Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

The Other Syrian Crisis

Internal Displacement as a Weapon of War

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

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