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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 damage and 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.

A Syrian boy runs past rubble in eastern Al Ghouta province, outside Damascus
Hashem Osseiran, Alessandria Masi and Kim Bode

'Weaponizing Aid' — Desperation Politics In Eastern Ghouta

BEIRUT – Russia's proposal for a partial truce in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus is not a "humanitarian pause," but a "humanitarian posture," says Dr. Annie Sparrow, a critical-care pediatrician and public health professional.

In Syria Deeply's latest Deeply Talks, Sparrow and Mohamed Katoub, advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), spoke with our editors about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the besieged Damascus suburbs. (Listen to the full audio here)

Last week, Moscow called for daily, five-hour cessations of hostilities to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations. However, it usually takes a convoy between eight to 10 hours to deliver aid to the rebel-held enclave, both doctors said.

This first convoy of aid arrived Monday in the area, which is now suffering from persistent attacks against healthcare in addition to severe shortages in medical supplies and life-saving medicine. Even for the convoys that do arrive in Eastern Ghouta, they would only play a "limited" and "cosmetic" role in alleviating the suffering of nearly five years of living under siege and fierce government shelling that has killed nearly 600 people since February 18, said Katoub.

Katoub said that more than 29 attacks against healthcare staff and services have been reported since the start of the government's latest escalation. More than 10 ambulances have been destroyed and at least six health facilities have been put out of service because of the shelling.

These attacks have reduced the capacity of health staff to respond to medical needs by more than 40 percent, Katoub said, adding that doctors are adjusting to deteriorating conditions by reusing medical supplies that are meant for one-time use and prioritizing life-saving operations over less-fatal cases.

Meanwhile, Sparrow noted that only 107 doctors remained in Eastern Ghouta, where they have to provide care for 400,000 people; 80% of whom are estimated to be living in underground shelters and basements. "To put that in perspective, under normal circumstances, one doctor may look after 100 patients. That is a ratio we consider to be appropriate and normal," she said. "And these are patients that are suffering from the normal range of diseases, not including this incredible burden produced by war trauma, bombs, chemicals weapons and chronic disease.

The U.N. has condemned the recent escalation and has called on Moscow and Damascus to respect the United Nations Security Council resolution passed on Saturday demanding a 30-day nationwide cease-fire.

However, the U.N. is not taking the "needed actions to save lives," even though it has ground access to Eastern Ghouta, Katoub said.

"The U.N. are partners in this war crime," he said, noting that statements would not be enough to save civilians stuck in the opposition holdout.

Sparrow said that, through its inaction, the U.N. has "weaponized aid."

"The U.N. has adopted this posture where they are in Damascus, there are hundreds of international staff, it's a multibillion-dollar operation, and they insist that some of this will trickle down to people in need. But it is very clearly not," Sparrow said. "One could even argue that they are complicit in the war crimes by adopting this posture and refusing to stop working with the very same government that is committing these crimes."

Kfr Nobol Hospital, ravaged by an airstrike
Fadi Al Dairi

'Our Time Had Come' - A First-Person Account Of A Syrian Airstrike

As another airstrike rained down in Syria, Fadi Al Dairi knew that those inside Kfr Nobol Hospital, operated by the British NGO 'Hand in Hand,' would soon be targeted.

The story of Kfr Nobol Hospital is no different from other health facilities inside Syria that have paid a heavy price in the conflict.

The hospital in Idlib province, operated by the British NGO Hand in Hand, has been targeted by airstrikes multiple times throughout the war, like so many other medical facilities in Syria. In the past, our hospital survived with minor damage that could normally be fixed within days and would not hinder our ability to provide services. This is partially because, before Russia entered the war in Syria, with its sophisticated weaponry and spot on the U.N. Security Council, things were slightly better.

This time, however, it was different. On Monday (February 5, 2018), airstrikes were so intense that we immediately moved our operations underground. But it seems that the weapons used that day were intended to reach staff underground; thermobaric, or so-called guided bombs, can penetrate many levels of concrete, for a maximum level of destruction.

Four airstrikes by Russian fighter jets ensured that the hospital is now completely out of service. It was the only surgical hospital within a 30-mile (50km) radius.

It took 41 minutes. Forty-one minutes of hell is what I would call it, where all I could think of was the number of those at risk and their families.

10:01 a.m.: As the Syria country director for Hand in Hand, I am based in Turkey, and on the day of the attack I was in my office in Gaziantep with the senior team managers.

The first airstrike missed the actual building and hit the concrete fence outside, about 80 feet (25m) away. It set fire to the "guards' room. At this point, we knew we would be targeted. We knew our time had come, and that this time they intended to finish the job. Patients and staff were moved to shelter in a "safe underground space" but equipment could not be moved.

10:06 a.m.: The team saw the second attack, and it was getting closer to the building.

10:14 a.m.: The third attack took place, hitting the second floor.

10:18 a.m.: We received a warning through our Safety & Security WhatsApp group of an imminent fourth attack.

10:20 a.m.: The fourth and final attack hit. The missile made devastating damage to the structure and penetrated through three levels of concrete.

10:21 a.m.: We received a message advising us that the attacks were over. We assume it's because fighter jets can only carry four missiles.

10:26 a.m.: Evacuation began from the dialysis unit, which performed 2,133 services in 2017. It is next to the emergency room, where 15,588 lives were saved in 2017.

10:42 a.m.: We received confirmation from the hospital manager that none of the team are injured.

I could relax. I took a deep breath and only then did I begin to think about how to open the hospital again. We were adamant that the bombing was not going to stop us from delivering emergency aid. We still did not know the full scale of the destruction.

Forty minutes later, the field medical manager arrived at the hospital to inspect the damage. He and his team started to send images showing the scale of the destruction.

It was only then that we realized the building had been totally destroyed. It would cost $650,000 to repair the building and $300,000 for the equipment. But thinking of the cost could not rattle me, as I had found out all medical personnel and patients were safe and sound in the designated safe space.

The next day was different.

I tried to remain calm despite feeling helpless, but I was filled with feelings of guilt. These were my employees and I am not there to support them. I tried to hide these feelings and appear strong in front of our senior management team. They did not realize what I was going through, so I may have been successful.

At some point I thought to myself, why am I doing it? Why do I have to go through this?

Then I thought about how many lives this hospital has saved during its existence. I reminded myself of the 83,845 services provided in 2017. I knew it was worth it, and resolved to double that number in 2018.

After all, there is nothing I can do but become more determined to continue my work with my colleagues to find funds that will allow us to reopen the facility again and resume operations.

We will not give in to this cruel war. Life is a big lesson we learn from and build on. You win with strong will.

Syrian man helping build the Avicenna Women & Children's Hospital
Alexandra Bradford

A Syrian Doctor's Bid To Build A Bomb-Proof Hospital For Women And Girls

War has dismantled Syria's healthcare system, preventing women and children from receiving life-saving treatment for preventable illnesses. Exiled doctor Khaled Almilaji is determined to do something about it.

For a few days in October, a tiny, starving baby became the face of the war in Syria. Images of one-month-old Sahhar Dofdaa, from Syria's opposition-held Eastern Ghouta, showed her fragile, less than 2-kilo body, with sunken eyes and bones protruding beneath her thin gray skin. The news of her passing highlighted how the conflict contributes to preventable deaths, especially among women and children, the population's most vulnerable members.

When Syrian doctor Khaled Almilaji saw the photos of Sahar, he thought she wasn't just suffering from malnutrition, as had been originally reported, but probably also had a chronic or congenital disease. The baby girl had been treated by a local doctor, but Almilaji believes if she had been able to access a dedicated hospital for women and children, she might have lived. "Her disease could have been alleviated by good medical care," he says.

That is what Almilaji hopes to provide with Avicenna Women and Children's Hospital, a facility currently being built in rebel-held Idlib province. The hospital will offer the reproductive and maternity care that is sorely lacking in a country where healthcare services have had to pivot to focus on trauma. And it will do all of this across two floors set deep underground, out of the reach of Syrian airstrikes.

They prefer to give birth at home.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict, 485 medical facilities have been hit by military airstrikes, resulting in the deaths of 841 healthcare workers, a clear breach of the Geneva Convention, which classifies the targeting of hospitals and healthcare workers as a war crime. At least 64% of these attacks were perpetrated by the Syrian military, with the rest carried out by Russian forces, non-state groups or unidentified attackers.

The constant bombardment and the destruction of fundamental health services leave many people suffering serious complications or dying as a result of illnesses that could otherwise be successfully treated. Even giving birth in Syria can be life-threatening.

"Women don't feel safe to stay in hospitals, which are attacked on a regular basis. They prefer to give birth at home without proper medical attendance, which is increasing complications for both mother and child," says Almilaji. "That's why providing a secure women and children's hospital is essential."

One of the many bombed hospitals in Syria — Photo: Juma Muhammad/ZUMA

Tortured for treated the injured

Avicenna hospital is the latest project by the Sustainable International Medical Relief Organization (SIMRO), an NGO that Almilaji formed five years ago to protect patients and doctors from aerial attacks by moving healthcare facilities underground.

Almilaji, who is doing his postgraduate studies at the University of Toronto and in December was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by Canada's governor general for his humanitarian work in Syria, is no stranger to providing medical care under makeshift conditions.

He was at home in Aleppo in 2011 when government forces fired on peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, igniting a war that to date has resulted in at least 400,000 civilian deaths.

"When the Syrian regime started to attack protesters with gunfire, injured protesters couldn't go to the hospital because the secret police and intelligence officers would be there to arrest them," says Almilaji. The government was preventing injured protesters from receiving medical care as a deterrent, he says, the idea being that if protesters were seen bleeding to death in the street, other people would be less likely to join the demonstrations.

Driven to help, Almilaji joined other physicians who were traveling to the cities of Hama and Homs to treat injured protesters in secret field hospitals. When the Syrian government learned about the secret medical facilities, it responded by arresting the doctors.

On Sept. 7, 2011, Almilaji was treating protesters in Damascus when government intelligence officers arrested him and three of his colleagues for treating injured civilians. For six months, they were held in prison and tortured. Almilaji says he was beaten with bars and cables and electrocuted. "They hung me by my hands from the ceiling for 24 hours with no food, no water," he says.

In early March of 2012, he was released from prison with a warning that if he was caught treating injured protesters again he would be made to "vanish." He fled to Turkey, where he founded SIMRO so that he could continue to provide medical care by building fortified hospitals in Syria's conflict zones.

The organization runs through a network of field officers on the ground in Syria and Turkey, with funding from international donors. Almilaji tries to go back to Syria as often as he can. He last snuck into the country in 2015 to check on a few medical projects and the building of an underground hospital in Hama.

Too big to hide

Avicenna Women and Children's Hospital is being built in partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and international donors including Refugee Protection International. An ongoing crowdfunding campaign contributes resources as well.

The Syrian government started building the hospital before the conflict, and by the time opposition forces took control of Idlib, the facility already included two "huge" underground floors, says Almilaji.

The eight above-ground floors have been fortified to provide a protective barrier that should stop bombs dropped by Syrian warplanes from reaching the underground floors where the new hospital is located. But there's no way to protect the hospital from Russian airstrikes, which use high-explosive ammunition, such as bunker-buster bombs that are far more destructive than Syria's barrel bombs.

"Nothing can stop them," says Almilaji.

All over Syria, hospitals have tried to hide from airstrikes by disappearing into caves and devising code-name systems in an effort to disguise their coordinates. But with Avicenna, Almilaji and his team decided to make themselves more visible, not less so, by handing the hospital's coordinates over to the Russian and Syrian authorities.

"They won't be able to say that they didn't know the hospital was there. And our doctors know that if they are attacked, the world will know about it."

"This is a huge hospital and we couldn't hide that there was a lot of work going on here," says Almilaji. So they asked various U.N. agencies to share the coordinates of the hospital with all parties involved in the conflict: the Syrians, the Russians, and the U.S.military. "They have all been told that there is a hospital there that is being supported by the United Nations and that we are doing purely humanitarian work," says Almilaji.

The hope is that by making the coordinates public and by involving the U.N., it will be impossible for Russia or Syria to attack the hospital. "They won't be able to say that they didn't know the hospital was there," Almilaji says. "And our doctors know that if they are attacked, the world will know about it."

As well as providing a safe place to get medical care, Avicenna has partnered with Brown University, in the U.S., and the University of Toronto to provide continuous training for at least 350 doctors, nurses and administrative staff in Syria. Almilaji studied at Brown University before being barred from reentry to the U.S. last year because of President Trump's travel ban on Syrian citizens.

Using a telehealth communications system, supervisors and consultants from Brown University will be able to provide real-time consultations, mentoring and technical support to Avicenna's medical staff. A certification program — to reinstate the residency program for would-be doctors after the original program was halted in conflict areas at the start of the war — is also in the works.

Almilaji hopes that most of the medical personnel at the hospital will be Syrian doctors and specialists who were forced to flee regime-controlled areas. "Avicenna will provide a safe environment that will attract this category of doctors to come back to Idlib from Turkey, where there are hundreds near the borders in Gaziantep, Antakya, Urfa, and Mersin," he says.

By the time Avicenna opens in April 2018, Almilaji estimates that $850,000 will have been spent on fortifying the hospital's structure. The project will rely on continuous donations to keep the hospital running, including paying for medical personnel and buying medical equipment. But Almilaji is determined to make it work.

"We will show that people who struggle for freedom can also establish a unique health system, even in a war zone," he says.

Syrian refugees weaving baskets in Lebanon
Daniel Hilton

Syrian Women At Risk Of Losing New Economic Power To Tradition

The war in Syria has transformed the place women hold in the workforce, providing opportunities previously reserved for men.

BEIRUT — The conflict in Syria has had a devastating impact on women. But it's also transformed their role in the workforce, inadvertently opening the door to previously male-dominated employment sectors. As a result, women are becoming increasingly influential in the public sphere and in shaping the country's future.

This positive — albeit slow — shift for women has come, however, at a devastating price. After seven years of conflict, many of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed, injured, forced to flee the country or else left to join in the fighting, significantly decreasing the number of working-age men. The result is that women are now the decision-makers and breadwinners in almost one in three households.

"The thing is, no one feels that it's a particularly great thing that women gain power and opportunity because men are missing and dying, so it's a very complicated step forward," Bonnie Morris, a gender studies scholar who teaches courses on women and war, tells Syria Deeply. "But it often reveals, to many people's surprise, how competent women have been all along, given the opportunity to develop their talents."

Barriers to entry

On paper, women should have had equality with men since Syria adopted its civil and commercial codes in 1949, granting women the right to control their own assets, own property and manage their own businesses. But others laws limit these freedoms. The penal code, for example, permits husbands to forbid their wives from working outside the home.

In 1973, Syria adopted its current constitution, stipulating that women should have equality with men and that obstacles to their advancement be removed. Article 45 guarantees women "all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effective in political, social, economic and cultural life."

Culturally, however, women's roles and responsibilities continued to be largely confined to the home, where they face societal barriers that have blocked them from several sectors of employment or the opportunity to work in general. In May 2017, the Jordan-based organization Bareeq Education and Development carried out a survey of Syrian women over the age of 18 inside and outside the country. Of the 1,006 respondents, 81% said that, "the social norms in Syria truly impede women's success."

Seven years of war have chipped away at some of these barriers. By 2015, between 12% and 17% of households in Syria were female-headed. And that ratio has risen from 4.4% in 2009 to 22.4% this year, according to a report from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Before the war, in 2010, women made up 22% of the formal labor force. Since 2011 that number has dropped, but formal labor opportunities have decreased for both men and women and the latter are now more likely to be found earning through informal and small-scale work. The female employment rate in 2015 was 14%.

In some sectors, women make up the overwhelming majority of the workforce. In certain areas of Syria, for example, 90% of the agricultural workforce is female. Necessity has also forced them into roles that were unthinkable before the conflict. Mariah Saadeh, a former independent MP who has campaigned for women's rights in Syria, says there are factories in Damascus almost totally populated by women.

"The traditional role of women is changing because of the war," she says. "They work in restaurants, in services. They go to factories. They do agriculture. They make the handmade things. They are the base today for the future."

Opportunity and equality

The conflict has also allowed women to break into the civil society, media and government sectors, something that was consistently prevented prior to the war. The Syrian Network of Female Journalists reports that in emerging media — outlets set up after the war broke out in 2011 — women make up 54% of the radio workforce and hold 35% of the print media jobs.

And yet, as the conflict evolved over the years and more hard-line groups took control in opposition-held areas, women's participation in public life in some places has become more difficult. For female journalists, for example, barriers to information and opportunities have left many working on their laptops rather than covering the front line and being more involved in the coverage, according to Syrian Network of Female Journalists co-founder Milia Eidmouni.

Female journalists face another problem as well, one that is familiar to women in many lines of work: pay and advancement discrimination. Despite women finding themselves able to work where once they might not have, opportunity does not mean equality. Only 4% of senior journalists in the Syrian emerging media are female. "From our experience and the feedback we got from members, all of them are saying that men and women don't get paid equally," Eidmouni says.

Overall, income in female-led households "tends to be below that of male-headed households," according to the March 2016 report titled "Women, Work & War," published by the relief agency CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere). In the southern province of Deraa, for instance, monthly income for female-headed households is between 15% and 32% lower than it is for male-headed households.

"No going back"

As the conflict continues, more and more women are building skills and taking on employment. Some learn on the job, while others develop their skills under NGO or United Nations programs. The U.N. Development Program, for instance, supports female-headed households through workshops, vocational training and emergency employment opportunities in areas of women's expertise. In 2016 alone, the organization provided job opportunities for 6,103 women heading households, the UNDP reports.

The question for Syria moving forward — once the war comes to a close — is whether the place women hold in society has changed forever.

Still, cultural barriers and social stigma are far from being completely eradicated. Many Syrian women are highly educated, but due to the war, "adolescent girls have had their education interrupted … and been forced as a result of dire economic conditions to assume livelihoods-related responsibilities early," the CARE report reads. Consequently, the majority continue to take up what is considered "gender appropriate" work such as teaching, health care or craftwork.

"If women are the less educated ones in the family they often are stuck in menial positions that are not necessarily empowering," Morris says. "For women who are better educated, there's often the need to take a job that they might feel is beneath them, and then there's a lot of bitterness about that."

The question for Syria moving forward — once the war comes to a close — is whether the place women hold in society has changed forever. A report by Bareeq suggests that 88.36% of Syrian women believe the fight for women's rights is a legitimate right, while 96% believe a woman's role is both at home and at work.

Morris, nevertheless, warns that as Syrians return to their country and reconstruction begins to take place, the desire to recreate a state of normalcy could lead to a conservative backlash where traditional roles are encouraged. Other champions of women's rights in Syria are hopeful that women's increasing participation in Syria will increase and become permanent.

"I believe there's no turning back," Eidmouni says. "But we need to work to make it happen for everyone."

For now, with millions of refugees outside Syria reluctant to return because of the ongoing conflict and the country's uncertain economic future, the new status of women is still a work in progress. "I think if there's a percentage of men who do not accept women working," says Saadeh. "But if they don't accept women working, they will pay the price, because women today do everything … If they stop working that will create a lot of trouble."

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