BEIRUT (Reuters) – They fled Aleppo from different districts and
at different stages of Syria’s civil war, seeking refuge abroad.
Now, for refugees who supported the opposition, President Bashar
al-Assad’s victory has dashed hopes of ever going home.
Even as the uprising in Aleppo and cities across Syria descended
into conflict, several former residents interviewed by Reuters
said they had hoped there could still be change, a negotiated
settlement and a chance to return.
But as Assad reasserts control after the army and its allies
routed rebels in Aleppo, these Syrians living in exile fear that
a new crackdown that will include arrests and executions, and be
worse than anything witnessed pre-war.
“If I go back, I’ll be executed,” said Abdulhamid Zughbi, a
30-year-old who fled besieged eastern rebel-held Aleppo earlier
this year for Turkey, seeking medical treatment for his wife and
“I can’t even think about returning as long as the Assad regime
is still in power. It’s impossible for anyone from the
opposition,” he said.
Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country in a conflict that
has killed more than 300,000 people and pitted multiple warring
sides against each other, including jihadists who have come to
dominate the insurgency in many areas.
The permanent displacement of millions of Syrians is one way in
which its war and others in the region are causing irreversible
changes. Most refugees are in neighboring countries including
Turkey and Lebanon, and hundreds of thousands have gone to
Some will see Assad’s win in Aleppo and other gains he has made
with Russian and Iranian support as a chance to return and
rebuild their lives – but not those involved in dissent when
protests began in 2011.
Zughbi took part, then worked for years in medical aid and rescue
in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
“My wife was lightly wounded in shelling and my son was ill. I
thought I’d take them to Turkey and come back.
“That day, they closed the road, and I couldn’t return,” he said,
referring to when government forces sealed off the rebel-held
part of the city in August.
They besieged it for months and then made a lightning advance to
drive insurgents out of most of their areas they held in a matter
‘Arrests have just begun’
As residents have poured out of rebel districts, including into
areas under government control, the army has begun making
arrests, Zughbi said.
“The arrests have just begun. They detain the more prominent
people (activists) on the spot … but for others – now they (the
government) have the time, they’ll investigate and then arrest
them at a later stage.
“A friend of mine went to a government-held area and three days
later they detained him.”
The United Nations voiced deep concern about reports of Syrian
soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82
people in east Aleppo districts this week – accusations denied by
the army and the Iraqi militia in question.
Assad’s opponents accused the government of mass arrests and
A Syrian military source denied arrests but said identities of
people leaving rebel-held areas were being checked and anyone who
was unknown was being put into “specific places” in areas where
civilians were gathered. The army says Syrians eligible for
military service must serve.
For Abu Rakan, a 51-year-old refugee living in Lebanon, the death
of his brother in law, a rebel fighter, and disappearance just
days ago of his sister have underscored the danger for anyone
linked to the opposition.
“If we go back, it’ll be more dangerous than before. Anyone with
the opposition is in danger.
“We’ve lived with this regime for 40 years. We know how it
behaves, what it does,” he said, referring also to Assad’s father
and former president Hafez al-Assad, who crushed leftist and
Islamist challenges to his rule.
Abu Rakan said he would only return to Syria under a “full
national reconciliation”, and if there were a freely elected
government in place and a new constitution – all of which look
more than distant than ever.
Hala, an activist who left government-controlled Aleppo in 2014,
said she would not trust any settlement between the government
and opposition – Assad had to go.
“There’s no way I can go back while the Assad regime is there,”
said the 37-year-old, who now lives in Beirut and works for a
Syrian citizenship organization.
“Even if there was a kind of reconciliation, we wouldn’t be able
to live there. The oppression that existed before the revolution
“When the revolution began we were able to express our views and
to live more freely. Even if we weren’t arrested, we can’t go
back, knowing it will be just like it was,” she said.
Hala, Abu Rakan and Zughbi want to go home.
Even for them, who are among the better off refugees, life in
exile is beginning to become unbearable.
“There’s no future for me in Lebanon. I work illegally because
it’s difficult to get residency, and I can’t get medical
insurance because I’m not U.N.-registered,” Hala said.
She decided not to travel onto Europe before EU countries
tightened their borders because she still hoped to make it back
to Syria at that stage.
Many Syrian refugees live illegally in Lebanon because they
cannot afford the renew their residency. Seventy percent live
below the poverty line, the U.N. says.
In Turkey, Zughbi is preparing for a lifetime of exile, but says
conditions are not much better, as he struggles to make a living
still as a medical aid worker.
“My ambition now is to get out of Turkey, maybe try to go to
Europe, or America.
“That’s my only choice.”
(Reporting by John Davison; editing by Giles Elgood)