“Dreaming of Home: Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?” by Matthew R. Stevens

Dreaming of Home : Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?
by Matthew R. Stevens – @Matt_R_Stevens
for Syria Comment, Sept 16, 2014

“What do I think will happen?” He sighs. “I think that it is over. I think Bashar will win.”

I am cross-legged in the sitting room of a Syrian family, hot tea half-forgotten in my hand. I give the man a long, searching stare. He nods in confirmation. Asad will win. Asad already has won.

This point of view has become familiar through the first three months of research on post-conflict Syrian social structures in Irbid. The second largest city in Jordan, Irbid rests about 20km from the Dar’a border crossing. Irbid Governate held a population of approximately one million before the conflict began in Syria; now, it is home to an additional 160,000 Syrians.

Opportunistic sampling of Syrians living in Irbid has revealed greater diversity in political leanings than initially expected. Few report being staunch supporters of either Asad or the FSA. Irrespective of previous political hopes for Syria, many seem to be playing a pragmatic game of reconciliation—re-obscuring political affiliations in a preparation for rehabilitation with the regime.

‘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.

Comments (8)


1. ghufran said:

There are no moderate rebels in Syria and there is no reason for any Syrian today to trust the rebels who committed numerous war crimes and were engaged in summary executions, sectarian killings, kidnapping of women and children, taking hostages both muslims and non muslims, terrorism, looting, extortion, shelling residential areas,etc
SOHR has daily reports on how rebels conduct their business, this is the latest Ghazwah:
ارتفع إلى 11 عدد القذائف الصاورخية التي أطلقها إتحاد إسلامي، على مناطق وسط العاصمة دمشق، حيث استهدفت القذائف مناطق السبع بحرات والمالكي وأبو رمانة والقصاع وساحة عرنوس ومشفى الأطفال عند دوار المواساة والمزة 86
وأدت لاستشهاد طفل، وسقوط عدد من الجرحى، وأنباء عن وجود المزيد من الجرحى
Terrorists launched Katiosha rockets on residential areas in Damascus (again) killing a child and wounding others

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September 16th, 2014, 1:21 pm

 

2. ALAN said:

1. GHUFRAN
ليش عم بتعزب حالك سيد غفران؟
باينتو القرد صاير جحش و حابب يعفس من جديد. محسب حالو مافي غيرو بالدنيا و فيو يلعب فيا بالطول و بالعرض. ان شالله هالمرة بدو بنكسر ضهرو عال أخير.

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September 16th, 2014, 3:56 pm

 

3. ALAN said:

US government is about to be check-mated, big-time.

http://en.itar-tass.com/russia/749579

Russia will provide military and other assistance to Iraq and Syria in the fight against terrorism, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq in Paris on Monday.

“We have spoken of our contribution to supporting the Iraqi government in their fight against terrorists, ensuring security of their state. In a similar way we provide military and other kind of assistance to Syria that is also facing a serious terrorist threat, maybe to a lesser degree. We also provide assistance to our partners in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan. So we have something to contribute to the common efforts,” Lavrov said.

No double standards in the fight against terrorists are acceptable, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq in the French capital on Monday.

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September 16th, 2014, 4:32 pm

 

4. Ghufran said:

The leader of the Syrian Revelutionary Front, Jamal Ma’arouf, suffered minor injuries today, after the Syrian Air Force bombardment of Deir Sanbal in the Idlib Governate. An SRF officer and Jamal Ma’arouf’s lead deputy, Mohammad Faisal Ma’arouf (AKA Abu Ja’afar Al-Malek) were killed during the attack. According to Syrian Opposition activists, Jamal Ma’arouf’s daughter was among the casualties, following the Air Force bombardment; however, this has not been confirmed. Ma’arouf is currently seeking medical assistance in a Turkish hospital on the border of Idlib.
Ahrar al-sham on the other hand attacked Almidaan and alzahira in Damascus in an apparent retaliation for the killing of their leadership, the attack rattled residents there but local armed citizens and a group of Palestinian fighters managed to capture and kill the attackers who came through sewage canals with no apparent military targets in the area which has no army presence.

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September 16th, 2014, 8:25 pm

 

5. Syrian said:

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/09/17/world/middleeast/syrian-plane-shot-down-as-attacks-by-groups-intensify.html
“In a report to the Human Rights Council, the chairman, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, said that even as the Islamic State carries out atrocities, the Syrian government “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily.”

He described killing “from a distance” by shelling and aerial bombardment and “up close at checkpoints and in its interrogation rooms,” presenting a report that also included new details of killings that were the work of the Islamic State.”

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September 16th, 2014, 9:05 pm

 

6. Syrialover said:

I commend Matthew Stevens for doing this study of Syrian refugees, and I’m glad that SyriaComment has highlighted it.

Syrians would be superhuman if they didn’t yearn for a return to their homeland and a chance to salvage their identity under any conditions.

So I think Stevens, by eagerly canvassing and reporting their views on the regime, is in danger of distorting his study and turning it into something else.

The focus of his research (as stated above) is “the interplay between community-based social ties and self-support strategies among urban Syrian forced migrants in Jordan”.

It would be a shame if his temptation to offer “political insights” dilutes and distracts from the aim and value of his academic study.

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September 17th, 2014, 5:12 am

 

7. TOM said:

Assad may not win. Now that the US is getting serious about using its most lethal weapons short of nukes Assad is outgunned, or more precisely, out air powered.
I have read that he has formidable air defenses. This taken in light of US capabilities means it will be a little bit more difficult for our air power to destroy radar, communications and ada batteries either missile or tubes. But if the US wants to do it, it will be done.
And the US does not have to put “boots on the ground.” In reading this please put special emphasis on “boots on the ground. It would not be out of order to have a drum roll before saying it.
General Dempsey has said that if he thinks it is necessary to do so he will ask the President if he can to that. You see, in this country even if the Commander in Chief has no medals on his chest, he is still the Commander in Chief.
And this Commander in Chief if you can believe anything he say, believe this, there will be no US combat “boots on the ground”. Drum roll please.
It is an insult to every Kurdish fighter or any other group who supports freedom in Iraq and Syria and any other country to say they cannot win a war if the air power overhead rules the skies as long as they are given the

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September 17th, 2014, 12:46 pm

 

8. Austin Michael Bodetti said:

Jordan may have to face the reality of permanent Syrian refugees.

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September 18th, 2014, 5:33 pm

 

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