Displacing Masses in Syria: a Crime of Commission


The Syrian uprising is approaching its two-year anniversary. On March 15, 2011, Syrians in Dara’a, Damascus, Hama, and several other cities held “Day of Dignity” protests demanding the release of political prisoners and democratic change. On any other day, the demonstrations would have been little more than a sound bite on the international news, just another sign of unrest in a region known for unrest. But March 2011 was no ordinary month in the Middle East. On the contrary, the Syrian protests occurred during one of the most dramatic and promising periods in the region’s recent history. In 2011, throughout the Middle East—in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, and Iran—mass protests were spreading and intensifying. From the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia to the brutal crackdown of protestors at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout on “Bloody Thursday,” what came to be known as the Arab Spring was in full bloom. The Syrian protests were thus one more flower in the garden of rebellion growing throughout the Arab world.

By the time protestors hit the streets of Syria, the Arab Uprising had already produced some important albeit uneven changes. In Egypt and Tunisia, popular dissent forced Hosni Mubarak and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, two long-time dictators, to abandon their posts as unelected rulers of their countries. In Libya, an international intervention aided local fighters in an effort to curb Muammar Qaddafi’s violent response to the uprising and provided much-needed cover for an insurrection that would eventually terminate his rule. While in Bahrain, local and Saudi security contingents led a bloody assault on protestors, in Yemen, public demonstrations continued to pressure the authoritarian President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to resign. In Jordan and Algeria, smaller-scale demonstrations brought harsh police crackdowns but forced the governments to offer minor political reforms.

While some countries in the region were turning a new page in their political history, in Syria, March 2011 was only the beginning of what has become one of the most violent and protracted of the Arab rebellions. Since the first stirrings of dissent, the government of Bashar al-Asad has shown its willingness to use extreme force against the Syrian population. In Dara’a, between March 19 and 23, Syrian authorities killed at least 10 civilians in a brutal attempt to quell street protests. By the end of the month, approximately 121 Syrians were killed. As of March 2012, only one year later, United Nations estimates suggest that the death toll has exceeded 8,000. Other sources suggest an estimate of 10,000.

In addition to the killing, the government’s brutal assaults have displaced thousands of Syrians from their neighborhoods, towns, and cities.  In June 2011, for example, the United Nations refugee agency found the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shugour and its surrounding villages almost completely uninhabited. Fearful of government violence, some Syrians have chosen to leave the country. The UN currently indicates that about 30,000 Syrians have crossed international borders into Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan in search of refuge. This figure doesn’t include those Syrians who have yet to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or those internally displaced within Syria.

On all accounts, the Syrian rebellion has turned into an international crisis. In addition to the unrestrained violence of the Asad government, what began as a series of non-violent protests have quickly transformed into an armed insurrection primarily led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a small group of dissident military personnel. Geographically scattered and militarily underequipped, the FSA has mounted a spirited albeit unsuccessful resistance against the Syrian military and its militias.

Faced with one of the more calamitous episodes of the Arab Uprising, the international community has yet to devise an immediate solution to the conflict. While the Arab League’s peace-keeping forces failed to temper the government’s aggression, divisions within the UN Security Council have produced less than promising results. China and Russia have blocked any resolution supportive of an intervention and Western governments seem reluctant to do anything more than impose economic sanctions and offer limited humanitarian relief for Syrian civilians and refugees.

Until recently, the issue of displacement within the Arab Uprising has been relatively marginal to popular discussions. Although some reports have highlighted the flight of Libyan refugees to neighboring countries, little has been noted about the general movement of populations during this tumultuous period within the region. Part of the reason certainly reflects the fact that, in most countries, government violence has been limited to public protests. Thus large-scale flight did not occur in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan. Yet in Libya and Syria, displacement has been a key process within the revolts. In May 2011 alone, reports suggest that almost 700,000 refugees fled Libya across the border into Tunisia and Egypt. Although not quite as numerous, the Syrian uprising has seen similar spikes in flight both internally and externally. In Turkey, for example, estimates indicate that at least 17,000 Syrian refugees are now living within Turkish-run refugee camps. Despite the significance of these revolutionary displacements, it was only within the last few months that the plight of displaced Syrians began circulating within the international press.

This analysis focuses on the status of displacement within a key human rights document prepared by the United Nations in 2012, the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Presented at the 19th session of the Human Rights Council, the document provided the international community with a compelling assessment of the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Syria since November 2011. Although the report included displacement as one of several violations of social and economic rights, it did not offer a clear framework for understanding the nature of that violation. Within the report, the status of displacement as a human rights violation was left slightly ambiguous: it did not identify the causes of displacement and thus failed to clarify whether the mass flight of Syrians was the result of an intentional or unintentional effort against the Syrian population by their government. In so doing, the document left the question of responsibility unclear.

Contrary to the report’s representation, the displacement of Syrians since 2011 is all but the unintended consequence of generalized violence. Following the work of Phil Orchard, we can see the government’s response as one example of a historically grounded pattern of “regime-induced displacement.” According to Orchard, over the last two decades displacement has been driven neither by persecution nor by people fleeing generalized violence; rather, it has been a deliberate choice on the part of governments to displace their own population on a massive scale[1]. Thus much like the examples of Columbia and the Central African Republic, the Syrian case reflects the dominant mode of displacement in the world since 1991: one propelled by citizens’ own governments.

Drawing on Orchard’s conception of coercion as a cause of displacement allows us to see the use of extreme force by the Syrian army and its militias as a deliberate attempt to displace Syrians from their homes. Displacement, in this perspective, is linked with the Syrian government’s effort to crush the resistance and its supporters. The Syrian government’s violations of human rights can thus include displacement as one expression of a general policy of annihilation; a policy typical of states in crisis and desperate to restore the status quo. The government’s violence against Syrians and their displacements thus represent two interlocking tactics within one overarching strategy: to end mass protests, abolish the masses.

Forcing Flight in Syria

In February 2012, a United Nations panel issued its Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which described the Syrian government’s response to popular protests as a gross violation of human rights. According to the report, Syrian forces were guilty of an assortment of violations including military and paramilitary attacks on residential and civilian areas, attacks on members of the Syrian opposition, the intimidation, assault, and killing of human rights workers and members of the media, large-scale arbitrary arrests, torture, and disappearances, the deprivation of economic and social rights, and violations of the rights of children including arrest and torture. In its conclusions, the report accused the government of committing widespread, systematic, and egregious human rights violations that amounted to crimes against humanity. Calling for an immediate cessation of the violence, the report recommended a serious political dialogue between the government and opposition and the establishment of a human rights monitoring mission to document any further violations.

While the report presented an extensive list of human rights violations committed by the Syrian state, one of its notable features was the inclusion of displacement. In its section concerning the deprivation of economic and social rights, the report claimed that, “according to estimates, 70,000 people ha[d] been arbitrarily displaced within the country.” In addition, the report claimed that “more than 20,000 Syrians found themselves in a precarious situation as refugees in other countries.”

Released in February 2012, these figures are no longer accurate. Most news reports indicate a rapidly climbing number of refugees and displaced Syrians. In Turkey, for example, the number of registered refugees has now exceeded 17,000.  In Syria’s southeastern neighbor, Jordan, the number is said to have reached approximately 8,000 refugees. This figure is, on some accounts, flawed since it fails to account for Syrians who have managed to find refuge with relatives in Jordanian cities or have secured shelter through their own financial means. Lebanon has also received large numbers of Syrians fleeing the Asad regime. Like the situation in Jordan, exact numbers are difficult to ascertain. However, the most recent UN figures suggest that about 16,000 refugees are currently registered with refugee agencies in the country. In addition to coping with limited resources including food and appropriate shelter, Syrians in Lebanon have complained about their vulnerability in a country unwilling to support them. For example, a common concern expressed by Syrian refugees in Lebanon has to do with movement. The Lebanese government has been accused of setting up various military checkpoints in order to restrict refugees’ mobility beyond the camps. More importantly, in areas such as Wadi Khaled, reports suggest that refugees lack adequate protection from Syrian violence. Some accounts indicate that Syrian forces have fired at refugees from across the border. In other instances, refugees have reported that Syrian forces have crossed into Lebanon and fired on the camps directly and, in some cases, have engaged in cross-border kidnapping.

An examination of the representation of displacement in the report allows for at least two possible readings. From one perspective, the displacement of Syrians can be seen as an unfortunate albeit unintended effect of the Syrian conflict. In this case, displacement, identified in the report as a “deprivation of economic and social rights,” represents a specific kind of violation; one marked less by intent than by effect. It is a serious violation, no doubt. Yet it is one seen as the consequence of other human rights violations and not a violation sui generis—in and of itself. A second perspective suggests that the displacement of Syrians by their government is a deliberate violation of human rights. According to this view, displacement stands as an act of commission; it is the intended consequence of violence meant to exhaust and undermine support for a rebellion that stands as an immediate threat to the authoritarian status quo.

What unites these two perspectives is their framework: both approaches agree that a human rights violation has occurred. Thus the displacement of Syrians is unequivocally a violation of their right to live within their country without fear of persecution. Yet the two perspectives cast a very different light on the nature of the violation committed by the Syrian authorities. In the first perspective displacement is a by-product; in the second, it’s part of an overarching strategy to annihilate the opposition.

My own reading of the report is closely aligned with the second perspective. I believe that the Syrian government’s assaults on its own population are driven by the larger effort to crush the opposition. By opposition, we can include the armed and unarmed Syrians engaged in the struggle on the streets and their less visible but committed supporters off the streets. In terms of the report, this means that displacement is but one human rights violation within a larger universe of violations that clarifies the nature of the conflict. It suggests that all the violations in the report are part of the same state-driven policy of destruction aimed at restoring Asad’s unchallenged rule. In other words, instead of seeing displacement and torture, for example, as distinct kinds of actions (the former unintentional, the latter intentional), the two can be understood as closely intertwined. They represent two sides of the same coin. Understanding displacement this way not only underscores the kind of culpability the Syrian government bears for the displacements but also affords us a perspective capable of revealing some of the challenges an adequate response will have to face.

Framing displacement as a deliberate act of violence by the Syrian state places it firmly within a tradition of violence that has gained particular popularity following the Cold War. Known as regime-induced displacement, this form of displacement has several specific features that distinguish it from other forms (such as those related to civil wars). According to Phil Orchard, regime-induced displacement occurs when the government or government-sponsored actors deliberately use coercive tactics to directly or indirectly cause large numbers of their own citizens to flee their homes. Critical for this definition is the idea of intent. In the case of regime-induced displacement, whether a state is responsible for directly or indirectly displacing a population matters less than the fact that its goal is to displace the population. A state need not, for example, use tanks to force a community from its homes. It can use military curfews and closures to create the conditions for flight—once a population feels it can no longer bear the limited access to much-needed supplies such as food and water, for example, it may flee. It can also send troops into densely populated civilian areas to conduct violent campaigns against opposition groups as a means for precipitating the massive departure of fearful residents. In other words, for Orchard, displacement can be identified as regime-induced when the state (or its subsidiaries) intends on displacing a population regardless of how it chooses to do so.

Examining 65 cases of regime-induced displacements throughout the world, Orchard and others have identified several features that distinguish this kind of behavior from other causes of displacement. For the purposes of understanding the Syrian context, we can focus on one particular element: coercion.  The framework of regime-induced displacement recognizes various forms of coercion that are all directed toward the mass movements of a population. They can be direct forms, such as forced relocation through military or paramilitary attacks on civilian populations, or indirect forms, including deliberate starvation or restrictions on access to humanitarian assistance.

In accounting for the human rights context of Syria, the mass flight of Syrians represents an example of regime-induced displacement. While addressing the question of intent is never the straightforward process we’d like, there are several factors in the Syrian case that give us very good reason to believe that the government is engaged in a coercive policy of displacement that is directly tied to its overall goal of destroying the opposition in all its forms. First of all, the extensive list of violations documented in the UN report and others indicate a systematic pattern of violence directed at Syrians whether they are involved in the rebellion or not. Thus throughout several cities, Syrian protestors on the street and Syrians within their homes have been the targets of government violence. According to the report, in Homs, Hama, Rif Dimashq, and Idlib, “army snipers and Shabbiha gunmen posted at strategic points [have] terrorized the population, targeting and killing small children, women and other unarmed civilians.” The report also indicates that “fragmentation and mortar bombs [have been] fired into densely populated neighborhoods.” Moreover, recent news reports from Lebanon have described efforts by Syrians to smuggle the wounded across the border. In a New York Times report from Wadi Khaled in Lebanon, for example, a Syrian refugee from Baba Amr explained his experience this way:

“I was smuggled into Lebanon because in Syria if they find out that you are wounded, they will cut you up and send you back to your family.” In the eyes of the government “if you are wounded it is like you are carrying arms against the state.”

During my interview with a member of Democracy for Syria Now, a NGO in the United States run by Syrian-Americans, similar stories emerged. Along with several members of the Freedom Convoy that traveled to Turkey in March 2012, he visited a refugee camp near the border and spoke with several refugees. According to him, many of the refugees described indiscriminate killings in their towns and cities by the Syrian authorities. Once an area showed any signs of opposition, the entire population became a potential target. In addition, many of the refugees told him that the Syrian authorities would also cut off the city in order to isolate its inhabitants. Without electricity and access to food and/or medical care, many Syrians simply fled their homes seeking refuge in Turkey.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to see why the areas where civilians have been killed the most are also the areas many Syrians have fled. The indiscriminate killing of civilians has conveyed the powerful message any one is a target, which is exactly the kind of context necessary for a population to flee. Thus the indiscriminate killing of Syrians can be seen as a direct cause of displacement that is also part of a basic effort to destroy the opposition in its totality by treating all Syrians as the opposition.

Second, even when Syrians flee the violence, the authorities have attacked them as if they were the opposition. Such assaults have been described in refugee camps and areas in Lebanon near the Syrian border. Attacks have also come in the form of landmines, which have been distributed along the borders of Lebanon and Turkey. According to reports by Human Rights Watch, the landmines have already killed and maimed several Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey. Third, the Syrian government has engaged in various forms of indirect coercion that are directly linked to the flight of many Syrians from besieged areas of the country. In the report, it states that:

“The military and security forces continued to impose blockades on areas with a significant presence of anti-government armed groups, including in Homs, Hama, Idlib, and Rif Damashq. Medicine, food and other essential supplies were not allowed to pass. State forces arbitrarily arrested individuals who tried to bring in such supplies. The government also withheld fuel rations and the electricity supply to punish communities and families whose members had participated in anti-government demonstrations.”

In more recent reports, the government has denied international agencies including the International Committee for the Red Cross access to civilians in Homs and other areas of the country. The lack of access to subsistence goods and medical resources has created a context of desperation and precipitated flight among some Syrians. Given the overall conduct of the Syrian government and its militias, it is difficult to believe that it did not anticipate that such conditions would force Syrians to seek resources in other areas or abroad as refugees. Again, while the question of intent may be difficult to answer, the global pattern of regime-induced displacement suggests that the Syrian government deliberately restricted access to aid in order to dislocate some of the population. Indeed, such measures represent a key form of indirect coercion identified within the framework of regime-induced displacement. By depriving Syrians in a desperate situation of critical resources, the government effectively forced those Syrians with less resources to make a choice: stay and perish or flee.


Shifting the perspective on displacement to that of regime-induced displacement is significant for understanding the nature of the conflict in Syria. In particular, it has important consequences for thinking about the direction of the state’s actions and what kind of response the international community will have to create, if it chooses to do so.

One of the key issues the international community must face in the context of regime-induced displacements is that such acts can easily lead to mass atrocities, ethnic cleansings, and genocide. In the case of Syria, the 1982 mass murder of Sunni Muslims in Hama presents a chilling example of what may come (if it hasn’t already) as the Syrian government persists in its efforts to destroy the opposition. The potential for such a scenario points to the importance of time in formulating an international response. As a potentially early sign of a trajectory moving rapidly towards annihilation, international actors may have to consider new ways of curbing the violence and preventing a humanitarian catastrophe.

A second issue concerns the question of how to respond to the crisis when the international community will have to depend on the cooperation of the very government responsible for the crisis. One of the chief responses to displacement by the international community has involved the support of international aid agencies including the UNHCR and the Red Cross. While these may have an important role to play initially, what can be expected for Syrian refugees if the Asad government were to remain? The possibility of such a scenario seems likely given Kofi Annan’s recent peace proposal. From the Asad regime’s perspective, negotiations could signal its legitimation. In exchange for a lull in the violence, the Asad government may very well perceive an opportunity to maintain its grip on power. In this case, returning the refugees would depend on the Syrian government’s approval and cooperation, an unlikely scenario considering that the government is responsible for their displacement in the first place. Moreover, Syrian refugees are unlikely to return to Syria if ruled by the same government they fled.

A related point concerns the question of protection: as the violence continues, what temporary measures can the international community provide for refugees and those internally displaced in the interim? One of the critical weaknesses in the UNHCR and humanitarian aid networks is that of protection. While these agencies have been successful in providing aid to the displaced, they have often failed to offer the kind of protection refugees need in exile. Given the attacks on displaced Syrians both within and beyond Syria’s borders, the ongoing violence poses a significant challenge for constructing an effective mechanism for protecting refugees.

Of the many challenges Syrians and the international community face, one thing is clear: the displacement of Syrians within Syria and beyond presents a critical problem in need of immediate attention. The pattern of rights violations suggests that the mass flight of Syrians is inextricably linked to an overall policy of annihilation. Whether at the hands of the military or its militias, the Syrian government is engaged in a policy of destruction that casts all Syrians as potential targets. This has led to significant flight among Syrians who remain unsafe in Syria and abroad. Understanding displacement this way compels us to consider what strategies the international community may devise for protecting the displaced from further acts of aggression and, potentially, atrocities. In order to address this issue, the international community will have to identify displacement as an important part of the conflict and examine what tools are available for holding the Syrian government accountable for either directly or indirectly forcing Syrians from their homes. It will have to see displacement as particular kind of rights violation; one intertwined with the general effort to “cleanse” the country of its opposition. Whatever the international community decides, it must decide fast. The number of refugees and internally displaced is increasing rapidly.

A first step toward addressing the crisis could include recognizing the significance of displacement not just as a humanitarian issue but also as a human rights issue. As such, a discourse of accountability could emerge that would highlight the government’s responsibility for displacement include return as an essential step in whatever process ends the conflict. Challenging the government’s policy will thus require that we identify displacement for what it is: a regime-induced phenomenon. From here, the international community could begin identifying what strategies may be most effective for protecting the displaced until their return might be feasible. The possibilities are few and time is a luxury; thus whatever happens must happen fast. But in order for a meaningful response to take place, we’ll have to begin with the simple recognition that the mass displacement of Syrians is no accidental violation of human rights; they are the purposeful, effective, and destructive efforts of a government committed to the preservation of power through the annihilation of its own people.


[1] Orchard, Phil. The Perils of Humanitarianism: Refugee and IDP Protection in Situations of Regime-induced Displacement Refugee Survey Quarterly (2010) 29(1): 3860

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    Michael Vicente Perez

    Michael Perez is a Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly and a regular columnist.

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