Normalisation of Horror
Security and Living Conditions in Assad-held Syria
Ten years into the Syrian conflict, the Syrian society is disintegrating further and deeper with each passing day of the continuing displacement of more than half of its population, the continuing and increasing repression and corruption of the Syrian regime, fragmentation of the country as various state and non-state actors seek to cement their presence and influence, and the complete collapse of the political process.
The reality of everyday life for Syrians displaced within Syria, but also, and increasingly, for Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries and elsewhere, is bleak. A large majority of the displaced still wants to return, but the guarantees of a safe environment and the reform of security apparatus which displaced them in the first place seem to be a distant prospect. Yet, in the push for the normalisation of the Syrian regime led by its Russian allies, displaced Syrians are increasingly facing pressure to return to face almost certain prospects of arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance, extortion and harassment.
Governments like that of Lebanon and Denmark are now transparent about their intention to ignore the reality in Assad-held parts of Syria and are using various measures to coerce Syrian refugees into premature return, where their basic security and living needs are supposed to be guaranteed by a regime that is still imprisoning under torture tens of thousands of Syrians, regularly shelling schools and hospitals and starving millions besieged in Idlib. Policies of these governments are rooted in a false narrative of “improving security and living conditions” in areas of Syria controlled by the Syrian regime. Reality seems not to matter.
One of the factors contributing to such blatant misrepresentation of life in Assad-held Syria is the failure of agencies such as the UNHCR to comprehensively and factually report on the threats facing returnees, as well as the levels of corruption and deterioration in living conditions even for Syrians who never left regime-held areas. The reasons for this are myriad, from the lack of access to the direct pressure from the Syrian regime (we have reported on this repeatedly). Consequently, it falls to organisations and movements like the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity to fill this information gap.
This report is yet another attempt to shrink the space for denial of the reality of the dire state of affairs in Syria among the relevant policymakers. It is the fourth such report that offers an insight into the views and perceptions of Syrians on some of the most relevant issues that must shape any conversation on the possibility of a safe, voluntary and dignified return of displaced Syrians and the eventual political solution that could offer a hope of a lasting peace in Syria. It should be read in the context of our previous reports for a full picture of the trends and the extent of decline of security and living conditions, even for those who never left Assad-held areas, let alone the returnees.
The report focuses on the lives of people in Assad-held areas, with more than 500 interviews conducted on issues such as the sense of safety, living conditions, corruption, impact of Covid-19 pandemic and perceptions of the impact of the US-EU sanctions. Conducted under strict security protocols to protect those interviewed as well as our researchers in the circumstances in which voicing any criticism of the regime’s conduct amounts to risking own’s own and the lives of their family, the report paints a picture of a society decomposing under the brutality, paranoia and corruption of a regime which is targeting even those that remained loyal to it throughout the conflict, let alone those that it sees as disloyal or opposed to its rule. The nosedive in the economy and cancerous corruption at all levels of government is causing its security apparatus to intensify the use of arbitrary arrest and forced disappearance as tools of making extra money through extortion and “bleeding” of families of those arrested, desperate to secure their release or some information on their whereabouts.
One of the most tragic insights revealed by this research is that Syrians in Assad-held areas, including those who were forced to return, started regarding the violence and repression of the regime’s security apparatus as a normal fact of life. Arrests and extortion are now being accepted as threats one lives and develops strategies to cope with, especially as the living conditions deteriorate further in the collapsing economy.
However, Syrians still dream of a life of dignity and freedom and this report is just another reminder of this fact. Illustratively, despite misperceptions about the sanctions imposed on the regime for its crimes and human rights violations, the majority of those interviewed, including those who never left Syria, stated that they are willing to endure even harsher sanctions if that will lead to the removal of the regime and the reform of its security apparatus.
The conversation that must dominate any policy discussions on Syria is that on the creation of a safe environment for all Syrians. Only this will create conditions for a safe, voluntary and dignified return of over 13 million displaced Syrians, which is the key to any political solution and lasting stability of Syria and the region. This report is another reminder of this basic truth about Syria. Those who choose to ignore or minimise its importance in fact choose to actively participate in the prolongation of the suffering of Syrians and the consequential prolongation of instability of the region and beyond.
Large number of Syrians feel unsafe, with the perception of safety heavily tied to the area’s perceived threat to the regime. People forced to return to regime control from displacement or through “reconciliation” do not feel safe, with significantly higher levels of fear in their daily lives. Their feeling of insecurity is being informed by events that were directly witnessed or experienced. Some 50% of people in the Assad-controlled areas don’t feel safe, including those who never left; 67% of returnees from outside Syria don’t feel safe, and those in the reconciliation areas fear worst with 94% saying they don’t feel safe. Most cite the security authorities’ grip and fear of rampant insecurity and crime as their reasons for feeling safe. That said, there are no safe areas, with some of the more practical measures of safety showing that security is poor everywhere, because it’s due to security policies by the same authority.
Syrians still want to see a political solution to the crisis. Most of the participants in this study (72 percent) expressed support for a political solution that changes the behaviour of the security apparatus and its policies. They also cited a political solution as being essential for refugee return and were willing to tolerate ongoing economic hardship if it resulted in a solution to the crisis.
Detainees and their desperate families face uncertainty and are bribed and extorted. 72% of the respondents with detained loved ones stated that money was requested from them or that they actually paid money in exchange for simply obtaining information about the whereabouts of the detainee, and 60% of them stated that this was in exchange for promises to release the detainee. Families don’t know where their loved one is detained in 53% of cases, and can’t visit them in 71% of cases.
Syrian regime’s and Russian guarantees mean nothing in practice. Campaigns of arrest and enforced disappearance are still ongoing, including those covered by “reconciliation agreements” and those who have been included in regime-issued amnesty, which highlights a lack of any kind of security guarantee in Syria. 19% of those arrested were covered by amnesty while 26% were covered by “reconciliation agreement”. The amnesty laws are almost illusory and are used to falsely demonstrate goodwill without the real release of those detained for political reasons and do not represent a guarantee.
Corruption is rampant, and it is spreading at an increasing rate, with perceptions of corruption growing exponentially larger in the last year relative to the previous eight year period – 54 percent of respondents see that there are very high corruption rates in 2020 compared to 39 percent in 2019, up from 20 percent in 2011/ meaning the perception of corruption jumped massively in the last year alone. People say they won’t report it either, with over half saying there is no point in reporting corruption. 48% of respondents said that they don’t have access to the judicial system to tackle corruption issues. 59% of respondents said they need to pay bribes to obtain their citizenship rights, such as obtaining documents or securing government permissions. Detainees and their families particularly suffer from the rampant corruption.
Those who live in regime areas don’t necessarily support them or their policies. Far from being a popular leader, some 75% of people in Assad-controlled areas are dissatisfied with the regime’s behavior. 89 percent of the participants reported dissatisfaction with the current situation in all aspects, whether security, living, economy or services. This shows that it is important not to equate those who remained living in Assad’s areas of Syria, which people may do for any number of reasons, with loyalty or approval. Moreover, Syria is a cemetery of freedoms: 78% of people in Assad control areas think they do not have freedom of expression, while 85% think that their right in participating in peaceful demonstrations is not protected. Those who are dissatisfied have no way to express it.
People think it’s not safe for return but think return is a necessary thing for the future for the country and any political settlement – Only 26 per cent of participants recommended displaced people to come back to regime-controlled areas and approximately half of participants are seeking to leave such areas; there is still an overwhelming belief in the need for displaced people to come back and play a major role in the reconstruction of stabilisation of the country. 70% of the participants think that the return of the displaced is a prerequisite for Syria’s recovery.
Living conditions have declined, with purchasing power plummeting and living costs rising. People are cobbling together multiple forms of income to make ends meet. Despite this, they watch regime patrons reap the rewards and are forced to pay bribes for services.
Covid-19 has been rife, with protection hard to find and skewed based on the area’s perceived threat to the regime. 58 per cent of those who had contracted Covid or had a loved one contract Covid said they did not receive the necessary health care. Respondents don’t feel like they can access appropriate medical care, with 87% of those in “reconciled” areas and 70% of those in areas conquered by the regime militarily saying they couldn’t access care.
Despite the fact the regime’s narratives on the Caesar act have some traction, and people do think Caesar has impacted their lives, a very high number are under no illusions why the sanctions exist and a very surprising number would endure further pain from sanctions if it is used to bring about lasting change — 86 percent of respondents agreed that one of the reasons for imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime is their practices and security policies. As a result of the regime’s war of narratives, 53 percent considered that the poor economic conditions were due to the sanctions and economic boycott that began several years ago, in addition to the recent US sanctions (Caesar Act). However, more than half of the population is ready to endure more temporary hardship if this will lead to sustainable changes. This should be used to better plan policies that leverage sanctions for genuine behaviour change and a political settlement.
Security and Living Conditions
Only half of the respondents reported “feeling safe” in their current locations within regime-controlled areas. There is a considerable difference in feelings of safety based on displacement status and origin of displacement.
Reconciliation areas feel the most unsafe: 94 per cent of those living in these areas report feeling insecure. This sense of insecurity is caused by the regime’s continuous violations of the terms of the reconciliation agreements on security and conscription, and the widespread assassinations and arbitrary arrests.
Syrian’s sense of insecurity is evidence based. Most of the participants who reported feeling unsafe said that this was due to the violations of rights, abuse, and extortion that they experienced first-hand, against themselves or others from their family or community. The main source of insecurity remains the regime’s security policies and practices, which are almost identical in all areas controlled by the regime, regardless of how they were captured.
However, the main source of insecurity remains the regime’s security policies and practices, which are almost identical in all areas controlled by the regime, regardless of how they were captured. Another major factor (expressed by 65 per cent of those polled) causing the sense of insecurity is the escalation of organized crime such as kidnapping, extortion and murder (Figure 10). The increase in such activities appears to be correlated with the collapse of the economy and the fact that the regime is unable to pay full salaries to the security forces who collaborate with organized crime targeting vulnerable civilians, especially displaced people.
While some causes of insecurity vary between different types of regions, the most prevalent and consistent source in all areas is still linked to a fear of the security forces.
The Syrian regime continues its repressive policy of arbitrary detention and arrest in most areas under its control. This includes arresting individuals who signed personal settlement documents (“reconciliation agreements”) in reconciliation areas and elsewhere.
Nearly one-fifth (19 per cent) of the arrests were against people who have previously been covered by some kind of amnesty laws and decrees issued by the regime. This confirm that the regime does not respect its own agreements and decrees, and that it is very difficult for Syrians living in regime-controlled areas (or planning to return) to make an informed decision about their future, demonstrating again the lack of any real guarantees.
Arrests have also become the starting point for a considerable number of extortion cases. Many arrests are carried out without any legal order, as mentioned above, and without apparent reason. In many cases the arrests are carried out by militias or agents without proper identification. As a result, a considerable percentage of the detainee’s families do not know who made the arrest.
It is clear beyond any doubt that there is systemic abuse of detainees’ rights, and that militias and officials linked to the regime make illegal arrests to extort money from detainees’ families as a source of income.
The survey discussed the perception and impact of the 18 amnesty decrees issued by the Syrian regime since the start of the popular uprising in March 2011. Even with the partial and selective nature of amnesties, the implementation and execution of the decrees further diminishes their impact; they are often implemented with a considerable level of corruption and extortion.
The study analysed participants’ income by gender, occupation, region, and education level in three periods of time:
- Before 2011 (US$ 1 = SYP 50)
- Survey period, September–October 2020 (US$ 1 = SYP 2,200)
Female participants’ average income has declined drastically—and more than male participants’ average income—due to poor economic conditions and the devaluation of the Syrian pound. Given the increasing numbers of female-headed households as discussed above, such declines have potentially greater impacts on families’ wellbeing. The average income (in dollars) of the working women participating in this study is approximately 90 per cent lower than before 2011; men’s income has declined by about 86 per cent. Yet the current crisis is widening the gender pay gap: female participants’ salaries were approximately 96 per cent of their male counterparts in 2011, and fell to roughly 63 per cent in 2020. These reductions are exacerbated by an unprecedented rise in inflation during the same period.
Only 22 per cent of participants who have a job depend only on their main job income. The rest rely on other sources of income (e.g., family assistance, savings, selling assets) to sustain themselves and their families. Remittances constitute a large portion of individuals’ income: 36 per cent of families with at least one employed member, and 49 per cent of those with no currently working members, rely on aid and remittances from relatives and acquaintances. In addition, 11 per cent of families of working respondents (and 18 per cent of those of non-working respondents) receive NGO assistance.
Participants emphasized that the level of corruption in Syria is growing rapidly, even since the 2019 survey, after doubling between 2011 and 2019. After almost 10 years of conflict, no respondents described the current situation as “corruption free”. More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of the respondents believe that corruption is widespread, with a high or very high rate in 2020. More than half of the respondents (52 per cent) do not believe they have fair and transparent access to the judicial system, as their rights are impacted by corruption and a lack of independence. Most respondents believe that corruption occurs with the blessing and supervision of responsible departments and officials, and that the regime shows no real interest in fighting corruption.
More than three-quarters (86 per cent) of respondents agreed that one of the reasons for imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime is its practices and security policies. While nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of study participants stated that they believe they were economically affected by Caesar Act, the impact varied according to their educational levels, employment status, occupation and age group. The greatest perceived impact is on the cost of living and the increase in the prices of essential goods (95 per cent); the decline in income came second (33 per cent).
When the participants were asked whether they considered that the Caesar Act a means of pressure on the regime to change its policies and security approach, the answers of 56 per cent varied between agreeing with that or not knowing how the Caesar Act may affect the regime’s behaviour. When asked about their willingness to endure the hardship of living conditions and a deteriorating economy for a period, provided that it is accompanied by concrete and realistic changes at all levels in the country, 56 per cent of respondents expressed their agreement.
Trends and Intentions
Approximately 70 per cent of participants believed that the return of displaced Syrians is a key issue for the future of the country, this number acquires more relevance if put into the following context:
Although 74 per cent of participants recommended that displaced people not return to regime-controlled areas in the current conditions, and approximately half of participants are currently seeking to leave such areas, there is still an overwhelming belief in the need for displaced people to come back and play a major role in the country’s reconstruction of stabilization. This desire is linked to the shortage of traditional craftsmen and skilled professionals, the relentless drain of brains and youth that the country has been experiencing since 2011, and the deep fracture of the social fabric of society. These results demonstrate genuine concern about the country’s future despite the grim current reality.
The pro-regime figures and linked media platforms have conducted a vicious campaign portraying Syrians who left during the conflict as “traitors” who left the country during moments of hardship and threats, and hence they do not deserve to come back. Some regime officials have even threatened to kill returnees. The demonization and dehumanization of displaced people seems to have had limited impact amongst Syrians in regime-controlled areas, but it has to be taken into account when assessing the survey results in this section.
Nearly half (49 per cent) of the participants indicated that they want to leave their current places of residence within areas controlled by the Syrian regime. For those currently living in Syria, economic reasons are the main reason to leave since they have acclimatized to the new security reality and learned to navigate it. For those outside Syria, security reasons are the primary barrier to return. When asked about advising displaced persons whether to return to the country, roughly three-quarters (74 per cent) said they would not advise displaced people to return, due to the current situation in regime-controlled areas The vast majority of those who recommended displaced people not to return (86 per cent) confirmed that they based their recommendations on their own personal experiences, rather than perceptions.
The reconciliation areas present the worse deterioration in the sense of insecurity amongst survey respondents. While 74 per cent of participants in the SACD’s 2019 survey reported not feeling safe in their areas, this figure increased to 94 per cent in the 2020 survey. Surprisingly, the same trend was observed in areas controlled by the regime since 2011, where perceptions of insecurity jumped from 39 per cent in 2019 to 51 per cent in 2020. These numbers clearly indicate that the reconciliation areas have failed to provide security to citizens, and that the regime’s security policies and general practices are weakening the sense of security amongst Syrians.
Although the overall percentage of Syrians who were arrested or had a relative arrested in the last 10 years dropped from 53 per cent in 2019 to 40 per cent in 2020, it rose considerably in reconciliation areas during this period from 64 per cent to 89 per cent. This is another clear indication of the failure of the reconciliation agreements. The percentage of arrested people decreased for two main reasons. First, the sample size increased and covered a wider range of provinces, some of which, like Latakia, were less affected by regime security policies. Second, the regime had already targeted most of the dissidents in the areas under its control by 2019, or forced their displacement.
The intention to leave regime-controlled areas specifically in reconciliation areas and areas controlled since 2011 has noticeably increased. In the case of reconciliation areas, 48 per cent of survey participants in 2019 had the intention of leaving regime-controlled areas, while the percentage increased to 68 per cent in 2020. In areas controlled by the regime since 2011, the percentage went up from 23 per cent in 2019 to 47 per cent in 2020. These numbers are in line with those detailed in a March 2021 Norwegian Refugee Council report, which predicted that Syria will experience the displacement of another 6 million refugees in the next decade if the conflict continues.
As in 2019, the main reasons participants cited for leaving Syria are related to the security, economic and living conditions, which means that these key issues that matter most to citizens—and are the main reasons for their displacement—are not being addressed.
A staggering 97 per cent of participants in 2019 and 2020 believe corruption levels are high or very high in regime-controlled areas. In 2020, 72 per cent of participants assessed the country’s 2011 corruption levels as high or very high. Transparency International similarly ranked Syria 129 out of 182 on its Corruption Perception Index in 2011 and 178 out of 180 in 2020. These numbers clearly indicate that the regime’s policies are fomenting further corruption, which will cause further contempt amongst Syrians in regime-controlled areas, and push more people to attempt to leave. Most importantly, it will make economic recovery harder.
Dissatisfaction with services is still very high and has slightly worsened since 2019, when 94 per cent of participants were dissatisfied with services and considered them worse than 2011. This number rose to 99 per cent in 2020, reflecting the severe collapse of the economy and basic service provision.
Similarly to the issue of leaving regime-controlled areas, the new survey has shown that fewer Syrians living in reconciliation areas and localities controlled by the regime recommend other Syrians to return. In 2019, approximately 12 per cent of participants from reconciliation areas recommended other Syrians to return. This figure decreased to 4 per cent in another display of the abject failure of Russia and the regime in the reconciliation areas. A similar trend was noticed in areas under constant regime control since 2011: 50 per cent of participants recommended that Syrians return in 2019, but only 21 per cent did so in 2020, reflecting a clear deterioration in the overall conditions, and indicating that the return conditions have not yet been met from Syrians’ point of view.
For the OSE:
The establishment of a safe environment for all Syrians should become front and centre of the political process, and the OSE should push this matter to the top of the political agenda concerning Syria in the upcoming months. It is clear from the outcome of this report (and previous ones) that the key issues and challenges facing a safe, voluntary and digniﬁed return for displaced Syrians, as well as accomplishing a sustainable solution in Syria are all tied to a realistic, pragmatic and inclusive deﬁnition of the safe environment, and its subsequent successful implementation.
The Syrian regime’s guarantees and promises to Syrians are not being upheld. The reconciliation agreements and amnesties are not implemented and do not provide long-term protection and shouldn’t be heralded as a success in their present form. Therefore, the political track and any initiatives stemming from it must include extensive conﬁdence building measures and external oversight and monitoring of guarantees in order for Syrian people, especially displaced ones to have any trust in the capacity of the international community in imposing conditions on the regime.
Living within a geographical area does not equate to support for a party to the conﬂict, with those in regime areas deeply dissatisﬁed and unable to express this, and it would be a huge mistake and a sever injustice to consider the current map of inﬂuence and dominance in Syria a fete accompli, and build assumptions and solution on it. It is essential to ensure that a rights-based approach is applied to all proposals and negotiations using internationally agreed baselines and principles as a framework.
There are signiﬁcant issues with how detainees families are treated; from a lack of information, to being extorted in exchange for information. There is an urgent need to tackle the lack of access to rule of law, withholding of information, and ﬁnding means for providing information without bribery. There is far more to be done on the detention issue than is presently being done and the ofﬁce should take a lead from the victims and families organizations. Achieving any progress or even partial success on this issue is the litmus test of the international community and the OSE in the eyes of Syrians, and therefore, it should become the forefront of the political effort, and a prerequisite for any real progress.
For all actors working on a political solution:
Syrians want a political solution, but not at any cost nor without minimum conditions and robust international guarantees. Delaying or diverting the political track efforts from the real issues (i.e. return of displaced people, fate of detainees, etc) will not resolve or even freeze the conﬂict but rather exacerbate it, and will result in more waves of refugees. It is essential that efforts to secure a comprehensive and sustainable political solution are redoubled.
Achieving a common consensus on the deﬁnition of the “safe environment” and the mechanisms and guarantees to achieve it should be the next step in the political process and the main instrument to revitalize it. This deﬁnition must be developed with the crucial participation of Syrians.
Security remains the main concern and threat for Syrians. Security sector reform remains a fundamental and critical component of any agreement. Discussing refugee return before any such reform or settlement is premature and should not be pursued.
For major donor states and humanitarians:
Despite living conditions declining, corruption and extortion are thriving. Avoid funding any Syrian regime entity, as even basic services such as civil documentation is being overlaid with extortion. Pay extra care to ensure programmes do not further bolster the growing perception of corruption and inequality.
Service provision is skewed based on the typology of the area within Syria and the background and political afﬁnities of the different communities in regime-held areas. Extra care and attention must be paid to ensure aid and basic services such as healthcare are available to those in reconciled areas and other areas with a more vulnerable footprint.
For the UNHCR:
Monitoring the conditions against the protection thresholds and for returnees is vital work, and the protection thresholds should be adjusted to the reality on the ground and the real threats that Syrians face. This should be undertaken as a matter of urgency and effectively communicated to policy-makers and refugees alike.
Implementation of amnesties and reconciliation deals must be monitored in a longitudinal manner on implementation, rather than on announcement. High numbers of those detained believed they beneﬁted from amnesties or reconciliation agreements and it worth highlighting in all monitoring against protection thresholds whether the implementation of these agreements results in safer outcomes for Syrians.
The vast majority of surveyed Syrians don’t feel safe in regime-controlled areas, and they have deep grievances regarding many security and living conditions . Being vocal about these facts is essential to ensure premature or pressured returns are not taking place, and to gain credibility in the eyes of Syrians.
Produce accurate reports reﬂecting the main facts about the reality on the ground, specially about the security situation in regime-controlled areas (and in Syria in general), and communicate them to key hosing countries, such as Denmark, in order to avoid forced and premature return.
Refugee hosting countries:
The conditions for safe digniﬁed and voluntary return do not exist. Syrians do not feel safe and are not safe, despite some reduction in conﬂict-related violence in some areas of the country. No return can occur in advance of a settlement, so securing one is the ﬁrst step toward this eventual return. Focusing efforts on the political track is the only way to secure return and states should redouble their efforts in this direction.
For the US and EU:
There are misconceptions about sanctions in Syria that should be corrected by redoubling the effort to clearly and effectively communicate the facts about the sanctions to Syrians and countering the regime’s narrative.
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