The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has become known internationally for his dictatorial rule whose regime has violated — and continues to violate — numerous human rights of Syrians. In-depth and comprehensive reports have been issued by international organizations, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Countries like Germany, The Netherlands, Canada and Sweden are exploring ways to prosecute through their national courts, on the basis of universal jurisdiction, those responsible for grave violations of international law in Syria, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Despite the commonly accepted statement that the current Syrian regime — the same regime that Syrians unitedly started demonstrating against in March 2011 — is a dictatorship disregarding the rule of law all together, the question of returning Syrians to that same Syria still dominates political debate in countries of asylum. Denmark is going as far as reevaluating the residence status of Syrian refugees from Damascus and surroundings to determine whether received protection in Denmark is still needed. According to Denmark, the area around Damascus including the capital can be considered safe to return and this conclusion justifies revoking the Danish residence permits granted to these Syrians including entire families.
Prior to judging the ethics of the Danish people in charge, I believe it is necessary to remind the world of why Syria remains unsafe. Even, or perhaps rather: especially, Damascus and surroundings. I live next to Syria and personal stories and news from the neighbor country seem to flow in more frequently than to Europe.
Remember why so many men between age 18 and 42 fled Syria in the first place? Mandatory military service. Mandatory military service with the same army that answers to the Assad regime and that used chemical weapons against civilians. Returning to government-controlled Syria as a male means you will have to pay an exemption fee that can reach up to USD 10,000, depending on the years lived abroad.
Arbitrary imprisonment and detention by the regime is at the core of the challenges for Syrians to living in dignity in their country. A key reason in protesting the regime’s practice of surveilling and arresting civilians without fair trial and for indefinite periods of time. A practice that shakes all beliefs of safety and security, and that has caused countless of Syrians to have no access to information on the whereabouts of a family or friend for years. With the same regime in power in and around Damascus, arbitrary imprisonment and detention with no fair trial guarantees remain common practice.
What has changed in the past 10 years is not only the increased military presence inside Syria of foreign powers, but also the continuous presence of non-state armed groups. The big five dominating Syria with each their own agendas are the United States, Iran and friends a.k.a. Hezbollah, Russia, Turkey and Israel. Although Israel operates from outside, having repeatedly crossing Lebanese territory to send off missiles into Syria. These actors, including the Syrian government forces, indiscriminately bombard civilian populated areas as well as hospitals and medical facilities, schools, markets and civilian neighborhoods on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
ISIS needs no introduction, and even if considered defeated, the terrorist group continues to be active throughout Syria. The same goes for militias that made less of a reputation, nonetheless indiscriminately launching attacks and using improvised explosive devices in civilian populated areas. The military conduct of all the mentioned armed actors in Syria amount to war crimes under international law.
The heavy fighting and the consequential damage of essential infrastructure brings me to the fourth point in answering why Syria is not safe: limited access to healthcare and humanitarian services. With the destruction of hospitals and other institutions plus the significant impact of unilateral sanctions from abroad, essential medical supplies, food items and healthcare services in general are less — if at all — available or for high prices. Add the fact that we are living through a pandemic and common sense will make you think twice before going back to a country lacking basic medical facilities. To be equally considered given that disastrous is the lack of electricity in certain areas surrounding Damascus and limited authorized humanitarian aid to civilians. This comes at a time when the Syrian economy is incredibly weakened, affected both by the currency crisis in neighboring Lebanon and by the imposed sanctions from notably the U.S., and poverty in the country is on the rise.
Moreover, return to Syria does not guarantee that your house, land and property rights remained intact or that you are allowed to return to the place of origin due to governmental restrictions formalized through new legislation, policies and practices.
From a gender perspective, returning to Syria permanently is a no-go for some after having tasted new freedoms and opportunities of economic independence as a woman. With that I mean, the encouragement from the state and society to study and work to generate own income and the freedom to do with it as they please. Other mindsets are introduced, namely that of seizing opportunities to develop as an individual before thinking of marriage and children. Return to Syria for them would imply halting study or job and adjusting back to the traditions and restrictions applicable to women.
In conclusion, the war is not over and the humanitarian situation is deteriorating by the day. Return should remain entirely voluntary and the decision should be based on credible and reliable sources available to individuals. I hope the above answered the question “Why is Syria not safe?” clarifying the need to prevent policies similar to that of the Danish government in addition to the need to push for a political solution. Meanwhile, longterm solutions for Syrian should remain on the table.