Entering its tenth year, the Syrian conflict has resulted in a host of challenges for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. The topic of return is among the most critical in local and international conversations, which remains a challenge with no solution in sight. Without a conducive political, social, and economically environment, voluntary return will be limited. A number of items must be considered to elevate the option of voluntary return, including securing a safe and dignified return, maintaining regional stability, and arranging the appropriate regional and international circumstances to ensure the availability of the objective conditions necessary for such return.
When discussing the internal factors in which effect the return of Syria’s displaced, the security situation is the most mentioned. The security conditions in all areas of Syria significantly influence an individual’s decision to return. With deteriorating security conditions, civilians are unable to feel safe and stable. With fear of being displaced again due to security reasons, they are deterred from voluntary return. With the ongoing crisis, maintaining a secure space remains difficult for security forces in opposition, Assad regime, and Autonomous Administration (AA) held territory. The path towards providing civilians with a sense of safety and stability there must be a political and military solution. Recovery and reconstruction may only begin when a safe environment is secured.
Omran Centre for Strategic Studies implemented a survey targeting individuals from regime, opposition, and AA-held territories. This survey is integral as it illustrates the perspective of civilians concerning the security situation and factors influencing their return. From the surveys, it is apparent that locally civilians understand the security conditions intensively, and are aware. The chaotic security situation -is manifested in a host of violations that come in different forms, tools, and intensities. Thus, it reflects the fragility and volatility of the security environment, which is inconsistent with the demand that international bodies seek to fulfil as one of the objective prerequisites for the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees from neighboring countries.
The goal of the survey was to identify primary and secondary factors as well as indicators related to the primary indicator of security stability in Syria. These secondary indicators include the efficiency of security apparatuses as well as the legal system associated with them, the performance of these apparatuses and their security operations in addition to relevant accountability, follow-up and complaints systems, as well as the extent to which these indicators have an impact on the return of the Syrian refugees from neighboring countries. First, the survey attempts to diagnose the general security landscape in various Syrian regions, then to identify the nature of relationships between civilians and security apparatuses in these areas, furthermore identifying the most important variables that govern the refugees' decision to return to Syria. Finally, it examines the reality of the refugees' return to Assad regime-held areas, opposition-held areas, and AA areas to determine the most important indicators related to the return of refugees to these areas.
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Forced migration and internal displacement is still the heaviest toll of Syria’s security deterioration. The main political actors continue to struggle with resolving the causes of migration, including absence of security, empowerment, interaction, and safe spaces.
There are a host of challenges including the inability to provide basic services for IDPs and the lack of political coordination between local and international actors to maintain policies and procedures that lead to “dignified and voluntary return”. The local security actors, in turn, have no supporting strategies whether due to threats and challenges or the negative role they play within recovery and development prospects.
Stability is associated with the effectiveness of “local security” structures, which are deeply affected – structurally and functionally – by several governance models and performance, this association significantly affects refugees and IDPs return. This paper investigates indicators of a safe environment as a necessary condition for stability, return of refugees and IDPs and the prevention of further conflicts. This research attempted to raise questions and insights related to existing security structures, the Assad regime and its allies’ in-depth attitude towards such an environment, and finally, broad visions of a safe environment in the Syrian context.
This paper can be regarded as a thematic summary of an in-depth and comprehensive research initiated by Omran Center in the beginning of 2020. The research aimed at exploring several facets of the issue, first facet deals with refugees’ and IDPs’ prospect of return and related security issues. Second facet is related to the concept of relationship between civil society and security structures, as this relationship defines the legal and organizational parameter of a stable and secure environment. The third facet focuses on security indicators that affect people’s daily life, such as explosions, abductions, assassinations, etc. To examine the regime’s approach and attitudes towards national interest, the research was based on two focus groups located in areas the regime gained after 2018.
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I. Executive Summary
• Utilizing a qualitative approach, this report covers four security related indicators that significantly influence refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) decision to return to their original homes. Presenting a wide range of figures and trends, the four indicators that are covered within this report are: assassinations, explosions, extrajudicial detentions, and abductions. As the Syrian crisis grows more complex, security and stability are the main pillars that lead to recovery and safe return of those displaced. By covering the four security indicators, this report attempts to present both the individual and societal perspective that may feed into policy aiming for recovery and progress.
• The report examined occurances of assassinations and explosions in the governorates of al-Hasaka, Deir Ez-Zour and Daraa during two time periods: last 6 months of 2019 and first 6 months of 2020. During this period, 308 explosions and 72 assassinations were logged. Methods used varied from gunfire in 213 incidents, IEDs in 94, car bomb in 39, mines in 25, grenades in 9 cases, as well as other methods. The total number of casualties reached 1,008 including 490 military personnel and 518 civilians. Daraa, Deir Ezzor, and Al-Hasaka, the selected case studies in the report, expose the failure and weakness of the regime, and to a lesser extent the Autonomous Administration (AA). The number of explosions and assassinations were high within these governorates, due to the unsecure environment and the various actors that included local, foreign and militia actors, each with a separate agenda. The instability and dangerous situation have had an adverse effect on the safe return of refugees and internally displaced individuals.
• In opposition-controlled territories, incidents of assassinations and explosions within the studied timeframe amounted to: 1,209 casualties, the included 890 civilians and 319 military personnel. IEDs were used in 93 cases, while car bombs were used in 69. As revealed through the analysis from the Euphrates Shield and Afrin territory, the “Wrath of Olives-Ghadab al-Zaytun” operation room held a leading role in the adoption of assassinations within the two areas. There was also a substantial rate of extrajudicial detention and abduction incidents within the monitored areas. The figures highlight the failure of security agencies in protecting their local environments from breaches and their inability to identify methods used by perpetrators. The fragile security environment has raised skepticism on whether there could be a safe return of refugees.
• In the cities of Jasim, Douma, al-Bukamal, and Raqqa, 73 abductions and extrajudicial detentions occurred, including 15 in Jasim, 20 in Douma, 20 in al-Bukamal, 18 in Raqqa. 23 of the operations were committed by foreign actors, resulting in 182 casualties, 19 incidents committed by local actors, which resulted in 117 casualties, and the perpetrators of an additional 31 incidents are unknown, but resulted in 89 casualties. The total number of casualties is 388, including 188 civilians (109 which are from reconciled areas) and 56 military personnel, including 12 from the ranks of the AA’s People Protection Units (YPG), 20 from civil defense, 2 from the AA, and one person from the Military Security branch. These figures illustrate the decline in security and stability. Perpetrators vary between local and international actors. This further highlights the deterioration and inefficiency of security actors.
• In the cities of Afrin and Jarablus, there were 169 extrajudicial detentions and abductions; 37 in Jarablus and 132 in Afrin with 355 casualties. The “Wrath of Olives” operations room expanded to 17 operation rooms. The incidents focused primarily on targeting and killing members of the Syrian National Army. According to reported data, the highest number of incidents took place in January 2020. Known actors were responsible for 141 extrajudicial detentions, while 28 remain unknown. The majority were identified in Afrin, which highlights the failure of security actors to maintain a secure environment.
• The data and analysis resulted in a number of recommendations concerning efforts to aid in Syrian refugee and IDP return. The main recommendation is for decision-makers to avoid general policies that do not explicitly define the necessary terms of security and stability. In order to achieve the level of detail necessary, key stakeholders must agree on legal, administrative, and political conditions that will insure a the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of Syrians.
Security, stability, and early recovery are dependent upon one another in a political transition and reformation. As highlighted throughout history, security and stability are essential and were predominately achieved by instilling a new political order that removes the main sources of conflict. Syria is no exception, as the need for a political transition grows more urgent. Although security and stability are a focus point for key stakeholders, the growing fragmentation and chaos has only expanded the various layers to attaining security. Also contributing, the prolonged political process, including the constitutional committee, have laid a confusing path with unclear outcomes that would lead to a stable political climate in the near future. The current outlook does not clearly outline when a secure and stable environment will be set for Syrian to return.
As the Syrian conflict reaches a “precarious freeze,” it has become increasingly apparent that the security borders separating the three zones will be consolidated, which are the zone influenced by Turkey northwest of the Euphrates, the zone controlled by the Autonomous Administration (AA) in cooperation with the United States, and Assad regime-held areas, secured with Iranian and Russian influence. Despite the divisions, security and stability are critical in moving forward with early recovering and attaining social stability, whether inside Syria or in neighboring regions. This report will focus on four particular indicators of security; assassinations, explosions, extrajudicial detentions, and abductions. A variety of cities from a wide range of backgrounds were selected as case-studies to cover the different areas of control in Syria.
Strategically selected, the case studies attempt to present a general picture of Syria’s current security condition. The first and second section of the report, presents an overview of data collected concerning explosions and assassinations over the course of a year, starting from the beginning of July 2019 until June 2020. explosion The sections cover the three areas of control through case studies from the following areas; in the Deir Ezzor and Daraa governorate are covered for Assad regime-held territory, areas in Deir Ezzor and Al-Hasaka governorate are covered for the AA region, and cities in Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, and Al-Hasaka are covered to represent the situation in opposition-controlled areas.
To measure indicators for assassinations and explosions, a tailored-approach was to collect and analyze data. Forms were utilized to record information on explosions and assassinations, including date, location, type of incident, target, targeting method, status of the target, and the actor. The results and consequences of each event were also recorded. After collection, data was cleaned and cross-checked, after which a cross-regional analysis was formed on the security conditions, stability, and how it relates to the topic of safe and neutral return.
The report relied on the following sources:
1) Accounts of activists in areas under observation or those following security operations on social media platforms.
2) Accounts and official websites of agencies and local media that cover events in those governorates.
The other two critical indicators of safe return, detention and abduction, were analyzed through case studies from the three particular zones of control. In regime-held areas, the city of Jasim in Daraa, Douma in Damascus, and Al-Bukamal in Deir Ezzor were selected. All three have been under the control of the regime since 2018. For opposition-controlled areas, the city of Jarablus and Afrin in Aleppo were selected. Both fell under opposition control in 2018, after Operations Euphrates Shield, therefore fitting into the same framework. The timing of control and the sensitivity of the situation in Afrin allows for the security situation to be compared with regime-held case studies.
For this purpose, a tailored form was designed to monitor these incidents and analyze their data as indicators of stability and safe return over half a year starting from October 2019 until the end of March 2020. The form of detention and abduction was designed as follows: (Date – location – type of operation – status of the target – number of those targeted – parties in control – places of observation – targeting party – gender of the target). In terms of sources, the report relied on private interviews with well-informed individuals whom are familiar with the details of the events in the monitored areas. In addition to relying on:
1. The observation points affiliated with the Information Unit at Omran Center in northern Syria.
2. The special security report issued by Ihsan Relief and Development offices inside Syria.
3. The official social media sources of the targeted parties.
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The majority of literature discussing civil-military relationship highlight that armed forces must follow a democratic civilian leadership. To achieve such a relationship, a state must undergo a complicated process to meet the necessary requirements, including a comprehensive legislative reform, a change in the entire security sector, the inclusion of transitional justice, establishing democratic institutions, and instilling democratic values. Civil-military relations are the most sensitive and vital aspect of the democratic transformation process, as failure to address the complex relationship may result in a relapse to the pre-democratic authoritarian status. An essential component to establishing democratic transportation, civil-military relations is a key element affecting internally displaces persons (IDPs) and refugee return, as well as their engagement in political, social, and economical life.
The necessity to secure a safe environment for dignified and voluntary return is intertwined with promoting civil-military relations. Such an environment does not currently exist across Syria’s geography, as various actors struggle to attain more power. The absence of a future plan that entails a “new political era,” and the “cautious freeze” on the ground, has resulted in a multitude of governance models backed by the various international and regional powers. This paper seeks to delve into civil-military relations throughout Syria’s geography, which consists of numerous governance models, to assess the impact of those relations on a refugee and IDP return. The ultimate research question addressed; to what extent do civil-military relations affect refugee and IDP decision to return?
Although the study sheds light on civil-military relations in all areas of control, there is a particular focus on regime-held areas. Regime-controlled areas provide identifiable features concerning civil-military relations, as the regime has control over the state in legal and institutional terms. Additionally, the regime’s security approach will have the most impact on civil-military relations in the future, affecting more than 12 million displaced Syrians decision to return. The paper also sheds some light on such parameters in areas outside regime control as fragile stability in others zones also hinders the formation of a safe environment conducive of a voluntary and safe return.
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Navar Saban, expert in military situation at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul talking with Enab Baladi about the recent military developments in southern Idlib and mainly near the M4 and the possible scenario for the M4 agreement.
Navar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said an imminent operation is unlikely, due to the increasing cost of a military move.
“Logistically speaking, it doesn’t make sense to launch another operation in an area that has this many complexities, including a Russian presence, Daesh cells and Syrian regime operations. Even if they win, it will bear significant costs for troops on the ground because of security problems in northwestern Afrin and northwestern Idlib provinces,” he told Arab News.
However, Saban also said the visit is unlikely to be random.
“It is for coordination on the ground to manage clashes with different actors. But it wouldn’t trigger a new operation in the short term,” he said.
Omran Center for Strategic Studies organized a public webinar panel entitled “Syrian Civil Society Organizations in an Unstable Environment” on 24 June 2020.
The session discussed challenges and possible opportunities of Syrian Civil Society Organizations, including the following themes:
1. Questions of civil society independence.
2. The administratively divided reality of CSOs, geographical locations, and the shared ideas.
3. Syria’s civil society, accountability and the political transition.
4. CSOs. differences and Common political visions.
The dialogue was moderated by the Executive Director of Omran, Dr. Ammar Kahf, with the participation of a number of local experts and representatives of international organizations; 1) Erik Mohns, Manager of programs at GIZ. 2) Noha Alkamcha, Managing Partner, MGAL. 3) Assaad Al Achi, Executive Director, Baytna Syria. 4) Francesca Pavarini, EU Delegation to Syria.
Attendees contributed through their participation and their interventions to support the visions and enrich the discussions, and provide answers to the questions raised in a way that reflects positively on the outcomes of the session.
Dr. Ammar Kahf, Executive director of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies participated as a guest on Inside Story at Aljazeera English to discuss the latest Caesar Act and its impact on the Syrian regime. He highlighted that the root cause of torture, death, destruction and hunger has always been the regime of Bashar Assad. This is yet another tool that requires additional diplomatic and political mechanisms to put pressure on its sponsors and supporters to make their lives more difficult and think twice before normalizing or investing in reconstruction.
Other guests on the program included Joshua Landis and Alexey Khlebnikov. Sami Zeidan was the host of the program.