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Syria Deeply is an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists, exploring a new model of storytelling around a global crisis that relies on both user-generated content and the highest standards of the professional press.
A Syrian mother and her son in a Lebanese refugee camp.
Maja Janmyr

Resettlement Or Return? Limbo For Syrian Refugees In Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon appears to be mobilizing for the mass return of Syrian refugees, disregarding warnings that conditions in their home country are not conducive to voluntary returns in safety and dignity.

Last week, ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections, Lebanese President Michel Aoun asked the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help secure the return of refugees. After the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) stated that it was not involved in last month's return of around 500 Syrians from Lebanon due to conditions in Syria, the UNHCR's representative to Lebanon, Mireille Girard, was summoned by the foreign ministry and asked not to issue any further statements on refugee return.

Equally worrisome, Lebanon's foreign minister Gebran Bassil fiercely rejected the declaration by the U.N. and European Union at the end of the recent Brussels conference of Syria donors, because it recognized that "conditions for returns, as defined by the UNHCR and according to international refugee law standards, are not yet fulfilled."

Aoun and Bassil argue that the Brussels declaration contradicts Lebanon's constitution and jeopardizes the country by aiming to "resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon." They warn that waiting until there is a political solution to the Syrian conflict before returning refugees could mean waiting in vain. The president even said the international statement collides with his constitutional duty to "preserve Lebanon's independence and the integrity of its territories."

In what way would a voluntary return of refugees be unconstitutional? And how has discussion of voluntary returns come to be understood as an attempt to naturalize, or locally integrate, Syrian refugees?

When Aoun spoke of constitutional violations, he implicitly referred to the preamble of the country's constitution, which states that there shall be no "tawteen" in Lebanon. Although this can be roughly translated as "settlement" or "naturalization," there is no single understanding of the concept of tawteen.

Lebanon specialists have argued that it is a type of Lebanese political jargon that, because of its multiple interpretations, can easily be used to political and polemical ends. We see this confusion also in the many different English-language versions of the constitution, in which tawteen is variously translated as colonization, settlement or, more precisely, "settlement of non-Lebanese."

What is clear, however, is that this prohibition of tawteen is mirrored in the unanimous political agreement that refugees cannot be naturalized in the country. Underlying this opposition is the concern that the presence of refugees will bring demographic changes that may affect political representation, which is currently apportioned by sect according to Lebanon's confessional political system.

For a long time, tawteen was primarily used to refer to Lebanon's Palestinian refugee population. Some experts have argued that the constitution institutionalizes the country's strong fear of the permanent settlement of Palestinians. Lebanon's experience with this group of refugees, who are often blamed for playing a substantial role in the build-up to the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, is a key reason for the refugee issue being highly politicized.

Lebanon is neither a country of asylum, nor a final destination for refugees.

Since the beginning of the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon in 2011, tawteen has also been applied to Syrians. Despite Lebanon hosting up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees over the past seven years, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, jointly drafted by the U.N. and the government, states that "Lebanon is neither a country of asylum, nor a final destination for refugees, let alone a country of resettlement."

Under international law, granting asylum does not entail a guarantee of permanent residence in the receiving state. But for Lebanon's leaders, asylum equals permanent settlement.

There are many more key norms of international refugee law that are misinterpreted by Lebanese officials – whether deliberately or not. Not only has Lebanon long rejected the U.N. Refugee Convention, there is a common misunderstanding that both resettlement and voluntary return require local integration in Lebanon, which is unanimously ruled out by all political actors.

Many Lebanese are uncomfortable with the "voluntary" aspect of voluntary return, arguing that this implicitly leaves open the option of permanent settlement. Lebanese politicians therefore prefer to speak of "safe return." Some human rights groups fear this aims to clear a path for the non-voluntary return of refugees to ostensibly "safe" areas of Syria.

In Lebanon, the concepts of local integration and resettlement have often been used interchangeably. While resettlement is understood in international refugee law as the "selection and transfer of refugees from a state in which they have sought protection to a third state which has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status," in Lebanon, resettlement is often used to mean local integration or naturalization (tawteen) in either third countries or in Lebanon.

The misuse of these terms helps to fuel widespread misunderstanding of international refugee law in Lebanon. This is despite the country playing a key role in the early development of the international refugee law regime, as well as in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which the "right to seek asylum" is enshrined.

Perhaps accuracy and clarity are beside the point. In an election season, appearing "tough on migration" is no less in vogue in Lebanon than elsewhere in the world.

Smoke rising from Damascus as a result of airstrikes

Letter From Damascus: How Geopolitics Unfolds In My Backyard

Alaa, a civil society worker in the Syrian capital weighs in on the impact and the perception of civilians on the ground toward foreign intervention in her country.

DAMASCUS – I have lived in the Syrian capital of Damascus since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. I haven't left Syria for more than a week, and even then it was only to Beirut and only recently, which means only after seven years of war.

I was in Damascus when U.S. president Donald Trump announced that the U.S., the U.K. and France would launch a joint airstrike targeting Syrian military facilities. I was in Damascus when the strikes hit. I didn't see them from my house, but I didn't have to witness the explosions with my own eyes to be able to understand what it means for Syria and what it means for us civilians on the ground.

Anyone who has followed Trump's speeches since he was elected president can see that he has always criticized the peaceful approach of former President Barack Obama's administration and its soft policy decisions regarding the use of chemical weapons. This is particularly true regarding Obama's 2013 declaration that there would be a strike in Syria – a threat he never followed through on. Looking at it this way, it seems Trump didn't want to go back on his own initial statement that threatened retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, because this would ruin his image on an international level and he would be viewed in the same way as Obama, who he has publicly criticized.

There is no difference between the Russian airstrikes and those of the U.S., U.K. and France

He had two options. Trump could have authorized a big strike that would break the regime's back, and send a message to Iran and Russia that the U.S. is still an influential player in the region, and that the Middle East is not just in the hands of Moscow. The other option was to have diplomatic negotiations between Washington and Moscow – which would, of course, not be public – that would result in a strike just for the sake of showing that Trump did not back down from his original threat.

The second option is what ended up happening. Trump's statements gave me and others on the ground watching and waiting for far bigger expectations for the strike. I think, however, that he chose not to escalate but not to back off either.

Demonstrators in London protest the U.K."s involvement in the airstrike against Syria Photo: Rob Pinney/ZUMA

As for my opinion concerning the strike itself, nobody can deny that France, the U.K. and the U.S. are colonizing countries that make decisions and take action based solely on their own interests. It is equally undeniable that while the strike in Syria was an assault on the country, there is no difference between the Russian airstrikes and those of the U.S., U.K. and France. What is the difference between Russian jets bombing Eastern Ghouta and Saturday's joint strike bombing military positions?

The Russian bombing has graver humanitarian consequences because Moscow has sometimes targeted civilian areas and not just military. However, the Russian presence in Syria and the U.S. attack are both violations of Syria's sovereignty. Both countries operate only in terms of their own best interests.

Of course, the responsibility lies from A to Z on the shoulders of the Syrian regime who let these foreign powers have a presence in Syria. It is the regime who opened the country's borders and allowed foreign states to carry out these violations. It is the regime who bears the responsibility for allowing Russia to plan most military operations and negotiations on the ground, creating for itself such an influential presence that it has almost become Syria's ruler.

Both countries operate only in terms of their own best interests

The evacuation of Eastern Ghouta, for example, has all taken place under the patronage and coordination of Russia. For this reason, I cannot consider the U.S. decision to strike in Syria a violation of its sovereignty if I do not also view Russia's presence in Syria in that same light.

As for the consequences of the attack, I think it is a message that the U.S., under Trump's administration, will no longer let Russia make decisions regarding Syria on its own and on its own terms. The U.S. wants to be able to say, "I am the leader of the international community and any deal should pass through me."

In addition to this, I don't believe that Russia will be able to continue to cover the use of chemical weapons in Syria anymore by using its veto at the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. has shown that it is ready to move on its own. However, the U.S. has also shown that it does not have a problem with the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure using other weapons. Chemical weapons continue to be its only red line.

Honestly, it's very hard for me to watch how these countries choose these arbitrary red lines and decide to act on them. The international standards and policies that they work from are so far removed from the human lives that are lost. At the end of the day, it is clear that there is no value placed on human beings. For these countries, what is most important is the type of weapon used and whether or not intervening for the sake of saving civilian lives suits their own interests.

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In the ruins of Douma on Monday.
Youmna al-Dimashqi

How Western Strikes Against Syrian Regime Look To Syrian People

Better than nothing? Too little, too late? Settling their own scores? The people on the ground in Syria have no false illusions as to what's at play with Western attacks in response to reports of the use of chemical weapons.

DAMASCUS — Afaf Mohammed lives near the Scientific Research Center in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh – a facility that was targeted by missiles on early Saturday as part of a joint military operation by the United States, the United Kingdom and France against the Syrian government's alleged chemical weapons capabilities.

The sound of heavy blasts woke the 25-year-old mother of two at around 3:50 a.m. She sprinted across the house to check on her children, and by the time she reached them she could already see flames and explosions from her window, she told Syria Deeply.

Outside, Mohammad said, she witnessed a frenzy. Some residents of the area were streaming into underground bunkers. Others were screaming on the streets: "They have struck us, this is the American strike." Some stayed in their houses, watching the explosions from their open windows.

The incident marked a moment of panic and fear for everyone, Mohammad said. For some, she added, it was also a moment of brief hope.

"Some people were pleased with the strikes because they hoped they would target the Syrian government," she said. "But these people were disappointed when they found out that the attack was so limited."

The U.S., the U.K., and France later announced that the strike was limited to three suspected chemical weapons facilities, including the research center in Barzeh. The Pentagon said the missile attacks struck at the "heart" of Syria's chemical weapons program.

The Russian military claimed that Syrian military facilities suffered only minor damageand that Syria's air defense systems shot down 71 of the 103 cruise missiles before they reached their intended targets. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, however, denied Russia's claim, saying no U.S. aircrafts had been "successfully engaged by Syrian defense forces."

They should have bombed the actual bases the Syrian army uses to kill us

No civilian, Syrian government or allied forces casualties had been reported as of Sunday evening. Reports claimed that most facilities had been evacuated days before the attack, thanks to warnings from Russia.

For many Syrians on the ground, including Mohammad, targeting suspected chemical weapons facilities is not enough if no damage is done to the government's air force and the helicopters that are allegedly used to drop these toxic substances on civilians.

"They should have bombed the actual bases the Syrian army uses to kill us," Mohammad said.

The U.S., the U.K., and France, however, have said that the strikes were not meant to cripple the Syrian government's defenses or lead to "regime change" – they were intended only to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons.

For some, though, the claim that deterrence is the only motive behind the attack is questionable.

"In my opinion, the strike was meant to settle scores between competing international powers," said Rami al-Sayyed, a 35-year-old media activist from southern Damascus.

"It was a message to Russian president Vladimir Putin that the U.S. and its allies still have a hand to play in Syria and that they could reshuffle the cards and change the game at any moment," he said.

Al-Sayyed dismissed the view that the attacks were driven by a legitimate concern for the well-being of the Syrian people. For more than seven years the Syrian population has been targeted by countless government attacks, some of which reportedly involved chemical weapons.

We, the Syrian people, have been attacked by all kinds of weapons, including chemical weapons

Just days before the suspected poison gas attack on the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma that killed some 70 people, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said it has documented at least 214 attacks using toxic substances carried out by pro-government forces since December 2012. Human Rights Watch said that it has documented and confirmed at least 85 chemical weapon attacks since August 2013.

"The U.S. and most of the world don't actually care about the Syrian people, all they care about is political interests. We, the Syrian people, have been attacked by all kinds of weapons, including chemical weapons," al-Sayyed said. "The missile attack on Saturday was only a way for the U.S. to save face," he said.

Rahaf Akram, a 28-year-old student at the University of Damascus, expressed a similar sentiment. She said she didn't welcome the strikes because she believes only a political solution would end the bloodshed in Syria. Responding to chemical weapons attacks with military action, she said, would only perpetuate the war.

Allies of the Syrian government, including Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, made the same argument on Sunday, saying that the missile attack would adversely impact prospects for a political settlement in Syria.

Akram also questioned the relevance of the attack for everyday Syrians, who have already suffered years of conflict. "The war has been going on for seven years. What makes the world wake up just now to the crimes of President Assad?"

Like al-Sayyed, Mohammad Abdullah believes the strikes had more to do with an international power struggle over Syria than deterrence. The U.S.and its allies, he said, wanted to show what kind of force they are willing to use in Syria to incite their rivals to make concessions.

However, like many other Syrians who spoke to Syria Deeply, the 28-year-old activist from Damascus said the attacks were unlikely to alter the balance of power.

The Syrian president himself has tried to convey that it was business-as-usual after the attack. Only hours after the strike on Saturday, footage on Syrian TV showed Assad in a suit and tie working as usual, with the caption "morning of resilience."

The Syrian military released a statement saying the missile attack "will not deter our armed forces and allied forces from persisting to crush what is left of the armed terrorist groups." The Syrian army also announced that all rebels who refused to reconcile with the government had been evacuated from Douma, bringing the area under full government control for the first time since 2012.

Meanwhile, U.S. president Donald Trump did not give any concrete indication that he would reverse earlier promises to pull out Washington's nearly 2,000 troops in Syria from the war-torn country. Commenting on Saturday's strikes, he said the U.S. was "prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents." But he did not say whether this means that U.S. forces would stay in Syria.

However, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley said on Sunday that Washington's involvement in the country "is not done," the Associated Press reported.

The ambassador to the United Nations said the U.S. would not leave Syria until three goals were accomplished: The U.S. ensures that chemical weapons are not used in a way that could harm U.S. national interests, the so-called Islamic State group is defeated and there is a good vantage point to watch what Iran is doing.

For Matar Ismail, a 28-year-old civilian journalist from southern Damascus, who watched as missiles rained down on the research center in Damascus, "the strikes were definitely too late."

"In military terms, their impact was close to zero," he said.

Syria’s civilians are victims of the conflict between the major powers in the country.

Idlib Diary: Mental Health Care In Times Of War

Abdullah, a psychosocial health worker in Idlib, discusses helping families cope with depression and other mental health issues that are rampant across the city.

IDLIB The bombs and missiles falling on Idlib are getting more frequent by the day.

Usually, when it's calm, my colleagues and I make home visits to provide psychological support to individuals and families. If there is fighting in the area, we can't move from the health center. Recently, we had to stop working for an entire day because of the intense fighting. But we haven't closed our operations and are trying to keep it running until the fighting stops. God willing, this will end soon.

A few weeks ago, I went to visit a family at their home – you couldn't imagine their situation. I found four men between the ages of 18 and 40, all of whom were paralyzed and suffering from mental disabilities. Both parents are too old to work. It was raining hard that day and they didn't have a heater. I asked myself, what can I give them? They said: "Please just bring us medicine and God will appreciate your kindness." Frankly, they needed more than just medicine: they needed heaters, food and relief from their poverty.

The mother didn't talk very much, but what I saw in her eyes makes one go crazy.

I was able to get them some medicine but they also needed to see a doctor. It's been so long since they had seen one. A week later, I returned with a car, but it was hard to get them into the vehicle because they are adults and disabled. We finally managed to get them into the car and started driving. But then fighting began again. We couldn't go on, we had to turn back. I couldn't take them to the doctor; the only thing I could do was give them two bottles of medicine.

A camp for internally displaced people near Idlib, Syria​ Photo: Juma Muhammad/ZUMA

Before the war, I remember wanting to graduate, get a job, get married and build a house. Now, my own family is broken. One of my brothers died in a bombing and another fled. Some of my sisters left, too. My younger brothers have no future because there are hardly any schools left – they are open a couple of days a week, and when one school is attacked, the others close out of fear. Schools are being used as shelters. Children are afraid, and we are worried about their mental health and inability to go to school.

In Idlib, many Syrians also suffer from depression. Most cases are a result of the war, and find they do not love anything anymore. Many say they prefer death rather than continue living this way. Approximately half of all Syrians in the country are in need of mental health support, but the World Health Organization estimates that 50% of psychiatrists have fled the country.

One of my sisters was diagnosed with extreme depression after my brother died. She was so sad about what happened to our family. She became very isolated and was unable to do things around the house or activities she usually enjoyed. She's now on antidepressants and has shown great improvement. I have tried to support her along the way.

Before the war, we had money and our economy was good. Now poverty is everywhere. Everything is expensive, from bread to vegetables to fuel. We get help here and there. Only a small amount of aid comes through since the roads are blocked, so most people borrow from others or beg on the streets. It's worse for the poorer families, who, for example, can only eat meat every two to three months. Eggs are rare, milk is unaffordable. Because of that, we have many cases of malnutrition, especially among children.

There are still good things.

I work to make a living. But I also work because of what the war has done to people. Sometimes, I have no hope. But it comes back when I see the positive impact of my work. It comes back when I see cases nobody has yet seen, and I am able to give people support and motivate them in a positive way. Although I face a lot of trauma in my daily life, in a way, this job helped me, too. It helps me believe there are still good things, that we can do something to change human life, and that people still care about each other.

I want to tell the world that the people in Idlib suffer from extreme poverty, heavy shelling, fear of invasion, in addition to internal strife and its consequences. They are also suffering from permanent internal displacement between the regions. I want to tell the world that Syria's civilians are victims of the conflict between the major powers in the country.

Despite all this, we are staying here, in Idlib; because, as they say, there is no place like home.

Syrian children that live in underground to escape the threat of airstrikes and mortar attacks.
Youmna al-Dimashqi

'Waiting for Death' In Eastern Ghouta's Underground Bunkers

As the Syrian government continues its offensive in the Damascus suburbs, civilians cower in underground shelters hoping for an end to their living hell.

Ayad Saryoul has spent most of the past month in an underground shelter he shares with his family and 40 other people. Sometimes spending 18 hours straight underground, he passes the time by counting the number of rockets and shells that fall on the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

"There's nothing else to do here," says the 27-year-old resident of Eastern Ghouta. "We're waiting for death to come at any moment. Either by way of shelling or disease."

Hundreds of thousands of people have gone underground to take shelter from relentless government attacks on the last rebel enclave near the Syrian capital. Many are living in makeshift collective shelters or basements.

Since government forces stepped up attacks on Feb. 18, more than 1,500 people have been killed and more than 45,000 displaced from their homes. Prior to the offensive, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that some 350,000 civilians were trapped in the area, which has been under siege for more than four years.

Although largely safer than above ground shelters, makeshift bunkers are not impenetrable. Government airstrikes and artillery attacks have regularly killed civilians hiding underground. On Monday, 15 children and two women hiding in a school basement in the town of Arbin were killed in government shelling. It took rescue workers more than two days to recover the corpses from under the rubble.

"Does the world hate us?"

Syria Deeply spoke to a number of residents who have sought safety in bunkers and collective shelters. They describe dark, claustrophobic, humid and dingy spaces that sometimes accommodate up to 200 people. Saryoul has seen "little children clinging to the bodies of their parents' inside the shelters after airstrikes and mortar attacks.

Their stories shed light on the plight of those who remain in Eastern Ghouta, which the UN has described as a "hell on earth." But they show the resilience of residents who have survived these past years.

Destruction above-ground forces in people Eastern Ghouta to seek shelter below the surface — Photo: Mouneb Taim/ZUMA

"The basement floor is filled with dirt. There are no toilets or any other facilities," says Nivin Al-Houtari, a 38-year-old mother of two, who lives in an underground shelter with her husband, children and some 30 other people. Many shelters in Eastern Ghouta are even more crowded, with upwards of 100 people. Families separate their living spaces with cloth or curtains, she explains.

There is a great deal of cooperation between the many families living in the tight quarters, especially in terms of cooking, sharing and distributing food, Al-Houtari says. "Some families brought food supplies such as bulgur, rice or lentils, and they cook them inside the basement," she says. "There is an understanding between us because we are aware that this is an exceptional circumstance and we must bear with it."

Al-Houtari says she never leaves the underground shelter. To pass the time, she gossips with other women in the bunker, or reads or tells stories to her children, who have no room to either play or breath while living underground. "Sometimes we tell them heroic stories about the triumph of good over evil, which they like and enjoy a lot," she says. At other times, children are given coloring books and drawing material to help them pass the time.

"I am living inside death itself."

Still, it's a challenge to try to keep the kids from running outside, and to distract them from the sound of heavy shelling, Al-Houtari acknowledges. It's even more of a challenge trying to explain to them why they have to live this way. "My three-year-old daughter Maya always asks me: Why are we dying? Does the world hate us?" she says. "And I have no answer for her because I can't convey to her the abstract idea that we are dying for freedom."

Trapped and hungry

Hussam, 27, lives in an underground bunker with 70 people, including eight different families. He does not have a family of his own, but he does have a fiancee — living outside Syria — and it's the thought of her, he says, that keeps him going in these difficult times.

"Dana always speaks to me when the shelling is violent, so I quickly text her "shelling" and she texts back "hide." And when the bombing ends, I text her again "I am fine" and she responds by telling me a joke," Hussam explains.

Dana's support during these difficult times gives him a lot of "hope," he says. "I am living inside death itself. But I feel like I am the embodiment of life for someone else. This gives me the drive to persevere."

When he is not texting his distant bride-to-be — and when the bombardments are fewer and farther between — Hussam helps local groups deliver food and water to families in shelters. He said both are hard to come by, especially since it is often too dangerous to go above ground. Sometimes families can go up to 48 hours without any food.

Aid agencies have also warned of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Eastern Ghouta. Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the UNHCR, told reporters on Tuesday that thousands of civilians in Eastern Ghouta were "trapped and in dire need of aid."

Living with limited access to food and water is difficult, but for Hussam, one of the hardest parts of living in shelters is witnessing the suffering of children, he says. "I once asked one girl to draw a picture for me, so she drew a basement with many children in it," he says. "It is very painful to see that the ceiling of our children's imagination is just a small breathing space."

Walking in Douma, Syria
Fernando Travesi*

Documenting War Crimes In Syria Can Serve More Than Justice


In the Syrian conflict, loss means means different things to different people. For many, it means the loss of loved ones. For those displaced or forced to flee the country, it also means the loss of their homes, properties, jobs and communities. For most, it means the loss of predictability, welfare and security.

And yet, Syrians remain active and resilient —even after seven years of horrific violence. Despite being deprived of their basic human rights, many are fighting to protect their dignity, their voices and their memories.

Amid these devastating conditions, Syrian activists have relentlessly documented the suffering and crimes on the ground, and their tragic impact on the civilian population. Often with little means to support their work, and at the risk of their own lives, they have created an immense archive of information that has made the Syrian conflict one of the most documented in history.

For civil society groups, the primary motivation for documentation, especially in the early stages of the conflict, was to gather evidence for future criminal prosecution trials. Not all methods used on the ground, however, were able to collect forensic evidence that would meet the high standards required for a trial. What's more, without concrete plans for future trials, many civil society activists have begun to doubt the usefulness of documentation efforts.

But there is still hope. These innovative documentation strategies can be helpful in ways beyond criminal prosecution.

Documentation can protect victims' rights.

A land title is no longer just a piece of paper but a powerful tool to reunite and stabilize a family torn apart by violence. A YouTube video, if properly documented, can serve as hard evidence in a trial to prosecute perpetrators of serious crimes. If the recording process is given the necessary attention and respect, personal accounts can help victims protect their dignity.

Towards accountability

The issue of sovereignty has incapacitated the international community's efforts to help Syrians get justice. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been unable to act due to votes by Russia and China in the UN Security Council. Efforts toward ad-hoc hybrid tribunals, with varying degrees of involvement from international or domestic courts, have also been unsuccessful.

The legal principle of universal jurisdiction has brought small victories. Swedish courts found two members from non-state armed groups guilty of a "terror crime" and found one Syrian Army soldier guilty of a war crime. German courts sentenced one member of Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and are currently prosecuting a member of the Free Syrian Army.

Syrian civil society organizations played an essential role in the success of these cases, highlighting the importance of strengthening relationships between national and international actors working toward accountability.

The creation of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) sought to consolidate the processes of preserving evidence related to human rights violations and to prepare files for future criminal prosecution cases on the regional, national and international level. Initially, due to lack of clarity on how the mechanism would function and frustrations with the international community, Syrian organizations were reluctant to partner with this UN body. These relationships have since improved and if they continue to strengthen, the IIIM could become a key actor in the long path of bringing justice to Syrian victims.

Documents and declarations

Despite legal limitations, documentation can protect victims' rights by memorializing, acknowledging and building accountability for suffering.

For future reparation and restitution efforts, it is essential to have land titles to return properties to their rightful owners without the interference of third-party actors who could easily take advantage of the vulnerable situation. Civil documentation can also assist with guaranteeing other civil rights like the processes for refugee returns.

The fates of those still missing or forcibly disappeared have long been a source of pain and confusion for families. Documentation efforts may become crucial for loved ones to find the truth, if families, communities and international actors improve the way information is protected, centralized, analyzed, coordinated and exchanged.

Victims too are increasingly feeling discouraged from contributing their stories to a seemingly fruitless endeavor.

Acknowledging the pain of victims is the first step toward justice and is important for the process of recovery from traumatic events. Listening to personal accounts enables organizations to better adapt to the needs of communities. In addition, this could generate a deeper understanding of the situation among the general public, garner more support from the international community and, eventually — hopefully — lead to change.

Documentation for these purposes, however, is not without its own challenges. The conflict has increased distrust and polarization between communities. That, in turn, impedes information sharing. Different goals result in strained relationships between organizations, which can shift focus from protecting victims' rights.

Victims too are increasingly feeling discouraged from contributing their stories to a seemingly fruitless endeavor. It then becomes a challenge for organizations to incorporate these voices in their projects.

Despite these setbacks and challenges, helping Syrians use their own voices to become empowered is a worthwhile effort and can bring results. Over a year ago, the International Center for Transitional Justice began an unprecedented collaboration with 10 Syrian human rights organizations to document the destruction of schools and its long-term impact. Next week, the Save Syrian Schools project will host a public hearing-style discussion in Geneva, Switzerland, where some of the victims of these crimes will share their stories in front of high-profile justice advocates serving on a "Panel of Conscience."

Whether it be gathering quantitative and qualitative data, recording personal stories, documenting missing people and property rights or sharing personal videos and images through social media, even the smallest detail has the potential to help impacted individuals and communities on their long journey toward recovery and justice.

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A Syrian woman and her daughter walk past a destroyed house in the rebel-held Eastern Al-Ghouta province.
Dr. Ahmad Tarakji

Syria: One Thing Europe Can Do To Stop The Slaughter In Ghouta

Refusing to fund reconstruction efforts until attacks stop could be a solution to combat violence against civilians in war torn Syrian cities such as Ghouta and Alleppo.

East Ghouta is experiencing hell on earth. The European Union called last week for an immediate end to what it described as a "massacre" in the besieged Damascus suburbs, but violence is ongoing.

Hundreds of airstrikes, rockets and mortars have rained down nearly every day for the past two weeks in the densely populated area, where at least 390,000 civilians are living under siege without access to basic food and medical supplies. There have been at least 28 attacks on medical facilities and healthcare professionals. Medical staff at a Syrian American Medical Society-supported facility said doctors treated at least 29 people on Wednesday for symptoms of exposure to chlorine gas. At least 30,000 people inside Ghouta have been displaced, and an average of between 50 and 100 civilians have been killed every day.

As the death toll continues to rise, European governments should think twice about their plans to fund reconstruction in Syria and realize their current humanitarian promises are just empty words.

E.U. countries have long had conflicting positions on Syria. The U.K., France and Germany said they remained committed to supporting humanitarian needs throughout Syria, but would not fund any future rebuilding until the country is on the path of reconciliation, respecting human rights and democracy.

Others envision funding reconstruction now without those guarantees, as their voters are more concerned with issues like immigration, refugees and counter-terrorism. Consequently, they are willing to give in to the Syrian regime despite its attacks on civilians in Ghouta, despite its known history of violating human rights and the right of its citizens and despite knowing that the government will manipulate their funds to buy loyalty and advance its authoritarianism.

A large percentage of the Syrian people are living below the poverty line. Handing the financial resources to the current regime will only make Syrians more dependent on it as their only source of food and livelihood.

The Syrian regime has been able to manipulate the U.N.-Damascus operation to the point where U.N. teams admitted to having been blocked from providing food and medical supplies to Ghouta and other places for many years. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization said Syrian regime security removed or blocked 70 percent of the medical supplies from being transported in the convoy that arrived in Ghouta on Monday. This convoy delivered aid sufficient for less than 10 percent of the population.

Now is not the time to grant this brutal regime more funds. History, voters and the Syrian people will not overlook the E.U."s decision.

The Syrian Air Force targets medical facilities.

As president of SAMS, an organization that operates over 140 medical facilities inside Syria, including 16 in Ghouta, I communicate with doctors in the area almost hourly. Over the past years, we have offered to share the coordinates of our hospitals and a livestream from inside the facility with many UNSC members. We hoped one of these countries could protect our hospitals or at least establish an accountability process to investigate the deliberate targeting of these facilities. We only heard silence.

As a result of their inaction, the Syrian Air Force deliberately targets medical facilities. Ambulance drivers report being hunted by aerial drones that bomb them directly or track them until they arrive at hospitals, then bomb them. First responders are thus unable to evacuate patients in time, and some die from treatable injuries. Even if victims make it to the hospital, doctors might not be able to save them, either because it is too late or because four years of siege has left them without the necessary medical supplies.

Last week, I was told that an army general threatened Ghouta residents: "You won't find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You'll be rescued with blood." I think he spoke the truth.

Where is the international community?

This is another Aleppo unfolding before the eyes of the world. SAMS once had extensive programming in Aleppo City as well, and there, too, we saw our hospitals bombed and medical workers besieged and hunted. Then and now, the eloquent condemnations of mass atrocities were uttered from a number of voices in the international community, without any concrete actions to back them up. Once the majority of hospitals were bombed out of service, more than 250,000 residents were displaced from Aleppo in a week.

I know from the Aleppo experience that words are not enough. The international community's empty statements show only lack of political will. Once again, I plead with the international community – on behalf of the humanitarian workers of Ghouta – to turn words into action by stopping the airstrikes, sanctioning the attackers and taking any reconstruction funds off the table until the war stops and civil society is empowered to implement the principles of peace and human rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon
Saskia Baas

Forced To Flee, Forced To Return: Syrian Refugees Trapped Again


BEIRUT — More than 12 million Syrians have been displaced since 2011 — that is more than half of Syria's pre-war population. And most want nothing more than to return home.

Yet the situation in the country remains too unsafe at the moment. Whole cities have been destroyed, and many areas are cluttered with land mines and unexploded explosives, posing further challenges to the safe, voluntary and sustainable repatriation of refugees to Syria. Yet despite these risks, a small number of refugees do return to Syria each month. While this may seem like a positive development, research by the Durable Solutions Platform, an NGO-led research initiative, indicates that those returning are actually forced to do so in light of unsafe and precarious living conditions in asylum. It is not a sign that the situation in Syria has improved.

Over the past year, we have spoken to more than 1,000 Syrian refugees, internally displaced persons and returnees as part of our ongoing research. The picture that emerges from these discussions is one of increasing vulnerability, poverty and desperation in displacement.

The vast majority of displaced Syrians have remained in the region. More than six million people are displaced inside Syria, while Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have jointly absorbed another five million refugees. Six humanitarian NGOs recently described the increasingly dire situation of Syrian refugees in the Middle East in a report "Dangerous Ground."

Refugees face severe challenges in securing decent standards of living in Syria's neighboring countries. Over half of Syrian refugees in the region live below the poverty line. Barriers to accessing health and education services are leaving an alarming 43% of refugee children out of school.

Many Syrians feel alienated from their host communities and looked down upon. Experiences of discrimination are common. As a refugee in Lebanon explained during a group discussion: "Most people are blaming Syrians for the increases in rents, lack of jobs and other things. I am suffering, because people are not accepting us."

The desire to return home grew stronger.

The harsh conditions of day-to-day life and the constant feeling of being a burden on host societies makes many refugees lose hope that their situation will improve. As a result, some are convinced that they would be better off returning to Syria. As a refugee in Turkey explained: "Life here is very difficult. I am a teacher but I haven't found a job. Those problems will push me back into Syria despite war conditions."

It is clear from our research among returnees that it is these harsh living conditions that are starting to push Syrians to return. In a recent study, we asked 400 returnees about their life in displacement, their decision to return and their situation upon return.

Economic hardship and discrimination in countries of asylum were among the primary reasons for refugees to return: 61% of returnees report the lack of secure income as the main reason to return, while 43% could no longer cope with the humiliation and discrimination in asylum countries. The latter trend was particularly strong among those returning from Lebanon, where some refugees also indicated feeling increasingly unsafe.

As refugees feel less at home in Syria's neighboring countries, the desire to return to their homes in Syria grew stronger. Seventy-one percent of refugees indicated that homesickness was a strong pull factor to return.

Importantly, neighboring countries' closed border policies created another motivation to return. Syrians can no longer reunite with their family members by bringing them into relative safety in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. Return, then, became the only way to keep their family together. Nearly 40% of refugee returnees had returned for this purpose.

Refugees who face severe obstacles finding decent work or starting a business may expect to have a better chance of securing an income in Syria. Indeed, for one third of returnees, this assumption partially informed their decision to return. Yet, when asked about their situation upon return, most returnees experienced difficulties in finding jobs in their home areas. Nearly half of those who returned were not able to secure employment.

As a result, the vast majority of returnees told us that they had to reduce their daily meals to make ends meet. To feed their families, almost half of returnees had to borrow money to cover basic living expenses. Further, the destruction of basic infrastructure and services created major obstacles to returnees' access to healthcare, education, water and electricity.

Most returnees did not find safety back in their home areas. Forty percent of refugee returnees were concerned about the safety of their families, because of ongoing violence, crime and the presence of land mines in their area.

Syria's ongoing conflict and insecurity, limited livelihood opportunities and lack of access to services – including water, health, education and electricity – all are yet to be addressed in order for refugees to have the option to return home in safety and dignity.

However, precarious living conditions in refugee hosting countries in the region are pushing refugees to return to Syria, placing their lives at risk. In order to minimize these push factors for refugees to return, the international community should fulfill humanitarian and development funding commitments. This includes pledges made at the London and Brussels conferences. In addition, pledges for resettlement or other forms of humanitarian admissions for vulnerable refugees must be increased.

Syrians must be enabled to build a dignified future outside of their home country until a sustainable resolution of the conflict is reached.