Internally displaced girls look out from their tent inside the Al-Karameh refugee camp beside the Syrian-Turkish border, January 2015.
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

In the past few weeks, the Syrians fleeing war and seeking refuge in Europe have captured local and international headlines. The crisis has triggered an important and belated public debate about EU asylum and migration policies, or the lack thereof. But Syrians seeking asylum in Europe represent just ten percent of the more than four million people who have left home since 2011, when an initially peaceful political revolution escalated into armed conflict. Syria’s neighbors—Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—have taken in the vast majority of refugees.

Meanwhile, almost eight million—or one in three—Syrians are displaced within their own country. Only by recognizing the relationship between internal and external displacement can the international community begin to tackle the crisis, rightly defined as the worst humanitarian emergency since World War II.

In Syria, internal displacement is especially high within certain sectors of the population: for example, the UN Relief and Works Agency reports that as many as 280,000 of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Syria have been internally displaced. Many of the refugee camps, including the largest one in Syria, Yarmouk, in Damascus, are located in conflict areas or, in certain cases, have become battlefields themselves, forcing the civilian population to relocate. What is more, Palestinians find it more difficult to leave Syria, as virtually all countries in the region restrict their entry or outright deny it.

It is easy to see how war and the deterioration of Syria’s economy have driven both internal and external displacement. But the sheer scale of the crisis also suggests that the forced migration is more than a natural byproduct of the violence; indeed, displacement is occurring by design. 

A key part of the Assad regime’s military strategy has been to incapacitate rebel-held areas by targeting the civilian population, destroying the civilian infrastructure, and withholding access to basic public goods. This strategy has been employed from early on in the conflict as a counterinsurgency tool to separate the civilian population from the rebel factions opposing the regime, resulting in mass displacement and sectarianism.

Internally displaced children play inside the Al-Tah camp in the southern Idlib countryside, July 2014.
Internally displaced children play inside the Al-Tah camp in the southern Idlib countryside, July 2014.
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

As a result schools, hospitals, markets, and even refugee camps are some of the most dangerous places within Syria. Civilians have been also deliberately attacked, with 18,000 killed by the regime through bloody and prolonged aerial attacks, often relying on barrel bombs. This strategy has both generated and had an inordinate impact on internally displaced people.

In some instances, violence against civilians has been linked to a broader strategy of ethnic cleansing. Prime examples are Assad regime’s infamous massacres against Sunni residents of the village of Bayda and the city of Baniyas in the Alawite heartland of Syria, which, according to Human Rights Watch, left 248 people dead. Armed groups, such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jahbat al-Nusra, have also been violently targeting religious minorities in areas under their control. Ethnically or religiously motivated massacres have in turn heightened the sectarian dynamics within the war, further eroding Syria’s social fabric.

Targeting civilians has gone hand-in-hand with destroying infrastructure and withholding access to basic services. For example, pro-Assad forces have been laying siege to the rebel-held areas in eastern and southern Damascus for over three years. Another infamous example has been the brutal siege and destruction by government forces of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk that started in July 2013 and only recently (partially) subsided. Bereft of any assistance, some civilians there have starved to death. The UN Secretary-General aptly called it the “deepest circle of hell.”

The sheer scale of the crisis also suggests that the forced migration is more than a natural byproduct of the violence; indeed, displacement is occurring by design.

Even international humanitarian assistance has become a weapon of war. The regime has been displaying what the UN Security Council labelled “arbitrary and unjustified withholding of consent to relief operations,” resulting in limited access to communities that support anti-Assad forces. Despite the considerable progress that the international community has made in gaining humanitarian access to Syria by delivering aid through cross-border access points rather than just through Damascus, more than 400,000 people—most of them civilians—continue to live in areas besieged by the regime and by other rebel factions, including the Islamic State. As of June 2015, the Syrian government had approved just 20 of the 48 UN requests to “deliver aid to besieged or hard-to-reach areas.” More generally, the Assad regime has used the selective delivery of services, including electricity, fuel, and medicines, to alienate those that do not support the regime, a situation worsened by the brutal and ongoing conflict for access and control of natural resources.

Displaced women sit in the back of a pick-up truck as they flee from Aleppo, February 2013.
Displaced women sit in the back of a pick-up truck as they flee from Aleppo, February 2013.
Hamid Khatib / Reuters

Of course, as the war has progressed, virtually all factions have conducted sectarian massacres, targeted civilians, and perpetrated other gross violations of international humanitarian law. Here, the Islamic State is one of the worst offenders. Predictably, the longer the war continues the more brutal tactics—including forced displacement—are likely to be employed by all parties.

The displacement of people within Syria should be regarded as a deliberate instrument of war. In this context, refugees and internally displaced people should be regarded as two manifestations of the same phenomena: the purposeful targeting of civilians in the context of war. The two crises need to be analyzed and solved together. The international community needs to respond to the refugee both outside and inside of Syria. The chronic underfunding of such plans does not help the situation. What is more, the delivery of aid within Syria is further restricted by both the hardship of reaching populations affected by war and by the regime’s bureaucratic and political hurdles. Refusing to deal with internally displaced people and refugees within the Middle East will only add to the refugee crisis in Europe, as ordinary Syrians face increasingly long odds of survival.

The international community must also realize that fighting ISIS will not be enough to mitigate the humanitarian emergency. Many of the Syrian civilians are fleeing not ISIS but Assad’s barrel bombs. Only a true end to the war and a change in the political system can begin to reverse the tide of mass displacement.

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