The Syrian armed conflict began in 2011 as a civil uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East. Since 2012, the conflict became increasingly violent and developed in a full-scale civil war, as armed opposition groups confronted Syrian government forces and began seizing key territories. The rise of Islamist groups and subsequent infighting marked another phase in the conflict that culminated in 2014, with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) conquering large areas in the eastern part of the country and further into Iraq, and establishing the so-called ‘Islamic State caliphate’. The creation of the ‘caliphate’ prompted the military intervention of an international US-led coalition against ISIL. Since late 2015, military interventions of other external actors in support of Assad marked the comeback of the Syrian government, which gradually recaptured most territories and consolidated its control. By the end of 2018, the conflict was viewed as having shifted decisively in Assad’s favour. [Actors, 1.1]
During the course of the war, Syria became the scene for a series of intersecting conflicts involving many internal and international actors [Actors, 1.1]. Three main campaigns have driven the conflict in Syria: violence between the Syrian government and opposition forces; the efforts of a US-led coalition to defeat ISIL; and the military operations against Syrian Kurds by Turkish forces [Security 2020, 1.4]. Complex alliances, shifting allegiances, rivalries and conflicting interests between the actors involved continue to affect the balance of power and to foster uncertainty [Actors, 1.1].
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, with most international experts estimating the number around 500 000 since the beginning of the conflict [Security 2020, 1.6.3]. The conflict has also caused the biggest displacement crisis in the world. Over 5.5 million Syrians live as refugees in the region and more than six million are displaced within the country [Security 2020, 1.6.5].
The implications of leaving Syria
It is inherent in the situation of applicants for international protection that they have left their country of origin. In the context of Syria, and in particular of targeting by the government of Syria (GoS), this in itself could have implications for the treatment of an individual upon return. This section is to be read in conjunction with the other sections of this country guidance, and in particular those concerning different profiles under Refugee status, Article 15(b) QD, Actors of protection and Internal protection alternative.
Given the Syrian forces’ territorial gains over the past years, the government is trying to foster the image of stability and is now calling on refugees to return. This contravenes the Syrian government’s earlier approach on return, which perceived the mass exodus as a means of gaining a more homogenous society and ensuring subservience from the civilian population [IDPs and returnees, 3.1]. In August 2018, the GoS announced that Syrians who had left the country illegally during the war would not encounter problems because of illegal exit, whilst until then illegal exit was punishable with imprisonment and fines [Targeting, 1.3.6].
Over 5.5 million Syrian refugees are registered in neighbouring countries. Over 75 000 verified Syrian refugees had spontaneously returned to Syria between January and September 2019, but actual numbers may be higher. As of 31 October 2019, over 200 000 self-organised refugee returns have been documented. [Targeting, 1.3.1]
Neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey have also increased pressure on Syrian refugees to return. Economic and political challenges facing both countries are additional push factors to return refugees to Syria. Turkey has been providing support for integration and voluntary return of Syrians since 2016. Whereas the government of Turkey stated in September 2019 that around 350 000 Syrians have ‘voluntarily’ returned to Syria, several sources have reported that forced returns and deportations were taking place. Some deportees reported that they were arrested and imprisoned by Islamist groups on the Syrian side of the border [Targeting, 1.3.2, 1.3.3]. The Turkish military offensive in October 2019, ‘Operation Peace Spring’, partly aimed to establish ‘safe zones’ in which up to two million Syrian refugees could be returned. The majority of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees are Sunni Arabs, originating from areas outside the Kurdish-dominated areas of the north-east, and a population movement of this magnitude raises concerns of an altering effect on the demographic balance in the area. [IDPs and returnees, 3.1]
Lebanon also facilitates voluntary returns. Furthermore, Syrians who entered Lebanon irregularly can be legally deported to Syria since 24 April 2019. There is no monitoring whether or not returns are voluntary. There have been reports of Syrian refugees who were forced to sign voluntary return forms and deported from Lebanon, even while they expressed fear of torture or persecution if returned. At least three returnees were reportedly detained upon arrival in Syria [Targeting, 1.3.3].
The government of Jordan had not taken measures to facilitate large-scale voluntary returns as of October 2019 [Targeting, 1.3.4].
For persons who wish to return to Syria after having left illegally, such as via an unofficial border crossing, ‘sorting out of affairs’ or legalising one’s status (taswiyat al-wada) are the terms the GoS uses to describe the process of reconciling with the government as an individual, either as a result of the different reconciliation agreements or through individual agreements [Recaptured areas, 2.5].
Syrians wishing to return to their place of origin in GoS-retaken areas, are requested to gain security approval by going through a ‘security clearance’ involving interrogation by Syrian security forces. This ‘clearance’ implies providing extensive information on any involvement they had with the political opposition. The GoS guarantees ‘forgiveness’ to returnees when they tell the truth. However, in many cases this does not work out as promised. About three quarters of Syrians returning to GoS-held areas had been harassed, conscripted into the military despite promises they would be exempted, or arrested. [Targeting, 1.3.5]
Returnees at the border may be detained for a short period - between one hour and several days. Even among the ‘voluntary returnees’, persons who had evaded military conscription or who (or family members of whom) had connections with an armed opposition group, or who are part of an NGO inside or outside Syria, or are travelling back and forth to Syria from abroad, may face issues such as extortion, forced conscription, arrest, detention, torture and death in custody [Targeting, 1.3.6]. Disappearances and arrests on return to Syria, including at the airport in Damascus, have been reported. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) noted that since 2014, they documented at least 1 916 arrests of Syrian refugees who returned to Syria; of these, 1 132 were released and 784 remained detained, of whom 638 were ‘forcibly disappeared’. SNHR documented 15 cases of returnees who were reportedly killed due to torture. Cases of arrests and forced disappearances of refugees who had settled their cases with security services through consulates or committees for reconciliation were also reported. [Damascus, 2.3; IDPs and returnees, 3.5]
Returnees face a lack of rule of law, widespread human rights violations and poor economic prospects. State guarantees as part of reconciliation agreements are not fulfilled, for both individuals and communities. Returnees have been arrested, detained, harassed or conscripted after they had completed the reconciliation process and received protection papers. Furthermore, the control of Syrian security sector over society is strengthening. The Syrian military and security services arrest and detain individuals to gather intelligence, to punish those considered to be disloyal, and to extract payments from families for the release of the detained. [Targeting, 1.3.6]
Returnees also experience many difficulties to gain access to the properties that they held before fleeing the country, due to lack of documentation and identification. Looting, expropriations and damage of properties are major housing-related concerns for Syrians. Returnees to recaptured parts of Rural Damascus, Dar’a, Homs and Aleppo were also asked to pay fees for water, electricity, phone, municipal and real estate taxes during the period they fled. [Targeting, 1.3.6]
According to some sources, there were no consequences known of having applied for asylum abroad and the sources had no information that such applicants were punished on return. [Targeting, 1.3.6]