SACD in 2020: Making Our Voice Heard
In 2020, the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD) continued to grow as a movement of displaced Syrians with a clearly defined mission: to ensure that millions of displaced people have a strong voice in all decisions that affect them and the future of Syria. Although the Covid-19 pandemic made it extremely difficult for the movement to work in full capacity, the Association made significant strides on various fronts: affecting the policy discourse on return and the rights of displaced Syrians, engaging decision makers directly and through various communication strategies, mobilizing displaced Syrians around the ideas of the Association and reaching hundreds of thousands of people around the globe with the SACD message.
The SACD priorities and efforts in 2020 have reflected the greatest threats facing displaced Syrians: the ongoing forced displacement of Syrians, especially those who fell victim to the Syrian regime’s onslaught on Idlib; the danger of premature return to an unsafe Syria, particularly to areas under the control of Syrian regime; the dire situation faced by internally displaced people and refugees in countries like Lebanon; the dangers and ongoing repression of the people who were forced to return to the regime-held areas and who live in the so called “reconciliation areas”; and the continuous efforts of the Syrian regime and its allies to gain international funding for reconstruction without conditions being created for a safe, voluntary and dignified return.
This review of the Association’s efforts in 2020 will give you an insight into how much we did and achieved on all these fronts. Today, international policy-makers from key countries and international organisations see the Association as a credible, legitimate voice of displaced Syrians. The protagonists of all relevant political and policy discussions on issues of displacement are increasingly using the discourse shaped by the Association’s advocacy over the last couple of years. Our reports and analysis are considered and used by leading academic, advocacy and policy-oriented organisations working on Syria. Our voice is carried in international and regional media. And, most importantly, the cause of the Association is increasingly recognized and joined by Syrians everywhere, from the camps in Idlib to the shores of New Zealand, from Denmark to Urfa, from New York to Berlin and Beirut.
Yet, while this review of SACD’s 2020 focuses largely on our advocacy efforts, the Association never stopped working on a crucial track which is an integral part of its DNA: building the popular movement. During 2020, the SACD through its members and trustees reached out directly to thousands of displaced Syrians in Syria and around the globe, through direct outreach activities, webinars and meetings, despite the restrictions and limitations imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic situation. Those meetings and conversations helped the Association as a movement to expand the reach of its core vision and goals to a broad constituency of Syrians. As a result of such efforts, complemented by the advocacy activities, the narrative of the Association has been adopted by a wide range of Syrians in various walks of life, and the process of building a powerful movement is moving forward, despite all difficulties and challenges we are facing.
In 2021 we will strive to do even more and to elevate the rights of displaced Syrians to the top of the agenda in all conversations on the future of the country. We will fight for the rights of displaced Syrians everywhere, for a safe environment for all Syrians in Syria, for the right to a safe, dignified and voluntary return, for the displaced Syrians inherent right to define the conditions of return, against premature return and against any decisions harmful and detrimental to the rights of displaced people. We are committed to the cause of millions of displaced people who may have lost everything, but will never give up on their dignity and rights. We will continue to build a powerful movement which will make sure that no decision is taken in our name, without our voice being heard and taken into account. For we are Syria.
SACD in 2020: The Timeline
The month of February witnessed intensification in the Syrian regime’s atrocious attacks on Idlib. In response, the Association elevated its efforts to reach the heads of key states and major international platforms to warn the international community to uphold their responsibility towards the civilians trapped in Idlib and to put an end to the war crimes committed by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. While our members from Idlib were reporting live on the untold suffering of civilians, our advocacy teams were working day and night to reach the highest offices of key countries and organisations and relay the implications of their inaction.
Over a million people had fled the attacks, while deliberate and continued targeting of hospitals and civilian facilities continued in a systematic way by Russia and the regime. Such war crimes were systematically used to forcibly displace Syrians from their cities. SACD’s Amer Zidan witnessed the immense suffering of Syrians displaced by the Russian and regime’s onslaught on Idlib and Aleppo countryside. The attacks forced civilians to flee their homes in freezing weather, heading on foot towards the Turkish border near Al-Atareb. SACD member of the General Board of Trustees Fadi Nezhat, from rural Damascus who was displaced to Idlib, vividly conveyed the awful reality of the Assad and Russia’s onslaught on Idlib deliberately targeting civilians.
Yet, a snap poll conducted by the SACD with 150 people who have fled the onslaught on Idlib, which was widely covered by the international media, showed that 90.6% of those polled, despite their dire situation, would not consider returning to Assad-held areas or entering reconciliation agreements under Russian guarantees. The poll was conducted in the border areas – Atma village, Albab City, Afreen, Adana, Sarmada and I’zaz City – with people who fled Idlib City, Saraqeb, Ma’rat al-Numan, Ma’rat Shashma, kafruma, Mardebsa, Sarmeen, Talmanas, Khan al-Asaal, Orem, Jabal al-Zawiee and Marestshoreen.
In advance of the emergency session of the UNSC on Idlib, SACD directly addressed the heads of the United States, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United Nations and the European Union demanding them to act and stop the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Idlib. At the same time, a letter signed by SACD and more than 50 other Syrian organisations was sent to key heads of states like President Trump, President Erdogan, President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Johnson, amongst others, with clear demands:
- “We call on Germany, Turkey, the United States, The United Kingdom, France, and the EU and to use all possible and available measures – diplomatic, economic and military – to stop Russia and Assad’s forces’ onslaught and enforce a no-fly zone over Idlib and other areas where civilians are currently targeted;
- We call on the United Nations and all its relevant agencies to urgently ensure delivery of tents (most urgent), food, blankets, medical supplies and basic infrastructure to the people displaced to the border areas by the Russian and Assad’s onslaught on Idlib;
- We call on Turkey and the EU to open their borders to the people displaced by the Russian and Assad’s onslaught on Idlib and provide them with temporary shelter, aid and safety for their children;
- We call on Turkey to use its monitoring points and military presence inside Syria to protect civilians and IDPs, and we call the United States to support such effort, and any effort to protect civilians.
- We call on the UNHCR to end its silence and regularly and publicly report on the scale of displacement and the needs of the people displaced by the Russian and Assad’s onslaught on Idlib;
- We call on the United States, Germany and other EU countries to urgently intensify the existing economic sanctions against Assad’s government as a tool of pressure to end the onslaught on Idlib and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians.”
SACD published texts in some of the leading international policy-oriented institutes and media like The Guardian to warn of the catastrophic consequences of Idlib falling into Assad hands which would not only erase any prospect of reaching a comprehensive political solution, but also permanently cement Syrian people’s displacement. Additionally, we intensified the effort to reach the Turkish decision-makers and the public to amplify our call to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to save Idlib from becoming a new Srebrenica.
In March, the Association was amongst the very first few Syrian and international voices to address the Syrian regime’s attempts to use the fight against Covid-19 to lift the sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU for the ongoing atrocities and human rights abuses, arguing that the sanctions are hampering its efforts in facing the pandemic, at the time when the United Nations called for a comprehensive ceasefire to face the spread of the virus.
The Syrian regime has launched a political and media campaign calling for the lifting of economic sanctions against it, claiming this is needed to cope with the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the areas of Syria it controls. Realizing the dangerous implications of such narrative, the Association did not hesitate to warn the international community and the key countries against entertaining such demands for the following reasons:
- The economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime do not affect the health sector.
- The Syrian regime has so far denied any cases of COVID-19 in areas it controls, despite the fact that, amongst others, the Pakistani government confirmed that the cases where the virus was spread in Pakistan by those coming from Syria. In addition, the regime has arrested several Syrian doctors who reported cases of COVID-19 infections in Damascus.
- The Syrian regime did not take any possible and affordable measures to prevent the spread of the virus, and began some superficial measures very late and without a genuine policy of raising awareness among the population.
- The regime – through an official in the Ministry of Health – stated that there are no cases of COVID-19 virus in Syria, but on the contrary, that international governments are asking for help and expertise from the regime to confront the virus. This is yet another example of complete dissociation from the reality and manipulation with the health and life of Syrians.
- Experience has shown that any economic aid reaching the Syrian regime will be used to support corrupt practices of the regime, including the sale of humanitarian aid, and that such aid, if not administered directly to the people, will never reach Syrians for whom it is intended.
- Lastly, the regime has too long a record of targeting and destroying hospitals and killing medical personnel to be trusted to act out of genuine concern for the health of Syrians.
Immediately after this, SACD and The White Helmets published a joint statement refuting the Syrian regime’s claims that the sanctions imposed on it are hampering its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and asserting that the regime practices of mass arrests, torture, killing, and blocking humanitarian aid is what is affecting the response against the virus, and not the sanctions. SACD also revealed how the regime did not take any early measures to stop the spread of the virus, but instead acted recklessly without any regard to Syrian lives.
Nevertheless, SACD expressed its full support for the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres’ call for a global, comprehensive ceasefire that takes into account the grave humanitarian situation the world faces due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and issued a statement to express the importance of reaching a ceasefire to prevent new waves of displacement.
In an analysis for the prestigious Fletcher Forum, Dr. Anas al-Fatih, SACD member of General Board of Trustees from Deir Ezzor, addressed the terror and repression inflicted by Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies as the main driver of displacement of Syrians, which requires active and robust action by the West. Dr. al-Fatih stressed on the fact that the only way the West can stop refugees waves at its shores and borders is by addressing the main driver of Syrian displacement which is Assad’s terror.
On the 9th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, SACD launched the #Karama (Dignity) campaign to give a voice to refugees and displaced Syrians who continue to come out to express their unequivocal and unwavering commitment to their struggle for dignity. The #Karama campaign had a worldwide reach of one million people and large participation from Syrians all over the world, including 50 SACD members who recorded videos to amplify the voices of the displaced Syrians. The aim of the campaign was to reach out to all displaced Syrians and unify their voices, as well as reminding the displaced of their rights and the importance of their struggle to have an impact on decision-making and the conditions that shape their return.
SACD’s advocacy efforts in April focused on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against the civilians with the aim of entire communities. We recognized the importance of the OPCW report recognizing the use of chemical weapons by Assad regime as an important milestone on the path to justice for Syrians and a fuller understanding of the Syrian regime’s strategy of forced displacement.
For the first time in nine years of the Syrian conflict, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published a report explicitly confirming the Assad regime used chemical weapons to attack civilians in Ltamenah, in Hama governorate. SACD welcomed the report as a watershed moment for the international community’s dealing with the ongoing conflict in Syria. The report, in our eyes, made it impossible for the key countries to ignore their responsibility of working towards creating and guaranteeing a safe environment for all Syrians in Syria, and abandoning any and all policies seeking to normalize Assad’s regime, while seeking full accountability for those responsible for such hideous crimes. In our meetings and diplomatic outreach we made clear points:
– The OPCW report clearly confirms that chemical attacks by the Assad’s forces were used with the sole purpose of terrorizing civilians and forcing them to abandon their homes, and had no military justification whatsoever. The sole aim of such terror was and still is to forcibly displace the majority of Syrian population which was seen as anti-regime and affect a demographic change in the country.
– Accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity such as attacks with chemical weapons must be considered one of the crucial pre-conditions and confidence-building measures before organized, safe, voluntary and dignified return of the displaced people to Syria can be considered.
– It is impossible to consider any of the currently ongoing elements of the political process without addressing the key issue — creating a safe environment under international sponsorship and supervision for a voluntary and dignified return of the displaced. Elections are impossible without this. Verification of the new constitution is impossible without this. Reconstruction is impossible without this. Organized return is impossible without this.
– A regime which has been proved to have used chemical weapons against its own people cannot under any circumstances be relied on to provide safe environment for the Syrian people and cannot have legitimacy to provide any guarantees to this effect. Only a robust international presence, with a clear mandate to supervise and enforce a political settlement which will guarantee the rights and safety of all Syrians, including returnees, can guarantee minimal conditions for a safe, voluntary and dignified return.
However, SACD reports and advocacy efforts did not only focus on the need to establish clear accountability and to stop such crimes, but also to expose how this systematic use of chemical attacks on civilian population are used to provoke demographic change through forced displacement.
On the 3rd anniversary of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, SACD stressed that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and the systematic attacks conducted from joint air bases with Russian and Iranian forces has been a part of the wider strategy of demographic change in Syria, which has resulted in the displacement of millions of Syrians.
Lastly, the Association addressed the dehumanizing language used by the Russian MFA against the people trapped in the Rukban camp, in atrocious humanitarian conditions due to the siege laid by the Syrian regime and Russian and Iranian forces. Russian MFA used the language of threats and “elimination” in referring to the displaced Syrians in Rukban. SACD used different platforms and means of communication to inform of the real situation facing Rukban, where people were starved due to the siege which prevented humanitarian aid from reaching them regularly.
- May 2020
As the Covid-19 virus spread around the globe, the Syrian regime continued its propaganda effort to blame its failure to fight the pandemic on the international sanctions imposed on it for the ongoing atrocities and human rights violations. On the other side of the border, an already difficult situation of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon became exacerbated by the pandemic in a country heavily impacted by the economic crisis. These two situations shaped the focus of the Association’s advocacy in May.
On the 15th of May, SACD published a briefing “Impact of Covid-19 on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon” to capture the impact of the pandemic on Syrian refugees in Lebanon and present a possible scenario of what the future impact could be if the current situation continued and/or got worse. In the effort to relay the main findings of the briefing, Houda Atassi, a SACD trustee from Homs, explained the implications of the pandemic and economic crisis on the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and what needs to be done to protect them.
SACD’s Head of Media Relations, Haya Atassi, also appeared on Alarabiya TV to shed light on the deteriorating situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and to send key messages to the UNHCR, donors and Lebanese government on how to improve the lives of refugees and protect them from an unsafe return.
Earlier, SACD joined 23 organizations in calling on the Lebanese government and UNHCR to take immediate measures to protect Syrian refugees in Lebanon from Covid-19.
Later in the month, SACD published a briefing paper, “Assad’s Model” of Fighting COVID19: Forget Syrian Lives, Use the Crisis to Annul Economic Sanctions”, which aimed to deconstruct the Syrian regime’s propaganda effort which claims that the EU and US sanctions hamper its effort to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mohamad Khattam from Aleppo, member of SACD, was a guest on Syria TV to explain how the Assad regime was exploiting the fight against Covid-19 to lift the sanctions imposed on it.
The Syrian regime forces did not only brutally bombard civilian areas and cause large population displacement, but its forces were seen frequently desecrating the graves of the dead and stealing property of the displaced people as in Khan al-Sabil. The Syrian regime did not only systematically target civilian populations and infrastructure, but also worked towards cementing the displacement and changing the demographic reality in the region
SACD also highlighted how the living conditions of the people currently displaced to makeshift camps in Idlib and elsewhere in Idlib are far below any acceptable level of a human, dignified life. Hence, SACD held meetings in northern Syria (Afrin & Idlib) with Activists and journalists (Association of Free Journalists) as well as, with Lawyers (Lawyers Union) discussing IDPs concerns, the hardship they face, and best ways to cooperate.
More importantly, an increase in discriminatory discourse and practices by some sectors of the Turkish society towards Syrian refugees in Turkey has been increasing simultaneously with attacks on Idlib’s towns and villages on the Turkish border. SACD published an analysis, A New Wave of Syrian Refugees May Head to Europe as Attacks on Idlib Escalate”, explaining how events on both sides of the border could mean that new waves of migration to Europe are looming, especially that Turkey has reached its capacity in receiving more refugees, and situation in Idlib becoming unbearable.
The Syrian regime’s crimes were not only limited to military attacks and bombing of civilians, but its criminal practices also continued in areas it captured and displaced its people. Hence, SACD published an analysis, “Demolitions in Harasta strip displaced Syrians of property, cement regime’s project of demographic change”, to shed light on developments in the city of Harasta, where it has been reported that units of the regime’s Fourth Division were using heavy machinery and bulldozers to demolish dozens of houses in the city of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta while denying the displaced people from returning back to their homes. This analysis revealed that Harasta was just an example of the regime’s obvious intention to prevent the return of displaced Syrians and thus leading to permanent demographic change in Syria.
Marwan Nazhan and Abdul Mouen Dandal, both members of SACD, engaged in a very important discussion about complicated environment in northeast Syria, particularly in Deir Ezzor, after multiple and continuous waves of displacement, while Maen Tallaa, a political researcher, was Mounir al-Fakir’s guest to discuss the reality of the displacement in Syria and its effects in a very complicated and changeable political and social environment.
The Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity commemorated several anniversaries during this month to remind the world of the atrocities that the Syrian people have been enduring since 2011, merely for having the courage to call for their freedom and dignity.
On the 5th anniversary of the displacement of the people from the old city of Homs, SACD published an analysis examining the reality in the areas that the regime claimed to have restored normal life, and whether those who were expelled from their city were able to return.
On the 8th anniversary of the Houla Massacre, SACD explained how it was one of the most horrific crimes committed by the Syrian regime, and its allies, since the beginning of the Syrian revolution and was part of a broader pattern of systematic use of massacres by the Syrian regime as a means of displacing the Syrian people and establish new demographic realities.
Lastly, SACD’ Mounir al-Fakir and Nader Othman, a member of the General Board of Trustees from Damascus city, engaged in a conversation to discuss how the Association presents a model for a civil rights popular movement trying to influence policy-making circles through its advocacy work on both the diplomatic and public opinion levels.
The Syrian Association for Citizen’s Dignity firmly believes that the return of the 13 million displaced Syrians is crucial to have lasting peace in Syria. The safe, voluntary and dignified return should be guaranteed in any future political solution in Syria, which should take into consideration the views and conditions the displaced people want for a safe return.
Hence, on #WorldRefugeeDay SACD launched the #WeAreSyria Campaign to call for a meaningful inclusion of the voices of some 13 million displaced Syrians in any political talks about Syria and return in what conditions consider a safe, voluntary and dignified return to their homes. The campaign intended to raise the voice of the displaced Syrians as well as to motivate them to express their ideas and views regarding return, and to remind them that no comprehensive political solution can be reached without securing and guaranteeing their rights.
The widespread social media campaign reached more than five million people worldwide, received media coverage, participation of numerous Syrian organisations, figures and activists such as Ward al-Najjar, Hadi Abdallah, Lina Shamy, Assad Hanna, Hassan Akkad, Afraa Hashem and others. Displaced Syrians from all over the world shared their videos reminding the world that no enduring peace can last in Syria without their return, and their return cannot happen without the safe environment, in which they themselves define it. The campaign received wide engagement from countries with highest numbers of displaced Syrians such as Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Germany and others.
Dr Mazen Kseibi, member of SACD General Board of Trustees from Homs, gave an interview to Syria TV explaining the importance of the preserving and guaranteeing the rights of the 13 million displaced Syrians and affirmed the importance of creating a safe environment for their return.
The month of June saw a disturbing trend, in which the Syrian regime and its allies have been burning agricultural lands belonging to displaced Syrians with a clear intent to cement their displacement by making it impossible for them to return and harvest the fields and orchards targeted by fires. SACD published an analysis to provide a closer look at such incidents in Palmyra, Harasta and al-Qusayr.
With hundreds of thousands of detainees held in Assad prisons, Bayan Reyhan and Fadi Nezhat, members of SACD, held a discussion to illuminate how the practice of arbitrary arrests continues and impacts the fate of returnees to Asssad-held areas, elaborating on SACD’s first thematic report “Vengeance, Repression and Fear: Reality behind Assad’s promises to displaced Syrians”. The report was comprised of an unprecedented effort to gather testimonies from people who have returned to Assad-held areas (mostly due to dire living conditions in the displacement locations or because they believed the regime’s promises of safe return) and those who remained in formerly opposition-controlled areas after they were retaken by regime forces under so-called reconciliation agreements.
In a conversation to mark the International Day of Solidarity with Victims of Torture, SACD members Nour Jazmati from Aleppo, Mounir Fakir from Damascus and Khalid Terkawi from Homs engaged in a conversation on how knowing the fate of detainees and their release constitutes a minimum condition for a safe, voluntary and dignified return. SACD participated in the campaign, using hashtags #VictimsofTorture and #JusticeMattersSyria, to honor all victims of torture in Syria and remind the world that There are more than 130 000 people in regime’s prisons, while some studies estimate this number to be much higher especially if the number of forcefully disappeared persons is added. Arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances continue to this day.
In collaboration with several organizations and institutions such as PAX, Basma & Zeitounah and Triple 11, SACD co-organized a panel about “Safety and security and long-term rights of displaced Syrians”. The Lebanese representative, Sandy Khalil, gave the opening speech and called to exclude the return of displaced Syrians from the political solution. In response, SACD presented the findings of its reports and stressed on the importance of creating a safe environment for the return of displaced Syrians, and added that the only way to secure a safe, voluntary and dignified return for Syrians is by reaching a comprehensive political solution that guarantees all their rights. The issue of return is not only humanitarian but also political at heart.
Stemming from its belief that the displaced Syrians should have a say in deciding when and how their return will take place, SACD conducted extensive research on the reasons for displacement and return conditions. A series of diplomatic meetings to relay the findings were held with influential states who have a major impact on the Syrian process and some key academic and policy-oriented international institutions.
To this end, much of the SACD’s effort in July was dedicated to the launch of the #WeAreSyria report, which was a survey of 1100 displaced Syrians in Syria, neighboring countries, and Europe on the reasons of displacement and return conditions. Alongside the report, SACD launched a social media campaign and a series of events and diplomatic meetings in an effort to raise awareness about the importance of what Syrians see as pre-conditions for any safe return to Syria.
SACD held several diplomatic meetings and roundtables that started in July and continued into October with diplomats from The Netherland, Canada, USA, Britain, France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. In addition, technical roundtables with leading international thinktanks and researchers in Europe and the United States, such as the one organized jointly by the SACD in collaboration with EIP and MEI to discuss key issues of return and the concept of safe environment and sanctions, in addition to the Dutch-Syria NGOs platform organized by The Dutch MFA.
The diplomatic effort was focused on delivering key messages to the major international stakeholders regarding minimum conditions for return from the displaced people point of view and emphasize on the need to include those conditions in the definition of the “safe environment” in any future political solution. The diplomatic effort also concentrated on preventing forced returns from host countries, and on improving the current situation of refugees in these countries, especially in terms of rights and humanitarian support.
The social media campaign contained a series of recorded personal videos from SACD trustees and members explaining the relevance of the report and the importance of involving displaced people’s views on return.
In addition, a conversation with Refik Hodzic, an international expert in transitional justice and strategic communications, SACD’s former Program Director Labib al-Nahhas explained the major new report presenting the main conditions for safe and dignified return of Syrian refugees. Nahhas explained why there can be no constitution, elections, lasting peace or a political solution to the conflict in Syria without the rights of 13 million displaced Syrians being upheld. In addition, Tahrir Institute also published al-Nahhas’ article, “Displaced Syrians are key to the political change that Syria needs”, where he explained why displaced Syrians are key to the political change that Syria needs.
The report received coverage from a variety of media outlets such as The National, Libération, Middle East Institute, Al Jazeera English, Nidaa Al Watan, Al Modon, The New Arab, Syria TV, and Orient TV.
Moreover, meetings have been conducted by SACD trustees and members to discuss the #WeAreSyria report with displaced Syrians from Hasaka, Dier Ezzor, Raqqa and with students at Harran University. Most of the meetings took place in Turkey and Germany.
Furthermore, SACD held some meetings with activists and displaced from Aleppo and Deir Ezzor and other provinces in the Northern Syria (Al Bab, Afrin & Azaz) discussing the report and views and concerns about displacement and return.
As first in a series of analytical papers to examine the impact of “reconciliation agreements” on the prospects for return of displaced Syrians, SACD published an analysis paper focusing on the “reconciliation agreement” in Dara’a. The deteriorated living conditions and the lack of security situation in Daraa with a continuous silent displacement proved that the “reconciliation” model that was applied in the Syrian south with Russian guarantees failed to achieve the lowest level of stability or secure the minimum public services needed for living, let alone as a model to be considered in any way as relevant in the context of organized, safe, voluntary and dignified return.
In light of the decision by both Denmark’s Refugee Appeals Board and Danish Immigration Service to deny asylum to three Syrian women from Damascus, claiming that “there is no reason to assume that everyone will be at real risk of being assaulted”, SACD published an analysis titled “Denmark is setting a dangerous precedent which must be reversed”, explaining how this decision ignores the reality in Damascus and other areas under control of the Syrian regime, which is far from being anywhere close to conducive to return of refugees.
Furthermore, the SACD initiated direct contact with Danish diplomats in order to understand first-hand the official position of the Danish government and to provide comprehensive and detailed information about the real situation in regime-controlled areas and debunk the falsehood of the notion of Damascus being a “safe city”. This effort is still ongoing and being expanded with the help of activists in Denmark.
SACD alongside the White Helmets organized the #NotHostages campaign to remind the world of all the detainees forgotten in Assad prisons. The campaign aimed to amplify the voices of the detainees and their families and strongly reiterate the need for the full and unconditional release of all detainees, and the rejection of using the detainees file to pressure and blackmail Syrians by the regime.
As the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in northern Syria, Dr Anas al-Fatih, member of SACD General Board of Trustees, recorded a video with important medical instructions and precautions to be followed by the people, especially in light of absence of adequate measures and lack of medical infrastructure to protect the people from the virus.
SACD also supported the establishment of the Union of Free Students, which is a base for all Syrian students who believe in freedom and dignity principles. The aim of the Union is to unify the voices of all Syrian students and work together towards having an impact on the policy-makers to convey their messages and guarantee their rights in the future of Syria.
The situation in Syria remained far from safe for any return for the displaced Syrians, despite the Syrian regime’s media propaganda that implied otherwise. Preventing premature return to unsafe environment, especially in Assad-held areas where arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, forced recruitment and other human rights violations are rampant, is one of the main strategic goals of the Association. In August, the Association had to address a blatant misrepresentation of this reality coming from one of the most important media outlets in – Germany.
To SACD’s great astonishment, Deutsche Welle published a video featuring a story of Nour, a Syrian girl who leaves Syria to come to Austria and then returns to Damascus without any obstacles or problems. Her departure from Syria and stay in Austria is described as a rich cultural and personal journey, her return safe to a home unaffected by the horrific reality of Syria under the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Deutsche Welle’s incomplete, decontextualized and misleading reporting pushed SACD to publish a response, “Deutsche Welle presenting a parallel reality in Syria, endangering Syrian refugees everywhere”, explaining the reality of the situation in Syria and the dangers most refugees face upon their return.
Following the deadly Beirut blast, SACD issued a statement offering its condolences to the families of the innocent victims of the Beirut explosion that took place on August 4, 2020, which affected large numbers of civilians and their properties, regardless of their backgrounds and nationalities, including at least 39 Syrians who were victims of the bombings, along with more than a hundred victims who were mostly Lebanese, but also included different nationalities.
On the 7th anniversary of the Syrian regime’s deadliest chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta SACD actively participated in social media campaign, using hashtags #DoNotSuffocateTruth and #ChemicalAssad, honoring the victims of the attack and reminding the world of Assad regime’s crimes. “Seven years since the deadliest chemical attack in Syria: Eastern Ghouta shows why return is impossible with Syrian regime in charge” was an article written by SACD’s Haya Atassi explaining why, in light of absence of justice for Syrians, no return to Syria is impossible while Assad remains in power. Atassi also held a conversation with two activists from Eastern Ghouta, Hassan al-Basha and Amer Zaidan, who witnessed the massacre and lived its horrors.
Furthermore, in memory of the Great Darya Massacre, SACD held a seminar with key activists from Daraya who lived the siege and massacre committed by the Syrian regime forces and explained why they will never return to their hometown as long as the very perpetrators who committed these crimes are still in power.
On the #InternationalDayoftheDisappeared, SACD’s Mounir al-Fakir explained the significance of the truth about the disappeared Syrians for any hope of a safe, voluntary and dignified return. The key message of the conversation is that safe environment as a key pre-condition for return of displaced Syrians cannot exist if people are not free of fear of being arbitrarily arrested or disappeared, or if they don’t know the fate of their loved ones who were taken.
A visit to Eastern Ghouta by the UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi in September caused strong reactions from displaced Syrians from this area due to his comments affirming the “security situation is becoming more stable,” implying that return is now possible. In response to these problematic messages, SACD promptly reacted documenting how the situation in Syria, let alone Eastern Ghouta, is far from safe for any return for the displaced Syrians. SACD called upon the UNHCR to hold up to its mandate and provide accurate, sufficient information to the Syrian refugees on the security situation in Syria and cease misleading messaging.
On top of that, Syrian refugees forced to go back to regime-held areas due to economic hardship and legal situation in neighboring countries were now forced to pay 100$ each to regime authorities or stay “stuck” at the border until they can somehow find the money. SACD highlighted how this practice violates the Syrian constitution and calls upon UNHCR and host governments to protect Syrian refugees from involuntary, unsafe return to Syria.
In addition to making the refugees’ entrance to their country difficult, if not impossible, the regime continued issuing laws and decrees that systematically cement displacement and strip people of their properties. The Syrian regime’s Damascus Governorate Council issued laws targeting Yarmouk, namely Organizational Plan No.105, which not only prevents displaced people from returning home, but also is an element in Assad’s strategy of demographic engineering, implemented systematically in Syria. SACD published an article, “Death of Yarmouk: Heart of Palestinian Presence in Syria Falls Victim to Assad’s Policy of Demographic Change”, explaining the implications of such discriminatory decrees on preventing the return of refugees and cementing displacement, especially for the Palestinian refugees in Syria, who have a bitter history of non-ending displacement.
Moreover, Enab Baladi published an article about the real estate reality in Qusayr under Hezbollah control and spoke to SACD’s Mohamad Joja who stressed the necessity of including special provisions on Syrian properties in any political agreement’s terms and determining the judicial mechanism that will rule in these cases.
SACD reported about the systemic looting and destruction of displaced Syrian’s property by regime forces continues in Saraqib in Idlib province, highlighting how the pattern of destruction resembles what has been done previously in places like Al Hajar Al Aswad in Damascus and elsewhere.
On the 8th anniversary of the Joura & Qusoor massacre, Ahd Slebi, a displaced journalist from Deir Ezzor and member of SACD, recorded a video recalling events of that day that took away lives of 500+ civilians and led to the displacement of most of the residents of the city, describing the horrors of the massacre and its role in further cementing displacement.
In memory of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child who died drowning on a journey hoping for a better life with his family, SACD reminded the world that Syria remains very unsafe and people continue to flee. Any attempts to force people to return into such a situation will result in massive numbers trying to make that perilous journey that had taken Alan Kurdi’s smile and ended his life.
As part of a continuous effort to provide full transparency about the Association’s work to the Syrian people, Abdul Mouen Dandal, Dr Hala Ghawi, Mohamad Jouja and Marwan Nazhan, all members of SACD, held a session to answer the most frequently asked questions received by SACD followers and explained the importance of the SACD advocacy work to empower the displaced people and preserve their rights.
As the pandemic hit Idlib hard, Dr Anas al-Fatih recorded another video with important guidelines to contain the spread of the virus in the crowded camps amid little to no medical infrastructure to the crowded camps amid little to no medical facilities to cope with the pandemic.
In the month of October, the Association continued to work on countering the dangerous narrative that Syria is becoming safe for return sparked by the visit of the UNHCR’s Head Filippo Grandi to Eastern Ghouta. SACD continued to draw attention to the danger such misleading messaging can inflict on vulnerable displaced Syrians who are suffering in displacement, especially in countries like Lebanon or internally. SACD members Bayan Rehan and Fadi Haroun, both displaced from Eastern Ghouta, sent a clear message about the increasing difficult humanitarian situation for the people of Eastern Ghouta, and explained the implications of false and misleading messaging of the UNHCR on the lives of the returnees.
SACD reported about the escalating situation in Kanaker, in Western Ghouta, which was besieged for days by the regime’s military, who threatened a full scale attack over a checkpoint incident, indicating that what happened in Kanaker was nothing but a blatant example of the terrible, unsafe security situation in Damascus and its countryside.
In response to the regime’s propaganda pieces portraying the situation in Deir Ezzor as safe for return, SACD documented the reality in the area explaining how the regime used a few individual returns of people internally displaced to Assad-held areas to distort the truth that many displaced people cannot return because of the very practices of the regime. SACD used different platforms to communicate how this is a systematic policy practiced by the regime throughout the years with serious implications to not only deny the displaced people from returning, but also cement their displacement.
Dr. Hala Alghawi, a member of SACD’s Board of Trustees, spoke at an event about obstacles to free elections in Syria, organized by Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, with a clear message from displaced Syrians: holding free and fair elections under the current constitutional, security and general conditions in Syria is impossible.
Syria Direct published a substantive article on HLP violations in Syria and its impact on the return of the displaced people. The piece quoted SACD’s Haya Atassi on how “demographic changes are evident in Daraa, Hama, Homs suburbs, Yarmouk camp & the Damascus area, places where the revolution took hold”.
The month of November was marked by the SACD’s efforts to address the fall-out of the conference on return hosted by the Russian Ministry of Defence in Damascus, in collaboration with the Syrian regime. Using diplomatic channels, SACD conveyed to the envoys on Syria of the European Union, the United States, Canada, the UN , and UNHCR office its position on the Russian conference, denying any legitimacy or credibility to the conference organized by Russia. The Association’s detailed position condemned and refused such Russian initiatives, especially that Russia is considered one of the perpetrators causing mass Syrian displacement. The opportunity was used to also relay to the envoys and relevant organisations SACD’s principles for engagement with Syrian IDPs and refugees in order to have the views of displaced Syrians as part of any process, plan, or project in Syria.
As part of the advocacy countering the Russian conference, SACD participated in the popular campaign, #no_return_with_Assad. The campaign reminded the world of the horrors that the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, committed against Syrians, and that no safe, dignified and voluntary return can take place as long as this regime is still in power.
SACD’s Marwan Nazhan was quoted in Coda Story’s coverage of the conference saying “The purpose of the conference is to secure funds from the West to secure the gains made through indiscriminate attacks against civilians and their forced displacement.” Al Jazeera English spoke to SACD’s Haya Atassi who asserted the Association’s position to deny the legitimacy of the conference, given that Russia and regime have engaged in systematic, indiscriminate attacks against civilians with the aim of forced displacement.
In similar context, “We are Syria: The reality of return and the future of the displaced” was a panel with key Syrian figures from US, UK, France, Germany, Turkey and northern Syria organized by SACD to discuss the displaced Syrians’ vision of return and its conditions, and the ways in which Syrians can have an impact on the future of Syria and their return. This panel included voices of displaced Syrians from all over the world, which was the key missing element in the Damascus conference organized by Russia.
In the second half of the month, we gave prominence to a Human Rights Watch report titled “Targeting Life in Idlib: Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure” that documented what the organization assessed may amount to crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian regime, and its ally Russia, against civilians in Idlib with the aim of forced displacement, SACD hosted HRW’s Sara Kayyali and Richard Weir to examine the implications of this important report and its findings on the efforts to firstly prevent the continuation of these crimes against the population of Idlib and also to ensure there is accountability for them.
In its effort to reveal the regime’s systematic policies of cementing displacement, SACD published an article on the regime’s HLP violations in Idlib and Hama suburbs and its confiscations of displaced people’s properties in an effort to cement displacement and deny the displaced from returning. Dr Hamza Omar and Lawyer Fahd Moussa discuss the legal and political dimensions of the regime’s policy to confiscate the properties of displaced Syrians.
Ten years into the Syrian conflict, it has been evident that the Syrian regime is not interested in the return of the displaced Syrians. Bashar Assad explicitly spoke of his goal to create the “useful Syria” through creating loyal communities in the areas under its control. In order to achieve its goal, the regime has been using several tools to create demographic change in Syria, and mass displacement was one prominent tool in its systematic policy.
Considering a large gap in the analysis of this crucial issue to the return of displaced Syrians, SACD published one of its most important briefings yet about demographic change in Syria, examining the impact of forced displacement on various Syrian communities and the role and the goals of regime in cementing in their displacement. The briefing aimed to highlight some of the key elements of regime policies of demographic change and illustrate its impact on the affected communities, as well as discuss ways to reverse these changes. Much of the month of December was dedicated to diplomatic activity aimed at raising awareness of the difficult but essential steps that must be taken to reverse the effects of the regime’s strategy.
Early in the month, as international donors gathered for the ‘Second International Conference in Support of Beirut and the Lebanese People’ which aimed to support Lebanon in overcoming the consequences of the recent devastating explosion in Beirut’s port, the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity called on everyone involved to include Syrian refugees’ interests and rights in their plans and ensure that the government of Lebanon remains committed to international law on protection of refugees by conditioning the aid.
The dire situation of the Syrian refugees’ in Lebanon was illustrated when a camp in northern Lebanon was burnt down by some locals leading to the displacement of at least 75 Syrian families. SACD’s trustee Houda Atassi appeared on BBC Arabic to shed light on the deteriorating situation of the Syrians in Lebanon and the hardships they are enduing, amid increasing discriminatory discourse in the country. Atassi called upon the international community, precisely the UNHCR, to uphold its responsibility towards the refugees and provide them with emergency aid, while asking the Lebanese government to protect the refugees on its territory and bring the perpetrators to justice.
A major effort in the month of December was dedicated to the commemoration of the Aleppo displacement. On the 4th anniversary of the displacement of Aleppo, SACD launched a campaign to remind the world of one of the largest mass forced displacements during the conflict in Syria, and a testament to the scale of the tragedy that the Syrian people are experiencing for more than a decade.
The campaign included many videos and a virtual photo gallery, “Photos from the most dangerous city in the world”, that reflected the story of the city and the displacement and articulated the clear intent of the people of Aleppo to return to their city once the right conditions are in place. Afraa Hashem, SACD trustee and co-star in For Sama Film, wrote a powerful article titled “Why do flowers die so early?” describing her days under the siege and her experience with displacement from her hometown.
SACD also hosted key figures from Aleppo who engaged in a conversation about displacement and its horrors, but also reiterated their determination to return back to their beloved city.
On #HumanRightsDay, Ahed Sleibi, Syrian media activist and member of SACD, spoke with Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, about the importance of advocacy work in the Syrian people’s struggle for their freedom and dignity.
On #GenocidePreventionDay, Marwan Nazhan, SACD trustee, held a conversation with Ibrahim Olabi, lawyer at International Justice Chambers in London and founder of Syrian Development Program, about the prospects for justice for horrendous, systematic crimes suffered by Syrians in the past 10 years.
On the 29th of December the OHCHR published on its website the call of Alena Douhan, a UN human rights expert to lift sanctions on the Syrian regime, alleging the humanitarian cost of these sanctions and their impact on human rights of Syrians, and emphasising on the need to start reconstruction in order to facilitate the return of displaced Syrians.
In response to these dangerous thesis, SACD’s year ended with the intensive effort to refute the arguments used by the UN expert, clarifying again that the real reason behind the sanctions was the systematic abuse of human rights by the regime, and stressed the fact that the return of displaced Syrians is not tied to reconstruction or the economic situation, but rather the security conditions and the lack of a safe environment, and that establishing a safe environment for all Syrians should precede any reconstruction process.