This essay series explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays explore the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies have hampered the responses to them. See more ...

Looking at Aleppo today, Syria seems doubly trapped. For five years, an authoritarian regime has caught a popular uprising in an unending cycle of militarization, siege, and displacement. Meanwhile, a toneless humanitarian language ensnares efforts to mobilize against the conflict’s primary architect. For the Assad regime in Damascus, displacement has become an essential tactic in shaping the terms of its encounter with dissent, alongside violence and detention. At the same time, the process of displacement has not unfolded in a coherent or predictable manner. Rather, displacement in the Syrian conflict is a product of choices, chief among them the regime’s choice to erase, rather than accommodate, political Opposition in Syria. It is also the result of how the Opposition responds to these challenges. This essay explores how Opposition networks have adapted pragmatically to displacement and exile. Far from accepting the terms of the conflict passively, Syria’s diverse opposition continues to mobilize in the face of ongoing state oppression.

Displacement as a Tool of Politics

The Assad regime is no stranger to displacement. In 1979, it crushed an Islamist insurgency with ruthless vengeance, outlawing the opposition Muslim Brotherhood and nearly levelling the northern city of Hama. When the dust cleared in 1982, thousands had died, and the regime began a nation-wide campaign of intimidation against those with suspected ties to the Brotherhood. Then eight-years-old, Manar Rachwani remembers receiving the chilling phone call from men asking about his uncle. Terrified, he immediately dialed his parents (visiting neighbors) with the coded message, “My brothers are asleep, but I feel afraid.” The next day the family left for Damascus, two weeks later for Amman, where Manar is now a journalist at a major Jordanian newspaper.[1]  Like Manar, tens of thousands of Syrians, many with no measurable ties to the Brotherhood, fled to Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, France, and the United States. Many have done quite well for themselves in exile. Importantly, the children of this generation came of age in time for the 2011 Syrian Uprising.

The shadow of Hama casts the current conflict with a dark significance. With the 2011 uprising, attending protests was sufficient to render one matloub (wanted) by the authorities. Stepping out for lunch, one protester returned to the bookstore he worked at to find that all of his colleagues had been detained.[2] Tipped off by a neighbor, he fled to Turkey. As of October 2016, sources estimate that roughly 11 million Syrians have been displaced by violence in Syria.[3] For those forced from Syria, they must navigate the state regulations, labor markets, and social norms of foreign countries such as Turkey (hosting 2.1 million), Lebanon (1 million), Jordan (700,000), and Iraq (225,000).[4] They must also dodge the long arm of the regime. In Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri Airport, media activist Thaer Tahli was harassed by security and warned to never return to Syria.[5] Only 180,000 Syrians have been legally resettled outside of these countries, while countless thousands have fled to Europe by sea.[6] Circumstances are thus highly localized; one’s future looks very different from Amman, Jordan, where activists are closely watched by Jordanian intelligence and work is essentially illegal, compared to Gaziantep, Turkey, where Syrian activists and artists openly host cultural events in the city’s public spaces.[7] Likewise for the internally displaced, who may have fled to live with relatives (in opposition and regime-held areas alike), make do with temporary camps, or perhaps suffered expulsion from their communities in the aftermath of brutal sieges like those in Homs, Douma, and Daraya.

Regime violence has thus transformed the geography in which political opposition can take place. But this shifting geography has, in turn, transformed the opposition in unforeseen ways.

Setting Syria in Motion

One unintended consequence of regime displacement has been the stretching of opposition networks across space. In a mirror of pre-2011 migration patterns, revolutionary activists from the cities fled into rural and suburban communities due to, or in fear of, regime brutality. There, many formed organizations such as the activist local coordination committees (LCCs, or tansiqiyat) spearheaded by Razan Zaitouneh, as well as various councils specializing in governance or military coordination like the Revolutionary Council of Manbij.[8]

Forced into the peripheries, these new bodies were hardly provincial. Activists rubbed shoulders with Syrians from across the country—plugging the LCCs into their social networks — but also drew on ties to the Syrian labor diaspora in the Gulf and the exile children of 1982, as Elizabeth Dickinson has described.[9] These connections and their resources stabilize an emergent Opposition network, which could now access equipment (medical supplies, communications), document protests and regime crackdowns, and join the armed insurgency throughout Syria. In Azaz (north of Aleppo), for instance, Ayman, an activist from Aleppo, joined the Aleppo Military Council. In addition to coordinating the Free Syrian Army brigades throughout the province, this council hosted representatives from the media, Human Rights Watch, and International Crisis Group.[10] To the south, the LCC of Salamiyah was essential to providing aid and absorbing activists displaced from sieges in nearby Hama and Homs.[11] Damascus’ eastern suburb of Douma became a haven for activists such as Razan Zaitouneh, Samera Khalil, Yassin al-Hajj Saleh, with Razan founding the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which to this day records the human rights abuses of military actors throughout Syria. LCCs across the country sent delegations to protests in other cities, accompanied by banners to mark their presence. These practices of mobility and coordination extended opposition politics throughout Syria and, importantly, beyond an elite “traditional” opposition. For a regime built on a strategy of divide-and-rule, this was far from ideal.

And yet, their reach inevitably encountered friction. When it became clear that these flexible networks could adapt to the provinces, the regime chose to escalate, denying them space to move and, indeed, survive.[12] Sieges and airstrikes enveloped the liberated territories, with several consequences. First, sieges isolated these communities from the networks that supplied them and advocated on their behalf to the outside world. And so they began to starve. Writing in her diary under siege in Douma, Samira Khalil mourned that “When the mills opened, most people rushed to carry home a pittance of flour for their children. Some were lucky, but many died leaving their blood on sacks of flour.”[13]

Second, mounting violence deepened reliance on military actors within the Opposition and, indirectly, more radical figures. On December 9, the famously independent Razan Zaitouneh—along with Samera, Wael Hamadeh, and Nazim Hammadi—disappeared from the headquarters of the VDC at the hands of armed men. Known as the “Douma Four,” many attribute their disappearance to the Saudi-funded Jaysh al-Islam, which had taken Douma for its base. More recently, the model revolutionary administration in Daraya succumbed to a long regime siege, its activists forcibly transplanted to opposition-held Idleb province. Upon arrival, they were shocked at the absence of civilian oversight for armed factions on the part of the local and provincial councils and the high profile of foreign Islamist fighters.[14] Doubly marginalized, the Local Council of Daraya City announced on November 24 that it would disband, beseeching the almighty to “give aid as we continue down our path and ensure for us a swift return to our city.” In what may be a subtle critique of militarization, the statement continues “…and to grant the victory of our Revolution over those who have oppressed us.”[15]

Finding Room for Rebellion

Preparing for the first 100 days of the SIG government. Gaziantep, Turkey. Nov 2016.

If displacement within Syria stretched wide the social networks of the Opposition, exile abroad has placed these within reach of new sources of support. Funds from aid agencies, foreign governments, and host states catalyzed efforts at providing governance, service provision, and diplomatic advocacy to Syria as a whole. First in Cairo, and then Istanbul, more established Opposition figures (e.g. Georges Sabra and Riad Seif) formed what became in November 2012 the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, or the Coalition (Itliaf) for short. This entity channels the popular sovereignty of the Syrian Revolution into a modicum of diplomatic recognition and influence from foreign states—engaging in negotiations, advocacy, and bridge-building among Opposition militias inside Syria. The Coalition then composed a Syrian Interim Government (SIG) to provide services and governance to opposition-held communities in Syria. Based originally in Gaziantep, Turkey, the SIG has effectively transferred all of its ministries into Aleppo, Idleb, and Daraa governorates. Or as a minister in the current administration phrased it, “We did not move our ministers into Syria so much as we selected individuals still residing inside.”[16]

Under the SIG’s umbrella, local notables began organizing local councils (LCs, or majalis mahaliyye), which have become pivotal for organizing the provision of basic services, the delivery of humanitarian aid from outside, the resolution of local-level conflicts, and the maintenance of a civil registry recording births, deaths, and marriages. Finally, many Syrians have responded to the dire humanitarian situation by forming civil society organizations (CSOs) able to coordinate with international NGOs like the Red Cross, Save the Children, and the World Food Program. From Turkey and Jordan, they provide anything from needs’ assessment to monitoring and evaluation for other organizations, to capacity building and goods provision to communities in liberated territories. Where LCs are primarily local phenomena, CSOs like Tamkeen, the Eastern Mediterranean Institute (E.M.I.) or the Syria Emergency Task Force (S.E.T.F.) cultivate logistical networks that reach from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan into liberated regions of Syria. S.E.T.F., for instance, engages in a wide variety of trainings and logistical efforts across Syria funded by foreign governments; at the same time, they engage in advocacy efforts from their headquarters in Washington, D.C, for example pushing extensively for the recent Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016.[17]

But international ties may now be gold chains. Many Syrians believe that foreign governments—the United States and Saudi Arabia in particular—have no interest in fostering an autonomous, hierarchical government-in-exile, preferring to cultivate their own partners through direct financial support.[18] While the Coalition and SIG are certainly not immune to criticism,[19] a lack of trust in Opposition institutions would explain the unenthusiastic support of foreign governments, a problem whose ripples reach far and wide. One analyst accuses Jordan and the United States of effectively turning the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army into a glorified border guard, containing Syria’s crisis rather than challenging its terms.[20] CSOs must navigate this landscape of Western donor states demanding political neutrality and adherence to byzantine conditions, and governing militias flummoxed by how out of touch the “Friends of Syria” truly are. Unsurprisingly, these militias are overwhelmingly suspicious of actors based outside, fearing foreign agendas and intelligence agencies. This is exacerbated by the fact that many such organizations engage in civil mobilization activities aimed at countering extremist ideologies pushed by militias like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. What is more, the aid that CSOs provide bypasses the ministries of the SIG, disrupting the hierarchy of Opposition institutions and fostering a cacophony of rival “cause entrepreneurs.”[21]

This contradictory state of affairs has not gone unnoticed. On November 16, the SIG held an open meeting in Gaziantep to discuss its first 100 days in office and plans for the future.[22] Discussion was civil and respectful; the current administration of Jawad Abu Hatab enjoys considerable support for centering its activities inside the liberated territories. Nonetheless, ministers present faced complaints about the scope of their activities, the accountability of local councils, and their inability to extend governance to places like Jarablus, where of all entities the Greater Gaziantep Municipality is providing public services.[23] Responding, Minister of Services Abdullah Razzouq testily noted that the government is laboring slowly to build central state institutions, but that they operate in “near-chaotic conditions.” For its part, the Coalition has been unable to prevent such conditions from arising. Negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere have effectively normalized the regime’s tactics by concluding temporary ceasefires and population transfers of militants from Opposition holdouts like Homs and Daraya to liberated Idleb province. Speaking to an activist on the subject, he believes the regime has channeled its opponents there to make ready for a massive assault in the near future. As for the ceasefires these the regime violates with near impunity, knowing that in doing so it can further erode the image of the Coalition while at the same time effecting a military end to the conflict.

The regime may have underestimated the new kinds of opposition actors that have developed across the border in Turkey and Jordan thanks to support from the Friends of Syria group. But the regime opted to summon its own friends. Today, Russian fighters bomb Aleppo and give cover to regime forces on the ground, all while Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese militias man checkpoints across Syria.


Displacement and exile shape the contours of opposition politics a great deal, but this has not proceeded in a linear, predictable fashion. At different points, the experience of displacement set in motion an activist movement that began as an otherwise highly localized phenomenon. Activists from across Syria met one another, traded stories, sang songs, and participated in protests, aid deliveries, and eventually, battles alongside one another. A national movement emerged that connected Syrians across the country. Using sieges and forced population transfers, the regime has returned this movement to a more humble, localized state. LCs became actors central to Syrian opposition politics, but they were unable to shape the broader political struggle after 2012. Indeed, their flexible mobilization was more adaptation than challenge to displacement and state violence, which carry on unimpeded. And through exile, the regime has opened a legitimacy gap built on the inability of Opposition actors outside to respond effectively to military crises in real time. On the whole, then, the regime’s strategy of displacement has trapped Syria’s opposition in a narrow space, where the feat of survival offers little shelter from Russian warplanes and regime helicopters.

The claustrophobia goes beyond metaphor. As of 2016, more and more Opposition strongholds share the fate of Daraya, forcibly transplanted to Idleb province in convoys of the now-loathed green buses. As they themselves witnessed, there are few traces of the Syrian Revolution in the last opposition-held province of Syria.[24] Accounts suggest that radical militias and foreign fighters police the streets, regime bombs fall with impunity, and revolutionary fervor is at an all-time low.[25] But nor can we look to the regime with resigned eyes in hopes of an end, any end, to the conflict. Contrary to the weary calls of humanitarian organizations, a simple “end to the fighting” is not an end in itself if it simply postpones grievances and rewards brutality. This is the lesson of Hama today. We must remember that recent violence, and the millions it has displaced, was very much avoidable in the present. We must remember that to end Syria’s crisis was always a choice the regime could make.

Should the day come when regime forces enter Idleb to deny the Opposition its final space to breathe, we will know what new choice the regime has adopted: the violent expulsion of dissent from Syria. On that day we may ask where one can be Syrian and free in the 21st century. For now, the maps are silent.


[1] Manar Rachwani, journalist at al-Ghad newspaper. Interview with author. Amman, November 2015.

[2] Amr, CSO worker. Interviews with author. Gaziantep, July, August 2015.

[3] It is important to remember that these statistics reflect officially registered refugees, and that many refugees choose to remain unofficial. For instance, unofficial estimates place Jordan’s Syrian refugee count closer to one million. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA). Syria Crisis: Bi-Weekly Situation Report No.16 (Amman: OCHA, 31 October 2016), accessed 30 November 30, 2016,; Mercy Corps, Quick Facts: What You Need to Know About the Syria Crisis, accessed 30 November 2016,

[4] Strategic Steering Group (SSG) of the Whole of Syria (WoS) humanitarian partnership, 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview (Amman: OCHA, December 1, 2016), accessed on December 2, 2016,

[5] Thaer Tahli, media activist with Syrian Media Office. Interview with author. Amman, November 2015.

[6] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “Europe: Syrian Asylum Applications from April 2011 to September 2016.” Accessed on November 28, 2016,

[7] Lewis Turner, “Explaining the (Non-)Encampment of Syrian Refugees: Security, Class, and the Labour Market in Lebanon and Jordan, Mediterranean Politics 20, 3 (2015): 386-404.

[8] Such organizations also formed the basis, in some cases, of the local councils that emerged after 2013. Monzer Sallal, Director of the Stabilization Committee, Aleppo Provincial Council. Interivew with author. Gaziantep, October 2016.

[9] Assaad al Achi, Executive Director of Baytuna Souriya. Interview with author. Gaziantep, October 2016; Elizabeth Dickinson, Godfathers and Thieves: How Syria’s Diaspora Crowd-Sourced a Revolution, (New York: Deca Stories, 2015).

[10] Ayman, former member of Aleppo Media Center and Aleppo Military Council. Interview with author. Gaziantep, July 2015.

[11] Sabr Darwish, “Cities in Revolution: Salamiyah, A Memory Unforgotten.” Accessed from Syria Untold,

[12] Kheder Khaddour & Kevin Mazur, “The Struggle for Syria’s Regions,” Middle East Report 269 (2015), accessed December 6, 2016,

[13] Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Samera Khalil: Diary of a Siege in Douma, 2013 (Beirut: The Arab Institute for Studies and Publications, 2016), 23. Samera’s diary was edited and published by her husband, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who currently resides in Istanbul.

[14] Syria Untold, “Daraya Activists Struggle to Adapt to Idleb.” Accessed from Syria Untold,

[15] Final Statement by Local Council of Daraya City, 24 November 2016. Author’s translation. Accessed

[16] Anonymous minister in the current administration. Interview with author. Gaziantep, October 2016.

[17] Natalie Larrison, “Caesar Bill Moves through House with Unanimous Vote.” SETF Media Appearances, 16 November 2016. Accessed from SETF website,

[18] Anonymous employee of the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) of the Coalition. Interview with Author. Gaziantep, October 2016.

[19] Ali Hamdan, “On Failing to “Get it Together”: Syria’s Opposition between Idealism and Realism.” Middle East Report 277.

[20] Felix Legrand, “Foreign Backers and the Marginalization of the Free Syrian Army.” (Arab Reform Initiative, November 2016). Accessed at

[21] Thomas Pierret, “State Sponsors and the Syrian Insurgency: The Limits of Foreign Influence.” (San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute, 2016)

[22] Fieldnotes, Gaziantep. November 16, 2016.

[23] Asking the director of a Syrian CSO about Jarablus, he responded coyly that “I might as well put you in touch with the vali (governor) of Gaziantep Province.”

[24] “Daraya Activists Struggle,” Syria Untold.

[25] Ammar Shawki & Roy Gutman, “A Letter from Rebel-Controlled Idlib, Syria.” The Nation, December 1, 2016.


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