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Syrian refugees are running from Assad rather than ISIS

19 October 2015
Supporting Assad will only worsen the Syrian refugee crisis

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, rather than ISIS, appears to be a major cause of initial movement of refugees out of Syria, writes Suraina Pasha.

A billboard displaying the image of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

A billboard displaying the image of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Image: Darth Kalwejt/Wikimedia Commons

The Syrian refugee crisis has prompted international calls for solutions. Yet, discussions have paid scant attention to why Syrians are leaving in the first place.

We cannot solve a problem if we do not know its root causes, so what better way to understand why Syrians are leaving than to actually ask them?

Through the assistance of Syrian humanitarian volunteers I recently met and interviewed nearly 100 Syrian refugee families in the north of Jordan near the Syrian border.

These refugees were from Homs, Dara'a, and Rif Dimashq governates, sites that are, as of early October, still mostly under the control of the Free Syrian Army and other moderate opposition groups that were previously supported by the West.

I spoke to the refugees about their experiences in Syria and, without fail, every single person said that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, rather than ISIS, was Syria's biggest problem.

Most of these people blamed Assad specifically for their displacement.

Only three of the families I spoke to thought that Assad could be trusted to stick to a peace agreement.

"How can we trust him when he is the one who killed our relatives and destroyed our homes and lives?" one refugee asked me.

When I asked the families under what circumstances they would return to Syria, the majority said they never would while Assad remained in power unless, as some of them said, it is to "die a quick death".

These responses come as no surprise. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, amongst others, have documented in detail the Assad regime's barrel bombs, missiles, chemical weapons, torture, oppression and collective punishment against civilian populations living under opposition controlled territories.

These refugees are also facing chronic shortages in aid in Jordan, which is itself struggling to cope with the number of refugees it is supporting - an estimated 1.5 million Syrians of whom 630,000 have been registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), on top of other refugee populations from Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere.

For Syrian refugees who do not have the means to travel to Europe or the luxury of time to wait indefinitely in the 'queue' for the illusive UNHCR resettlement - an opportunity offered to literally less than one percent of the refugees in the world - their choice is either a slow death by starvation or to return to Syria and risk being caught in the crossfire in their homeland.

My data is based on a small group of refugees. Yet, the findings of another recent, much larger survey of almost 900 Syrian refugees in Germany, conducted by the Berlin Social Science Center and German-based NGO Adopt a Revolution in collaboration with the Syria Campaign and Planet Syria, also shows Assad is a major reason Syrians flee.

More than 70 percent of refugees surveyed said they left Syria because of Assad. Only 52 percent said they would ever return to Syria while Assad remained in power.

The survey also found that many Syrians would not leave their country if the international community were able to stop the deadly barrel bombs being dropped by the Syrian air force on opposition-held areas. These bombs are uncontrollable and are designed to inflict maximum, indiscriminate devastation.

Now Russia has upped the stakes of war in Syria by joining in the bombing fray.

Contrary to Russia's claims it is in Syria to fight ISIS, the territories it has attacked thus far indicate its first priority is to support the Assad regime by eliminating the Free Syrian Army and other moderate opposition forces that are (or were previously) supported, trained and funded by the United States, Turkey and the Gulf.

Iranian troops and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia are also now reportedly on the ground helping Assad.

Cold War politics appears to be alive and well in Syria while Iran also attempts to expand its regional influence, all at the expense of ordinary Syrians whose lives are being destroyed by the ravages of war and the newly strengthened Assad regime.

Time will tell, but the number of Syrian refugees is likely to increase in the coming months.

If the international community will not squarely face a primary cause of the refugee crisis, it is no wonder Syrians feel compelled to leave death and carnage behind to search for peace and security elsewhere.

Suraina Pasha is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Sydney. Her research is on the Syrian refugee crisis. The current phase of her research focuses on the lived experiences of refugees in Jordan, being one of the main first countries of asylum.

First published in The Huffington Post Australia.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)

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