Following a meeting in Damascus last week between the head of the European Union's delegation to Syria, Dan Stoenescu, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, the EU's Syria mission posted a statement to Twitter that revealed the bubble that the few Western diplomats still in Damascus inhabit. "The EU will support UN-facilitated returns in a timely manner, when and as soon as conditions become available," the EU delegation tweeted, referring to the repatriation of Syrian refugees.
You don't have to travel far from central Damascus to know the reality—and how out of touch the EU's mission sounded. Syrians are still fleeing from regime-held areas every day. The internally displaced would rather stay in squalid IDP camps than risk returning to regime-held areas where they could be detained or tortured. And, whether living precariously in Syria or as refugees in neighboring countries, many Syrians are again looking to reach Europe, either by land or in dangerous crossings by sea.
In 2015, millions of Syrian refugees fleeing war became a "crisis" in Europe. Syrians are leaving now, in large part, because they fear the outcome of normalization with President Bashar al-Assad. As more countries in the Middle East re-establish diplomatic ties with his regime after more than a decade of war, many Syrians are losing hope of living in or ever returning to a Syria without Assad. In Turkey, which has hosted millions of Syrian refugees, there are growing fears about their future in the country, given rising anti-refugee sentiment and the Turkish government's change of tone toward Assad.
Recent statements from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey doesn't seek Assad's defeat or removal, hinting at normalizing ties, and from Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that Turkey has no preconditions for dialogue with Syria, may merely be electioneering ahead of next year's crucial elections, as Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party looks to fend off a stronger opposition. But that is no comfort to Syrians who fear a growing backlash to refugees in Turkey as the country's economy has sunk in recent years. Thousands of Syrians in Turkey this month formed a convoy to move en masse to its borders with the European Union, in Bulgaria and Greece.
Turkey's political opposition has been advocating normalization with the Assad regime for years now, reflecting popular Turkish sentiment. "We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace," Cavusoglu said last month—a message he also apparently conveyed last year to his Syrian counterpart, Faisal al-Mekdad, on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement's summit in Serbia. There have been more signs of a diplomatic thaw between Turkey and Syria this month. Erdogan reportedly wanted to meet Assad if the Syrian president had attended a recent summit in Uzbekistan, and the head of Turkish intelligence reportedly met several times with Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk in Damascus in recent weeks, at Russia's urging.
Syrians are still fleeing from regime-held areas every day. The internally displaced would rather stay in squalid IDP camps than risk returning to regime-held areas where they could be detained or tortured. And many Syrians are again looking to reach Europe.
- Rena Netjes
Meanwhile, in northern Syria, the last bastion of the anti-Assad opposition, there are similar fears about what the future holds. Continued warfare has shown recent signs of further escalation, including a Turkish incursion. On top of the deteriorating economic and security situation, there is now the possibility of the Assad regime retaking control of more territory in northern Syria.
For both Syrian IDPs and refugees abroad, the calculus is simple. If there is a reasonable chance that your town or village will be liberated from the Assad regime, and that you may be able to go back to your home, you will stay in northern Syria or try to return. But if you lose that hope for good as more and more countries normalize with Assad, then you give up. And then you start thinking of Europe.
In the few remaining areas outside regime control in northern Syria, the number of Syrians who want to travel to Europe in search of permanent refuge is steadily growing. They are joined by people fleeing areas controlled by both the Assad regime and by the Kurdish-led and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, where the economic situation is even worse than in opposition-held areas. In areas still controlled by Syrian opposition forces with the backing of Turkey, there are better basic services, provided by connections to Turkish grids, including electricity, Wi-Fi and water, along with the possibility of trade through the Turkish border. The Turkish lira is also used widely in those opposition areas, and for all the lira's problems with devaluation, it is still better than the dramatically depreciated Syrian pound.
"There is an unprecedented wave of people leaving the area," Zein al-Abadeen, a Syrian journalist in Raqqa, said in an interview. "Since June, young people from the eastern Euphrates areas are leaving, from Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Hasaka." He said the reasons are "random arrests, forced conscription—plus some men have died in detention by the SDF, under torture." He added, "The economic situation is very bad," with a lack of clean water leading to a deadly cholera outbreak. "Young Kurds flee to Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey, and young people from Deir Ezzor and Raqqa flee to SNA areas, and then to Turkey," said al-Abadeen, referring to the Syrian National Army, once known as the Free Syrian Army. "From there, they flee to Europe."
More than 46,000 people arrived in the border town of Ras al-Ain, in northeast Syria, from both regime- and SDF-controlled areas from April 2021 to August 2022, according to Hussein Raad, who sits on the local council in Ras al-Ain and is also a member of member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the largest opposition body. Ras al-Ain is controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. Raad added that the internally displaced arrived out of fear of arrest, torture and forced conscription in both regime and SDF areas, in addition to significant rises in prices.
In nearby Qamishli, in the heart of the Kurdish-majority areas of northeast Syria, Mohamed Ismail of the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of Syrian Kurdish political parties, described a similarly grim environment. "The economic situation is very bad. For two years, there is no harvest season because there is no rain," which has devastated what should be a rich agricultural area. "There is an additional economic crisis," Ismail said. "The poor ones stay and the others, if they get a chance to flee the area, they go"—to Iraqi Kurdistan, or to European countries if they can. "There are no political horizons for this area. There are no signs of hope."
According to Ismail, the misery is compounded by the fact that "the economic situation and the security situation are in the hands of the PKK and not the SDC." He was referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party and its Syrian branch, and the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF. "The Autonomous Administration has no financial resources," he added, describing the de facto autonomous region under Kurdish control in northeast Syria. "In addition to the constant threats of Turkey entering—all the talks are that if Turkey were to enter, we will flee—there is a lot of worry and fear. And then, the worst-case scenario is the area's handed over to the regime."
In the few remaining areas outside regime control in northern Syria, the number of Syrians who want to travel to Europe in search of permanent refuge is steadily growing.
- Rena Netjes
For all these reasons, most Syrians feel safest in the parts of northwest Syria controlled by the Turkish military, where the Assad regime's influence is least felt. More than 4 million Syrians, many of them internally displaced, now live in this part of northwest Syria, north and west of Aleppo. Despite little to no European aid to the area, because of European opposition to Turkey's intervention in Syria, the Assad regime would easily take control if Turkey did not have its troops on the ground. That would drive much of the population to flee over the border to Turkey, accentuating an already grave refugee situation and placing more pressure on the EU's external borders.
Now, with more countries advocating normalization with Assad, any sense of relative safety in northwest Syria is evaporating. Several Arab countries have already normalized, with the United Arab Emirates leading the way. The unease among Syrians in Turkey is that Turkey is also heading in that direction, which might lead to forced returns if Syrian refugees become pawns in any rapprochement between Assad and Erdogan. In northeast Syria, there are growing concerns that the SDF could soon surrender areas under its control to the Assad regime.
"There is an uptick in people fleeing from Manbij, for example," said Jasem al-Sayyid, a journalist from Manbij, northeast of Aleppo, who is now residing in the border town of Azaz. "They are arriving in opposition areas [in the northwest] not with the aim to stay there, but to enter Turkey, and from Turkey to Europe. The reason is forced conscription by the SDF, mainly outside the city. On the roads from Manbij, to the east and the south, everyone is held now. In addition, they fear the SDF will hand over areas to the regime, like they have done before."
Against this backdrop, the head of the EU delegation to Syria appears oblivious to how vulnerable Syrians dread normalization with Assad's regime and how those fears are already driving new flows of refugees out of Syria. Stoenescu's highly publicized visits to Aleppo, Homs and Hama recently could strengthen the perception that the EU is open to reengaging with Assad diplomatically and presenting a false image of Syria as safe for returning refugees. Statements about supporting refugee returns while Assad is trying to repair or whitewash his image internationally will not encourage repatriation but likely result in the opposite outcome: more Syrians fleeing his regime.
Katrin Langensiepen, a German member of the European Parliament, reacted angrily on Twitter to Stoenescu's statement about his visit, reminding him of the European Parliament's 2021 resolution opposing "any normalization of diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime as long as there is no fundamental progress on the ground in Syria." As she wrote, "Please read the resolution where we are crystal clear: no diplomatic talks with the Assad regime."
Or maybe the EU's delegation in Syria has forgotten about that resolution, like many European governments that seem, without any evidence, to believe that Assad can somehow be the key to "stabilizing" Syria today and allowing refugees in Europe to return. Yet this kind of thinking will only convince Syrians to give up on any hope of meaningful political change in their country and instead flee to Europe.