In Syria, You Can’t Go Home Again

The refugees arriving in Europe are just the tip of the iceberg: Millions of internally displaced Syrians are struggling to survive, even those seen as a potential fifth column in government-controlled areas.


HUSSEINIYEH, Syria — The conquest of this Damascus suburb was supposed to be a success story for the Syrian government — a sign that after years of fighting, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces could defeat rebels and send displaced civilians back home. Instead, the halting repatriation of its residents stands as a daunting reminder of just how difficult it will be to reestablish order in a country shattered by war.

HUSSEINIYEH, Syria — The conquest of this Damascus suburb was supposed to be a success story for the Syrian government — a sign that after years of fighting, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces could defeat rebels and send displaced civilians back home. Instead, the halting repatriation of its residents stands as a daunting reminder of just how difficult it will be to reestablish order in a country shattered by war.

This small suburb southeast of the capital emerged relatively unscathed from a brief spasm of fighting between rebels and the Syrian military in 2013. By the end of that year it had been completely emptied of civilians. Once the government had driven rebels from the suburb and readied it for habitation, officials waited nearly two years before allowing a first wave of residents to return. A select group of a few hundred families were permitted back into Husseiniyeh this September, after pleading with the government and signing loyalty oaths. Following that first wave, over 4,500 families have returned, according to the United Nations.

Even within the tightly controlled, fortress-like perimeter of Husseiniyeh, army soldiers are jittery — their rifles at the ready as they warily eye the returnees, most of them government employees of Palestinian origin. Syrian authorities fear many internally displaced civilians support the anti-government uprising or are even secret agents themselves.

“Be careful,” whispered a nervous Syrian soldier as a group of teenage Husseiniyeh residents told me about their plans to repair the family home and restock the appliance store. “Some of these boys are jihadis.”

Whether or not they were, the soldier’s anxiety spoke to the fragility of the return process here. The first wave of returnees admitted in September included members of “trusted” categories: soldiers, civil servants, and government contractors.

“Anything could happen,” admitted Izdeehar Hussein, 48, owner of the appliance store and aunt of the teenagers. She was one of the advocates who helped negotiate the Husseiniyeh return agreement with the government’s Ministry of Reconciliation Affairs. “They let us in first and said, ‘You promised you would keep this peaceful.’ This way they can keep things in control.”

The struggle to reestablish control of this small suburb reflects one of the Syrian government’s greatest challenges: What should it do with a massive number of displaced Syrians who could potentially become a fifth column in government-controlled areas or might even take up arms against the government as soon as they’re home again?

Even as Europe and the United States debate whether Syrian refugees pose a threat, Assad faces a much more acute problem at home — one that is orders of magnitude worse. According to Syrian officials, in some government-controlled areas like the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia, half of the population today consists of people displaced from areas now under the control of anti-government militias. And for all the government’s happy talk about displaced people well cared for and living under the hand of a fully operational state, Syrian authorities have fewer resources than ever with which to control or monitor citizens whose loyalty they doubt.

The number of displaced people inside Syria beggars belief. Nearly 7 million people are displaced across the country, according to figures from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Another 4 million have fled entirely. Damascus hosts 436,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and its suburbs more than 1.2 million, according to U.N. figures. Syrian government officials said some provinces have twice as many IDPs as the U.N. estimates.

Solving the internal displacement problem is key to Assad’s strategy, which requires reasserting dominance over Sunni areas and populations that took part in the uprising. But some international officials and analysts of the Syrian war argue that Assad has purposefully made it easier for Syrians to leave the country in order to reduce his IDP problem. This summer, Syrians who had previously been unable to obtain passports found officials willing to issue them in a week. Border restrictions were lifted, making it possible for vast numbers of Syrians to seek refuge abroad.

“They’re happy if they have fewer mouths to feed,” one U.N. employee in Syria said.

This policy has, in turn, exacerbated the refugee crisis in neighboring countries and Europe. About half of the local staff in one U.N. agency in Syria fled to Europe this summer, crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece in boats, the employee said.

* * *

Far from the front line, the new demographics of displacement are straining the social peace of a region considered Assad’s heartland.

In the coastal city of Tartus, Syrians who have fled fighting in the country’s interior have inhabited virtually every available structure with a roof, from office towers to construction sites. A few steps down the hall from the Social Affairs Ministry’s provincial headquarters, a jerry-rigged iron gate blocking a stairwell leads to offices which have been repurposed as homes for families from Aleppo, their foam mattresses neatly leaned against the wall to make room for water buckets and butane burners. This is Displaced Persons Shelter No. 1, which was established in 2012 by optimistic officials who thought the war would end quickly.

Today, 600 people from Aleppo live in that first center. They are the lucky ones: Their kids are in school, the government staffs a free medical clinic on the ground floor, and most of the shelter residents — from the war’s early waves of displacement — have full-time jobs. The provincial government of Tartus has opened up 21 more official shelters, which house only a small portion of the 370,000 registered IDPs, according to Nizar Mahmoud, head of the government’s humanitarian response in Tartus.

Rents have skyrocketed, and tensions bubble up between the displaced newcomers, many of them Sunni Muslims, and the local population, which includes a large share of Alawites, Christians, and other minorities. The Mediterranean coast represents the government’s most secure area, and the loyalist villages scattered across the nearby mountains are often referred to as the Alawite heartland. But even before the war, the major coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia were predominantly Sunni, and that percentage has only grown with the wave of displaced people.

The government watches the displaced population carefully, on the lookout for sleeper cells and rebel infiltrators. The government tries to downplay sectarian rhetoric, but it seems to consider the massive influx of newcomers a potentially destabilizing fifth column.

Vigilant locals, one off-duty military officer in Latakia insisted, were supplementing the strained capacity of the state’s many intelligence agencies, or mukhabarat. “We have the situation under control,” he said. “Today, everybody has become mukhabarat.”

Resentment percolates quietly among the displaced civilians, the majority of whom are forced to fend for themselves. Officially, the state still guarantees social services for all, but in practice, hundreds of thousands of displaced people have fallen through the cracks. Many of the displaced have already moved three or four times, as the conflict kept spreading deeper into formerly safe zones or when they ran out of rent money.

The strains are obvious: Cafés and promenades are overflowing with the unemployed, and despite the government’s claims, thousands of children aren’t in school, and families that can’t afford housing are sleeping in parks or makeshift quarters.

The problems are even more acute further north along the coast in Latakia, which houses many more displaced people and is closer to the front-line fighting. Since 2014, many refugees from northern Syria have reported that they were turned away when they tried to flee to the Syrian coast from embattled northern areas around Idlib and Aleppo. The government denies such reports, but it wasn’t able to show this reporter any shelters or camps that housed people displaced by the last year’s fighting; all the IDPs showcased by the government to multiple visiting reporters from different outlets moved there in 2013 or before.

The lone Syrian identified by government officials who arrived recently was a post office employee named Khaled Badawi, 53, who was displaced from his home village in Idlib in 2011. He stayed there for four years, until March 25, when a rebel coalition swept into the city. On that day, Badawi’s 16-year-old son died in a rebel mortar attack as the family was crossing a government checkpoint. His surviving two sons are in the military.

Now he collects a salary from the post office in Latakia, even though he admits there isn’t much for him to do there. Like dozens of displaced Syrians interviewed in their temporary homes, Badawi plans someday to return to his village, despite profound reservations.

He denied that the government has turned away IDPs from his area or that it gives special treatment to those whose family members are fighting for the government. He praised the government’s support but described a life of hardship. There was no place for his family in the city of Latakia, so they now live an hour’s ride away on public transport in a small village. “Everything is hard now,” he said.

The challenges of building a new life on the coast are daunting enough, but the task of restoring peace to Badawi’s hometown in Idlib will be even greater. In the Idlib countryside, Badawi said, all the combatants know each other: Relatives and former friends fight with anti-Assad militias, while his sons fight for the government. When it’s over, he doesn’t believe supporters of both sides can live in the same town again.

“The man who threatened to kill me was my neighbor,” Badawi said. “He will not be my neighbor again. It will be me or him. There is no trust at all anymore.”

* * *

Trust in the government has also eroded among some IDPs, though criticism remains muted for fear of being branded a terrorist or opposition fellow-traveler. In Damascus, a Sunni-majority city surrounded on several sides by anti-government rebels, the strain placed on the government’s limited resources is more visible.

Many of the displaced in the capital have come from rebel-held areas under steady government bombardment to suburbs like Jaramana, south of the city center and a few miles from front-line fighting. Some 1.6 million people in search of affordable and safe quarters have crowded into a neighborhood meant for one-third that many people. Beside a busy government checkpoint, two families were renting a windowless ground floor room that before the civil war was used as storage space.

Iman Araouri, 45, was recuperating from a stomach operation but was unable to afford the medicine and nutritional supplements prescribed by her surgeon. Her husband’s salary as a municipal janitor, about $85 per month, goes entirely to their rent. They cannot afford mattresses or blankets nor can the extended family’s children attend school.

To qualify for government services, including school enrollment and extra food rations, they need papers that prove where they lived originally. Araouri’s cousin, Marwa Bashir Hamoud, 31, said she crossed rebel lines, braving the same militiamen who murdered her husband in search of documents from her home. But when she reached it, she said, it had been looted. There was nothing left.

Hamoud tried to enroll her daughter in school after hearing a government announcement on the radio. “The minister said on the news that we can put our kids in school no matter what has happened to our papers,” Hamoud, who has four children, said she told the admissions official in Jaramana.

“Go and tell that to the minister,” the official told her, turning her away.

The IDPs are careful not to directly criticize the government, but at least some of their complaints are clear. Araouri said she has a brain-damaged 17-year-old son who lives in hiding at a relative’s farm; she’s afraid that despite his condition, he’ll be drafted into the army.

“Somebody has to take care of us,” Araouri said. “We are going back to Stone Age life.”

These personal tragedies echo in households across Syria, multiplied millions of times over. The Assad government fervently promotes the idea that the state still functions and that it earns the loyalty of the Syrian public. But the reality of wartime Syria differs greatly from the ideal propagated on state television and in the dispatches of the government’s rose-tinted Syrian Arab News Agency.

If the Palestinian suburb of Husseiniyeh is any indication, where it took nearly two years after the end of fighting for civilians to return, the Assad government’s piecemeal approach to restoring control will progress slowly. The displaced population will likely be an ongoing source of instability — a rolling earthquake that never fully stops.

“Here, by the grace of god, the war has ended,” said Khaled Abdullah Hussein, 64, a retired customs agent and a leader of the committee of local notables that negotiated Husseiniyeh’s reconciliation agreement with the government. With more than half of Syria’s territory out of the state’s control, and much of the rest threatened by rebels or jihadis, officials have their hands full, Hussein said. “The government doesn’t have time only for Husseiniyeh.”


Thanassis Cambanis, author of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story and A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @tcambanis. Twitter: @tcambanis

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