ISTANBUL, TURKEY - The Syrian conflict has uprooted more than five million Syrians who have fled to neighboring states and Europe to maintain resistance against President Bashar al-Assad or to escape the airstrikes and barrel bombs, as well as fighting in their war-torn country. With the balance of battlefield power swinging possibly irreversibly in favor of the Assad government, they’re asking what the future holds for them.
Rebel fighters and opposition activists and politicians can only picture a bleak "Syria-less" future for themselves. They and their families face the prospect of long-term exile, they say, arguing they won't ever be able to return as long as Assad remains in power.
“What would I demand to go back? Not to be arrested again?” asked Barry Abdulattif, an opposition activist currently based in southern Turkey. He said he wouldn’t be able to trust any amnesty offers - if any were made - by a victorious Assad regime.
“All the activists I know are of the same opinion,” he added.
In dozens of interviews VOA has had in the past few weeks with Syrians based outside Syria, those active in the rebel militias or the political opposition and civil society organizations, or who have relatives connected, are the most adamant in saying they won’t be able to return to Syria if the five-year-long uprising against Assad fails, as looks increasingly likely.
Syrian NGO and relief workers, too, say there’s no future for them while Assad is in Damascus or his Baath party is in control.
They would risk detention and worse if they returned to territory controlled by Assad, they say.
“In my case, if Assad remains in power, I wouldn’t be able to visit Assad-controlled areas because I would either be thrown into prison for the rest of my life or would become another name on the international lists of victims and the disappeared,” said Mohammad Noor, whose family has been trapped in a northern Syria town still controlled by the Islamic State terror group.
His fear of being detained or worse if he returned is hardly unfounded. In May, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, claimed that more than 60,000 people had been killed through torture or died in dire humanitarian conditions inside Syrian government prisons since the uprising erupted against President Assad. The group said the numbers were obtained from Syrian government sources.
And a year ago, Human Rights Watch published a report that backed up the infamous Caesar photographs - a photo cache documenting the deaths in custody of more than 28,000 people who opposed or were suspected of opposing the Assad government. The Caesar photographs, which were smuggled out of Syria, came to public attention in January 2014.
Aside from the risks to life and limb, many in the opposition say they couldn’t contemplate living in a country ruled by Assad on moral grounds - a conviction that’s only deepened with time during a conflict that has seen scorched-earth bombing of rebel-held towns and alleged chemical warfare use.
“How could I live in a country ruled by Bashar al-Assad. He’s responsible for destroying more than half of Aleppo, killing a half-a-million Syrians and forcing millions of others to flee the country or their homes?” queried an activist who uses the name Khudur. “I can’t return and live in a country ruled by a criminal?” he added.
Khudur, who has worked also for international relief agencies inside insurgent areas of Syria, is currently studying in a European city, having lost hope Assad can be ousted and deciding he has to get on with his own life.
For Bassam al-Kuwaitli, a well known figure in political opposition circles and the managing director of a Syrian-staffed research and marketing firm in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, living in Syria again under Assad would be too bleak a prospect.
“With Assad in power, there’s no hope of any real change in Syria, and where there is no hope there will be no future,” he said. “I can never return,” he added.
The biggest question for neighboring countries and for European governments who fear another huge migration wave is what will most Syrian refugees decide to do in the event of an Assad victory over the rebels; a prospect brought closer by the dire military position of the insurgents in Aleppo.
The governments of neighboring countries had planned for - or at least hoped - that the Syrian refugee crisis would be short-lived and that most of the refugees would return to their homes. It has been only in the past year that the Turks have started begrudgingly to develop plans for what to do with the two million Syrians currently in Turkey.
Opinion is divided about whether most will return or stay where they are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq or further afield. Bassam al-Kuwaitli draws a rough distinction between Syrians linked to the militias and opposition, and ‘ordinary’ refugees who fled to escape bombing and fighting, or who lost their homes and livelihoods.
When it comes to ‘ordinary’ Syrians, he suspects “most of those in Europe or the U.S. will not return, but those living in camps and refugees in surrounding countries will be more tempted to return due to lack of options.”
Medya, an opposition activist who’s on an Assad government ‘wanted list’ and can’t return, agrees that many ordinary war refugees “may go back, if the shelling and airstrikes stop.” Based out of southern Turkey, she adds: “Many of them never understood why we started this in the first place and all that matters for them is the bread they eat and how to get it.”
But much will depend on two key factors. First, how events unfold in Syria, if Assad does manage to roll up the bulk of rebels forces in Aleppo and the neighboring province of Idlib. And second, on the attitude the neighboring states subsequently adopt to the Syrian refugees.
“If the regime survives, then it will become even more sectarian after,” suspects Khudur. By this he means the regime, which is dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect - a Shi’ite offshoot - will be even more discriminatory against Sunni Muslims. Most Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims. The sectarianism of the regime will determine how many refugees or few of them return, he reckons.
Then they won't go back, “unless the host countries start deporting them back,” he adds.
That may start to happen soon, some refugees and diplomatic observers worry. In Lebanon, 1.5 million Syrian refugees fear what the October election by the Lebanese parliament of Michel Aoun to the country’s presidency will mean for them. Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement - a Christian party - is allied with Hezbollah, which is helping to prop up President Assad.
Attitudes toward the Syrian refugees have been hardening in Lebanon. In his inaugural speech last month Lebanon’s new president vowed to send the Syrian refugees back to their country. “The issue of the Syrian refugees should be resolved as soon as possible,” he said, characterizing them as a security threat to Lebanon.
Even so, whatever happens in Lebanon, hundreds of thousands and even millions of Syrians will likely remain for the foreseeable future as refugees outside their home country. And the fear among Western diplomats and refugees themselves is that they will end up like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - a resented and dispossessed Sunni Muslim Diaspora beholden to the begrudging charity of others and increasingly feared as a source of regional instability.