‘Message to the world: “My Syria… when will we return?” In Syria, war prevented teachers from reaching a school in this young woman’s neighborhood. She lived closer to the school and volunteered to teach the students “so they wouldn’t forget.”‘
Similar to reporting on the emerging scenario in the north, displaced Syrians living in Irbid describe the FSA in as scattered, under-resourced, devoid of unity—and increasingly, bit players in a drama between two unthinkable antagonists, Asad and “Da’esh,” the local slang for the Islamic State. Other Islamist groups are not generally viewed as serious contenders; they will consolidate with IS or disappear. Pockets of resistance in Dar’a notwithstanding, few here expect the FSA will ever regain the strength to pose a serious challenge Asad in the south. The Syrians I speak to further insist the Islamic State will never be allowed victory: ironically and at last, IS is an issue the international community will be forced to rally around—if not exactly in support of Asad, then to his government’s mutual benefit.
So, Asad has won. It is a simple calculus.
Would Syrians living in exile return to a southern Syria stabilized by the Asad regime? This question is difficult to answer. The challenges of sampling an urban refugee population are well-documented. These challenges demand a great deal of speculation when attempting to predict the desires or behaviours of a non-homogeneous group of people who are distributed through geographical space by a multitude of factors such as economic class, social affiliations (such as regional, political or religious identification), and family relations. Realistically, a researcher must rely on chance encounters and word of mouth to find willing respondents, and has no way of knowing whether the communal networks accessed are representative. The fact that Syrians have spent their pre-conflict lifetimes carefully managing their relations with Asad’s obtrusive secret service only increase the uncertainty of predictions.
Accepting this caveat, and recognizing these findings are further limited to the specific geographical location of urban Irbid, I suspect a significant number of urban Syrian refugees would return to a south ruled by the Asad regime. Cautious and pragmatic political negotiation is an old standard of pre-conflict Syrian society, which most have spent their lives mastering. If Asad is to be the inevitable victor, return will be contingent on refugees’ abilities to convince the government of their loyalty.
Many here go so far as to cite grievances with the FSA. “Asad is not good, the FSA is not good, so what are we to do?” is a common refrain. Especially in central Irbid, many displaced families come from middle class backgrounds—those who had the most to lose to less scrupulous brigades willing to treat local civilians as a resource. Frustration with a lack of oversight or unity in the FSA is common, and some seem to suspect the upper levels of the resistance movement as self-interested and corrupt.
Conversely, urban Syrian households that report ongoing FSA support tend to have ties to the resistance movement, which would be difficult to obscure. This includes a history of service with resistance brigades (especially those who have been visibly injured), family members who are publicly affiliated with the FSA, and SAA army defectors or individuals who fled SAA drafts. Even these families maintain that Asad will likely re-consolidate control of Syria, and do not express hope of ever returning to their homes. They expect to remain in permanent exile.
Notably, the Syrian families I have spoken with in Irbid have not reported any support for Da’esh or other Islamist groups. Whether this represents a sample bias or reporting bias is difficult to ascertain, but research suggests that victory by the Islamic State would result in lifelong displacement for a large number of Syrians in Irbid—much more so than in the case of an Asad victory.
Overall, the reported desire by Syrians in Irbid is to return home, and to return as quickly as possible. Tolerance of the difficult life of a refugee is waning as war drags on and host country patience wears thin, especially in light of new Government of Jordan laws which more strictly regulate Syrians’ lives outside the camps. There is little enthusiasm for a reinvigorated FSA making a new bid for power: Syrians canvassed are simply not in favour of another long phase of civil war fueled by further foreign influence. Political dreams are seen as waning in importance in the face of overwhelming desire to cut losses and restart lives—people yearn for careers, home ownership, marriage, children, all of which are near impossible for displaced Syrians in the current political climate in Jordan. Many are actively considering return in the short term, despite the risks. This is especially so for those who originated from areas such as Suwayda, which have already been reclaimed by SAA forces. Others talk of restarting lives in Damascus, though they cite the dangers of a life riddled with government checkpoints while carrying identification which associates them with the rebellious province of Dar’a.
While these findings can not be assumed reflect the desires of all Syrians in Jordan—notably they do not include residents of Zaatari, who are reported to be more staunch FSA supporters—I suspect that a concrete offer of amnesty from Asad, backed up by safe and successful reintegration of those who first repatriate, could spark large numbers of urban-based Syrians to return. Exhausted by the refugee experience, repatriated Syrians may constitute a major influence on the conflict sooner rather than later.
Matthew is an MA Candidate in Department of Geography, affiliated with the Centre for Refugee Studies and the York Centre for International Security Studies at York University, Canada. His research focuses on the interplay between community-based social ties and self-support strategies among urban Syrian forced migrants in Jordan. Find him on twitter at @Matt_R_Stevens.