Human Rights Watch report shed light that Damascus operates a mafia-style intelligence state where returnees face brutality even after signing a “reconciliation” document.
Yasser, a 32-year old man from Syria’s Homs, was one among millions of Syrians, the world’s biggest refugee population, forced to leave their country in the face of a terrible civil war.
He ended up living in Lebanon, a neighbouring country, which has also gone through several civil wars in its history and is now facing its worst economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. As the days passed, the Yasser family’s expenses went through the roof like other Lebanese citizens, but life became unbearable when they were exposed to a growing anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon.
Yasser was stuck between going back to a country, where he could face anything from torture to extrajudicial killing, and staying in a country, where local population had grown increasingly hostile towards Syrian refugees. Lebanese authorities also pursue an aggressive agenda, pushing them hard to return to Syria.
“We decided to leave because we were living in the [informal] camps in Lebanon in Bar Elias...and [the landlord] wanted rent in dollars. We couldn’t afford this, so we decided to leave. I wanted my kids in school and I wanted to register them [in Syria] and to live in my house again,” Yasser, which is a pseudonym used to hide the true identity of interviewees, told Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Yasser was one of nearly 300,000 returnees, who left their host countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey for Syria between 2016 and 2021, a period in which the conflict has appeared to calm down compared to the previous 2011-2016 time span.
The Yasser family, like other returnees, thought that their own country could be a better choice than Lebanon. “Of course, the refugee life in Jordan and Lebanon is difficult, particularly in Lebanon. Economic crisis, particularly in Lebanon, is just catastrophic,” says Nadia Hardman, a Beirut-based researcher for HRW, who wrote the rights group’s report.
As a result, people like Yasser wanted to return to Syria while extensive data show that the majority of refugees don’t want to return to Syria because of the Assad regime’s targeting of them, according to Hardman. “They fled the regime in the first place. That regime is still in power,” Hardman tells TRT World.
Despite all political uncertainty and the brutality of a regime, people have wanted to see their old homes, most of which were either destroyed or damaged by the war, reclaim them and live on their land like old times, says Hardman in the report.
The regime has confiscated many homes on the grounds that their owners supported the opposition or the 2011 uprising. According to a 2017 World Bank, 27 percent of Syria’s housing was destroyed by the war. When Yasser returned to Homs in December 2019, he also saw a “ruined” house that had no electricity.
“There was hardly anyone in our town. Our house was totally destroyed. No rooms had survived. We stayed outside, there was nowhere for us to stay inside,” he told HRW researcher Hardman.
A dangerous illusion
Based on mostly misinformation on so-called improved conditions back in Syria, a notion reinforced by dubious accounts rekindling emotional optimism amongst the refugees that situation has become conducive for their return, people like Yasser applied for a “security clearance” from the Syrian regime, which was coordinated with Lebanon’s General Security Organisation (GSO).
“I had been promised by the Lebanese GSO that no one would be harmed when returning,” he said. “They said the security clearance had been done, so it would be safe for me on return,” the Homs resident said.
But the security clearance, which required Syrian refugees to sign a “reconciliation” document, including a pledge that the signatory will ever engage in any opposition activity and stay loyal to the regime, was not much of clearance at all for Yasser and many others. But they understood that through terrible experiences after they returned to Syria.
“It’s a protracted crisis. Syrian lives are at risk if people are forced to return,” says Hardman, emphasising that the international community needs to do more, increasing aid to refugees and extending their resettlement programs.
In the face of no pledge for resettlement from rich countries or no real aid from donor states, Yasser chose to take a treacherous path to return to Syria. But a day after his return to Syria, he was detained by the Syrian Political Security Agency, one of the country’s notorious intelligence groups, enduring months of torture.
The officers cuffed Yasser’s hands and “started beating” him, using electric cables, without uttering a word.
While the Assad regime cannot repair Syria's economy or control the increasing 6,820 percent inflation rate on consumer goods, it's been notoriously consistent in one thing: torture.
“They broke the bone in my shoulder. My hand was swollen; I couldn’t move it, they kept cuffing me anyway. I was shocked with electricity until I fainted. I was totally naked still. They put water on me to wake me up,” Yasser told HRW.
For every Syrian disliked by the regime, it’s almost standard procedure to be accused of being a terrorist.
Yasser was also charged with terrorism. Under duress and brutal torture, Yasser was forced to make a false confession that he was a terrorist.
“I was so scared, but after all this torture, I agreed to everything they accused me of. They gave me the words, and then I repeated it. They brought me five papers to sign. I couldn’t even glance at them, and I couldn’t concentrate on them. I just signed the papers,” he said.
Normalisation with the regime
For Hardman, normalisation with a regime, which has no hesitation to torture returnees, will be a bad mistake. “Nothing has changed. We have seen in recent weeks this so-called normalisation of relations with Assad. In that sense, it’s a very dangerous message,” Hardman said.
“Syria is not safe. European states must maintain their position and Denmark needs to change its position on returns,” Hardman added.
Denmark has recently removed temporary protection on Syrian refugees from the Damascus region, forcing them to return to the unsafe country.
It’s “terrifying” for refugees to hear “the normative talk” of returning to Syria because Assad “won the war”, she says.
According to Omar Alhariri, a Syrian journalist, more Syrians are fleeing the country compared to previous years.
“The same repression is still being practiced. The security and military forces are still arresting civilians and stealing their property,” Alhariri tells TRT World.
A resident of Syria's Daraa city, also known as the cradle of Syria’s uprising against the Assad regime as the first wave of protests started from there ten years ago, Alhariri strongly believes that escapees exceed in number by a far greater measure the returnees who are lured back under the so-called 'reconciliation' agreements.
But he also witnessed that a few hundreds of Syrians have returned to the city, especially from Jordan since the signing of a reconciliation agreement in 2018 in Daraa. “Most of those returnees were arrested by regime forces. Some of them were arrested at the border when they were trying to return to Syria from Jordan,” Alhariri says.
Paying for your freedom
Yasser got out of detention, thanks to his mother, who paid tens of thousands of dollars to senior security officials, judges and other legal professionals.
“The total amount [my mother paid] is US$70,000,” Yasser said. “My mother felt like she ‘re-bought’ her son.”
In Syria, bribing and other forms of corruption were widespread even before the civil war, but the state became far more corrupt during the armed conflict.
The country’s several intelligence agencies, which operate independently from each other, hold separate “wanted lists” for so-called anti-regime citizens, according to the HRW. As a result, citizens try to learn their status by paying bribes to officials, who have access to such lists. In the absence of a centralised monitoring authority over different intelligence groups, armed groups loyal to Assad operate with impunity, which includes taking huge bribes to disclose any citizen's private information that is supposed to remain confidential in state records.
Out of detention, Yasser's first night in his hometown proved to be a nightmare. “We heard people driving by and shooting in the air to terrify the people.”
It felt like the Wild Wild West, an unruly former US frontier.
Yasser eventually smuggled himself back to Lebanon in the summer of 2000.
All 65 interviews conducted by the HRW suggest that Syria can turn into a deathtrap for returnees.
Although Syrian refugees want to go back, HRW researcher Hardman says "they are not going to do that unless there is a demonstrable change in Syria”.
“No one I spoke to among 65 refugees was happy with that [return] decision.”