
The countryside of Aleppo accommodates large numbers of displaced Syrians, who reached between February and the end of August more than 96 thousand people, according to statistics issued by the Syrian Humanitarian Response Coordinators teams on July 29, 2019.
Accordingly, the region does not have the capacity to accommodate more residents, as confirmed by the Head of the Local Council of the city of Jarabulus, Abd Khalil, to Enab Baladi. He also revealed the need for “international support” to improve service levels in the countryside of Aleppo, to accommodate the numbers of Syrian refugees.
Khalil cited the example of the city of Jarabulus, which “provides services. It is also the largest city in the region, but it is overcrowded, along with the presence of about 25,000 people in the camps.”
“The region needs to build housing units to accommodate large numbers of people. It also needs to create job opportunities for the displaced people by opening investments in it,” added Khalil.
To ‘safe zone’: Return rejected by US and supported by Turkey
While steps are being taken to implement the safe zone in north-eastern Syria, according to the Turkish-American agreement, talks in Turkey about pushing for the return of refugees to that area are spreading.
In February 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considered the project to establish a safe zone on Syria’s northern border as a step forward towards the repatriation of 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the near future.
The Syrian opposition is moving in light of the Turkish vision, hoping to manage the region, provide services and open it to the return of Syrian refugees.
Member of the political body in the opposition coalition, Yasser al-Farhan, told Enab Baladi in an earlier interview that the Coalition and the Interim Government are developing plans to manage the region.
Al-Farhan added that the coalition has “al-Jazeera and Euphrates Committee,” which includes the people of the eastern region, and established a vision to hand the area to be managed by the locals temporarily, while maintaining the unity of Syria. Thus, the Committee built ideas and drafted a paper regarding the mechanisms enabling the achievement of peace and justice in the region in order to preserve security.
The Committee also prepared studies about the region, the number of residents there and potential refugees returning, their educational, health, and service needs of water, electricity and transportation; in addition to the region’s need for economic and human resources, al-Farhan said, stressing that these studies are based on more than one scenario.
According to al-Farhan, the Interim Government has produced three papers, 120 pages each, which include an integrated plan to manage the region, protect its people, prevent attacks, secure stability, get rid of “terrorist groups and prevent the return of ISIS fighters.”
On the other hand, the US along with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which currently manages part of the planned safe zone, reject plans for the repatriation of refugees. Hence, the US envoy to Syria, Joel Rayburn, told Enab Baladi, on September 7, that the US does not support Turkey’s plan to return Syrian refugees to the safe area.
He added that the parties to the agreement call it a “security mechanism,” pointing out that the goal of the establishment of the safe zone is to avoid attacks on Turkey or Syria coming from that area.
“Considering that the agreement is concerned with security, the return of refugees is not part of it,” Rayburn indicated, noting that the United States supports a safe and voluntary return of refugees on condition that they are from that specific region.
The official Kurdish position shares the US’s perceptions on the refugees’ return. The spokesperson for the Democratic Council of Syria (SDC), Amjad Othman, said in an earlier interview with Enab Baladi that “those who will return to the region are the locals. Only a particular region’s inhabitants were given permission to return. What Turkey says about the return of 700,000 refugees has nothing to do with us.”
Russian plan to return refugees
Steady moves doomed to failure by Europeans
On July 18, 2018, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a plan to repatriate Syrian refugees, the first of its kind since immigration waves began in 2011.
Russia began its plan to rally international support when it applied to 45 countries for accurate data and figures on Syrian refugees living there, noting that the preliminary figures obtained in principle correspond to the statistics of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
After that, Moscow announced the establishment of shelters to receive and relocate refugees wishing to return to Syria, in cooperation with the government of the Syrian regime. The Russians established 76 centers to accommodate more than 336,000 Syrian refugees, distributed to 73,000 centers in the governorate of Rif Dimashq, and 134,000 in the governorate of Aleppo, 64,000 in Homs, 10,000 in Hama, in addition to 45,000 in Deir ez Zor, and 9,000 in the eastern Qalamoun.
These centers were meant to monitor the return of refugees from foreign countries to Syria, providing them with necessary assistance, relocating them according to their permanent residences, and keeping homeless people in shelters.
As part of the coordination of these shelters, the Russian Ministry of Defense established an office in Moscow in conjunction with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is tasked with coordinating the work of the hosting facilities and the implementation of planned events.
More than a year after the launch of the plan, Russia claims it is yielding “positive” results. Thus, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on September 2 that some 400,000 people have returned to Syria since July 2018.
Most of these refugees have returned from Lebanon, while those coming from Jordan constitute only a part of the total number of returnees. As such, the European countries believe that the situation in Syria is not yet appropriate for the return of Syrian refugees.
In a special statement, Reuters quoted the European Union, on August 27, saying that Syria, which suffers from the atrocities of war, is still unsafe for the return of refugees, when talking about the Russian plan.
The same new agency quoted European Union officials saying that European countries stick to their position not to provide funds for the reconstruction of Syria, “as long as President Bashar al-Assad does not allow the opposition to be part of the authority.”
The statements of the European Union officials coincided with similar French statements. Agnes Von Der Muhll, French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, conveyed on August 26 that the conditions for the return of Syrian refugees to their country have not been met because of al-Assad’s policy.
Muhll cited Presidential Law No. 10, saying it deprived refugees and internally displaced persons of their property, referring to instability in Syria, cases of arrests and forced recruitment of Syrian returnees from Lebanon; as well as the link the Europeans deduced between the refugees’ return, reconstruction and the political settlement despite divergent views between the EU and Russia on the completion of the two processes.
Poll: Syrians abroad are not looking forward to return
An opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi showed that the majority of Syrians abroad are not prepared to return to Syria.
Enab Baladi carried out a poll via Facebook, asking the following question: “For Syrians abroad: Are you prepared to return to Syria, and why?”
81% of the respondents, who exceeded 1,800, voted “No,” while 19 % of them voted “Yes.”
Some 50 respondents reacted negatively to the idea of returning, and their opinions were mostly pessimistic about the possibility of going back to Syria. Some participants justified their views with economic reasons related to the situation of services in Syria, while others linked their refusal to return to political reasons.
Mohammed Shabib wrote: “In a torn country, you need a sponsor in order to be able to visit the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) controlled areas and large sums of money to move from liberated areas to areas controlled by the regime. Adding to that, there are no minimum standards of a decent life as electricity and safety. Wages are low and life is expensive. There is nothing in there except for compulsory service for life.” He insisted that “we do not have any insurance to go back.”
Marwan Ajam commented: “There is no work. Food, drink and clothing prices are high beyond imagination. There is no security for the authority and people. The weapons are hidden and available on both sides.”
As for Abdulaziz Ibrahim, he believed that “it is not possible to go back if the revolution does not achieve its objectives, i.e. topple the regime and declare a constitution that guarantees freedom for all components of the great Syrian people.”
Mohammed Hammadi also linked the return to the political solution in Syria, stating: “We are waiting for political solution and reconciliation among all components of the Syrian people, and a political settlement that secures our children and our lives.”
The regime’s weapons are the most prominent reason
How destruction rates are distributed in Syria?
The United Nations Institute for Research and Training (UNITAR) provided an atlas that shows the extent of destruction in the Syrian governorates and cities over the past eight years. The Atlas, published on March 16, is based on satellite imagery analysis and maps showing the distribution and intensity of the destruction in 16 Syrian cities and regions, which were affected the most by war.
The following are the proportions of the distribution of destruction in the Syrian regions, as translated by Enab Baladi from the UNITAR’s atlas:
Northwest regions: Aleppo most devastated
According to UN research, Aleppo governorate witnessed the largest wave of destruction across Syria, with 4,773 totally destroyed buildings, 14,680 severely destroyed buildings, and 16,269 partially destroyed buildings, bringing the total to 35,722 damaged buildings.
The research said that its population, which counted for more than 2,5 millions before 2011, is estimated at 1,6 million today, including 200,000 inhabitants in the eastern section, which suffered the most. Thus, the security situation in this area is still unstable, especially with the spread of explosive remnants and the lack of basic needs.
The destruction in Aleppo is distributed among its different cities and villages. For instance, in the city of Afrin, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, there are 67 buildings completely destroyed, 26 buildings were severely damaged, and 103 buildings were partially destroyed, bringing the total number of damaged buildings to 196.
In Manbij city, northeast of Aleppo, 284 buildings were completely destroyed, 412 severely destroyed and 502 partially destroyed, bringing the total to 1,198 sabotaged building.
In the city of Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) 1,206 buildings were completely destroyed, 1,169 buildings were severely destroyed, and 872 partially destroyed, making a total of 3,247 damaged buildings.
In the north-western governorate of Idlib, 311 buildings were completely destroyed, 418 were severely destroyed, and 686 were partially damaged, bringing the total to 1415.
Northeast regions destroyed by International Coalition
The UN studied the extent of the destruction in areas that were under the control of ISIS. These regions were subjected to major air raids by the International Coalition forces, which led to the deterioration of services with the spread of explosive remnants, according to the UN atlas.
The research indicated that 3,326 buildings were completely destroyed in Raqqa, 3,962 buildings severely destroyed, and 5,493 partially destroyed, bringing the total number of damaged buildings to 12,781.
The destruction in the governorate is distributed to its various cities and villages. In the city of al-Tabqah, 207 buildings were completely destroyed, 128 buildings were severely damaged, and 152 partially destroyed, with a total of 487 damaged buildings.
In Deir ez Zor, there are 1,161 buildings completely destroyed, 2,370 severely damaged, and 2,874 partially damaged, bringing the total number of damaged buildings to 6405.
Central region: Hama ranking first
The report identified 9,459 totally destroyed buildings in Hama, 404 severely destroyed buildings, and 666 partially damaged buildings, making a total of 10,529 damaged buildings.
In Homs, there are 3,082 totally destroyed buildings, 5,750 severely destroyed buildings, and 4,946 partially damaged buildings, for a total of 13,778 destroyed buildings.
In the archaeological city of Palmyra, in the governorate of Homs, there are 45 completely destroyed buildings, 112 severely destroyed buildings, and 494 partially damaged buildings, bringing the total of damaged buildings to 651.
In the town of al-Qaryatayn, also in Homs, there are 79 buildings completely destroyed, 190 buildings severely destroyed, and 256 buildings partially destroyed, making a total of 525 damaged buildings.
Areas around the capital: Ghouta affected the most
The total number of buildings destroyed in Eastern Ghouta was 9,353, in addition to 13,661 buildings that were severely destroyed, and 11,122 partially destroyed, with a total of 34,136 damaged buildings.
The area of Yarmouk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad, south of Damascus, have 2,109 totally destroyed buildings, 1,765 severely damaged buildings and 1,615 partially damaged buildings, bringing the total to 5,489.
In the city of al-Zabadani in the countryside of Damascus, there are 659 completely destroyed buildings, 1251 severely damaged buildings and 1,454 partially damaged buildings, with a total of 3,364 damaged buildings.
Destruction of the southern region
In Daraa, south of Syria, 224 buildings were completely destroyed, 498 buildings were severely damaged, and 781 were partially damaged, with a total of 1,503 damaged buildings.
The UN atlas identified criteria for measuring the percentage of destruction, which is to consider the building completely destroyed if the damage reaches 75 to 100 percent, while it is considered severely damaged if the damage reaches 30 to 75 percent, and partially destroyed if the damage reaches 5 to 30 percent.
With clashes subsiding in large areas in Syria and Syrian regime forces regaining control over many previously opposition-controlled areas, the reconstruction file became one of al-Assad’s government’s biggest challenges, as the United Nations estimated the reconstruction process costs at $ 400 billion.