In early 2011, as protestors demanding political reform took to the streets of Syrian cities, Rami Makhlouf, a powerful businessman and confidant of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sat down for an interview with the late New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid.
The Assad dynasty had ruled Syria unopposed for decades. But the regime, along with a nexus of political and economic elites, was shaken. Uprisings had recently deposed longstanding dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. In a region suddenly electrified by the prospect of political change, many began to speculate that Syria’s ruling elite might be next.
In the interview, Makhlouf issued a grim warning to Syria’s opposition and its sympathizers.
“Nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime,” he told Shadid. “Don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.”
“They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”
Five years later, against the predictions of many, the Assad regime has maintained its grip on power. And, as Makhlouf promised, many have suffered to make this possible. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and maimed, while the fighting has reduced ancient cities like Homs and Aleppo to rubble.
Syria’s tragedy also has a global dimension, and that is the exodus of an estimated 5 million people from their homes in Syria over the last five years. The refugees have left on foot, packed into ships, and entrusted their lives to smugglers in an effort to escape their ravaged country. Hundreds of thousands of them have landed on the increasingly unwelcoming shores of Europe. Nearly 3 million now live in Turkey alone.
Unlike its citizens, however, Syria’s regime shows no sign of departing. In a recent interview, Assad vowed to rule Syria at least until 2021, while his government has pledged to take back “every inch” of Syrian territory from opposition control.
Outside powers may be tempted to accept this state of affairs, and to accept Assad as a partner in stabilizing Syria. President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested that his administration could work with Assad, even tacitly praising him in a debate for being “much tougher and much smarter” than U.S. leaders.
Trump’s own rise has been aided, in part, by the global nationalist backlash Syria’s refugee exodus has triggered. But if his administration decides to partner with the Assad regime to “stabilize” Syria for the long term, it is more likely to make the refugee crisis permanent than to solve it.
Millions of Syrians have already chosen to flee their country entirely, rather than continue to be ruled by the Assad regime. They have done so out of fear of barrel bombs, indefinite detention, torture, chemical weapons attacks, and other well-documented, systematic war crimes. If Syria’s conflict ends with a return to the pre-2011 political status quo — the same regime ruling the entire country indefinitely — many of those who fled will probably never return.
Ali Bahr, 29, is one of them. Before the war came to his hometown of Raqqa, he was a teacher of Arabic literature. “We lived in a village outside the city and didn’t want to give up our home,” he told me when we met in a gritty industrial area of the Turkish capital of Ankara. “But my wife and I decided to leave when the bombings became too close and too frightening.”
Today, Ali is a manual laborer. When we spoke, he was on a break from his job, where he worked 12 hours a day helping assemble thermal heating systems in a warehouse. Ali has a slim build, neatly cut brown hair, and sharp features. Though his hands and clothing were stained with soot, he still carried himself with the genteel demeanor of the literature teacher he was not long ago. Since he fled to Turkey, his village in Syria has fallen under the control of Islamic State militants. “If [ISIS] was gone from our homes, we would go back immediately,” he told me, before adding: “But only if the regime is gone from there, too. They terrorized people and created this catastrophe.”
All over the world, the outflux of Syrians is regarded as a mounting crisis. It’s one that has stymied political leaders in receiving countries, most of whom have balked at absorbing large numbers of refugees. To the extent that outside powers have contemplated military intervention against the Assad regime, they have rightly concluded it would likely generate still more misery rather than less. But the refugee problem is inevitably bound up with the political future of Syria. In order for its citizens to return, Syria needs to be not only stable, but also safe.
“Syrians want to go back to their hometowns and cities. They want the chance to rebuild their lives. They want to live in a Syria that is free of fear, torture, and oppression,” said Lina Sergie Attar, the founder of the Karam Foundation, a charity serving Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. “Every Syrian refugee I know is miserable to be living outside their homes and country, but government attacks against civilians are emptying the country of its people,” Attar said.
But, she added, most refugees will never go home as long as the Assad regime continues to rule the country.
“Syria will never have a true future as a peaceful and prosperous country with Assad in power.”
The Assad regime’s argument for its own indispensability rests largely on the fear of what would fill the vacuum in its absence. The partial collapse of state authority in neighboring Iraq led to the creation of ISIS, a group that later crossed the border to take advantage of Syria’s chaos. While Assad is widely accepted to be a “bad guy,” as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has conceded, some still view him as a force for stability and continuity in an unstable region.
That view is largely a myth, however. After five years of upheaval, state services exist only notionally in much of Syria. Maintenance of basic services is both limited and dependent on international support, while “the majority of Syrians, whether under the control of the government or the opposition [have] plunged into the informal economy,” according to an economic analysis of the war’s impact published by the Carnegie Middle East Center. Broad economic sanctions targeting the Syrian economy have exacerbated this decline.
Many of the Assad regime’s national institutions have also been reduced to shells of what they once were, with waves of defections, desertions, and deaths leaving major organizations like the military in an advanced state of decay. The government now relies in large part on a combination of local paramilitaries and foreign armed forces — Russians, Iranians, and foreign sectarian militias — to maintain a pretense of sovereignty over the country. An ongoing offensive to retake the city of Aleppo is now continuing largely due to the support of Shia militia volunteers from Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Russian air support.
Much of Syria is now governed as a network of small fiefdoms, often loosely tied to the central government. A significant number of Syrians still fighting for the regime are compelled to do so out of economic need or simple coercion. Thus, when the Assad regime boldly announces its intentions to take back all territory under opposition control, it is functionally declaring that foreigners will be “taking back” Syrian territory, because, simply put, there aren’t enough Syrians left willing to undertake such a task.
Meanwhile, many of those who made up Syria’s major pre-war national institutions have themselves become part of the country’s vast refugee diaspora. Yassin Shammous, a tall, heavily built 31-year-old with thinning hair, was a military police officer who chose to leave rather than continue serving in an institution that had been ordered to attack protestors. Originally from Aleppo, he defected in 2012 and crossed the border into Turkey later that year. He once dreamed of going to university. Now he makes a basic living driving an unlicensed taxi catering to other Syrian refugees in Ankara.
“Most of the major officers in the police force were Alawite,” he told me when we met, in a small Syrian-run restaurant in the Ankara suburb of Onder, which has become one of many hubs for refugees living in the city. Shammous, who is Sunni, wore a gray tracksuit and white running shoes. On the street outside, storefront signs in Arabic and Turkish advertised Syrian food, as well as services to help people stay in touch with fellow Syrians now scattered around the world.
Like many others, Shammous felt pressured by a governing bureaucracy that maintained its power by manipulating sectarian divisions. “When the revolution started, they took away the Sunni officers’ guns because they didn’t trust us. I left my job and went into hiding in 2012 because I didn’t want to be part of an army that shoots at civilians — that shoots at students and young people for protesting,” he told me.
Because he decided to defect from his job in the security apparatus, Shammous became a wanted man in Syria. Like many other refugees, he faces the prospect of exile from his homeland — forever, or for as long as the Assad government remains in power. He is increasingly losing hope for a solution to the conflict that would allow him to return to Aleppo.
“What we were afraid of — the outcome that we were trying to avoid when this all started — it’s already happened,” he told me.
Roughly a 20-minute drive from the Syrian border, on the outskirts of the Turkish town of Nizip, some 5,000 Syrian refugees live in an isolated, fenced-in refugee encampment, administered by the Turkish government. The residents of the camp represent much of the diversity of Syria, hailing from hometowns as dispersed as Damascus, Homs, and Deir Ezzor.
In the glaring sunlight, with nothing but barren desert hills surrounding the camp, young children play between the converted storage units that now serve as their family homes. In makeshift classrooms, they draw pictures from memory of their former houses, mosques, and neighborhoods in Syria. Many decorate their pictures with the three-star flag of the Syrian revolution. Like the children of the Palestinian diaspora, they are raised with nostalgia for a homeland to which they may never return.
In the Muslim tradition, a saying ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad describes Syria as “the quintessence of the lands of God,” adding that “whoever departs from Syro-Palestine earns [God’s] wrath, and whoever enters it from somewhere earns His mercy.”
Millions have made the agonizing choice to leave Syria and seek shelter in refugee camps, poor suburbs of Turkish cities, or increasingly unwelcoming Western states. But the yearning of Syrians to return to their home country should not be underestimated. According to aid workers at the Nizip refugee camp, when a Turkish-backed military offensive freed the nearby Syrian town of Jarablus from Islamic State control, several families from that town left the camp and returned there.
Despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation inside Syria, the broad outlines of a solution are visible. Jarablus is one example: Formalizing a de facto safe area in the northern region of the country — free from both government and Islamic State control — could allow more people to go back to the towns and cities they left behind, or even into new housing developments that some have suggested building in reconstructed areas for Syrians now living in Turkey. For such areas to exist, however, outside powers would have to insist on a political solution that prevents the Assad regime from making good on its pledge to retake the remaining opposition-held areas of the country. It would also mean pressing Assad to leave power and making normalization of U.S. relations with Syria dependent on genuine political change.
Most importantly, it would mean discarding the shortsighted idea of accepting the Assad regime — institutionally decayed, stained by its crimes, and dependent on foreign backers — as any kind of long-term partner. In a recent interview, Assad suggested that President-elect Donald Trump could be a “natural ally” to his regime. Assad’s backers in Russia have also said that they hope to join forces with Trump to fight against “terrorism and extremism,” despite warnings from the United Nations that a total military victory for Assad would feed a resurgence of global terrorism.
It remains unclear how the Trump administration will respond to these entreaties. But if Trump accepts Assad’s terms for ending the war, and the regime reasserts power over all of Syria, the tragedy of those who have fled, as well as the global political crisis triggered in part by their exodus, is likely to continue.
Decades ago, Zaher Sahloul was a medical school classmate and acquaintance of Bashar al-Assad. More recently, the Syrian-American physician has put his life on hold to offer emergency medical care to the hundreds of thousands who have been maimed and wounded by his former classmate’s regime. Sahloul, an adviser to the Syrian-American Medical Society, says that his experience on the front lines has convinced him that the crisis will not end until Assad agrees to loosen his grip over the country.
“If Western governments think that striking a deal that keeps Assad in power will end the refugee crisis,” he told me, “they are living in a dream. This is a regime that has committed war crime after war crime in the last five years and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. It is not trusted by any Syrian.”
“With Assad ruling over them, no one will go back.”