A partially collapsed residential block following the double earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on 6th February. Credit: Pascal Maitre/Panos Pictures

Syria’s forgotten

After more than a decade of devastation in Syria, Arab nations are embracing Bashar al-Assad once again. But for the people he governs, there’s no going back
September 6, 2023

There is nothing here anymore. Where Fadi al-Halabi’s family home once stood, there are only tiles warped by the force of the earthquakes, a dirty pillowcase and twisted metal bars that were supposed to have reinforced the building. Rubble collectors have taken the rest. 

His father Ahmed isn’t on the sofa watching football with cousin Marwan. His mother Haifa is gone, as are his beloved brothers Yamaan and Yamen. The laughter of Tim, Fadi’s one-year-old nephew, no longer rings in the air.

Aged 29 and from Aleppo in northern Syria, Fadi already knew about conflict and grief. He had covered violence in the country as a journalist for more than 10 years, working for Channel 4 News, among others. In 2021 he was nominated for a Royal Television Society Award. But the loss of his family in two devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria on 6th February 2023 is a weight that he finds difficult to bear. “I feel nothing. Not thirst, not hunger, no feelings at all,” he tells me by phone from northern Syria. “I am numb. My feelings have been killed, extinguished with my family under the rubble. I am waiting to die, so I can be with them again.”

Fadi’s family had fled Aleppo in 2016 and, like 340,000 other Syrians since the war began, had established themselves in Antakya, in southeastern Turkey. Part of Syria until 1939, it was an elegant place of smart mansions, where Turks lived alongside Arabs, Kurds, Jews and Armenians. But it was among the places worst hit by the earthquakes in February, which killed 55,000 people across the region and displaced millions more. It is now a city of wrecked homes and broken ancient stone.

Fadi was in Syria when the ground shook that February morning. When he was eventually able to cross the border five days later, he dashed to the remains of his family’s home and tried to find them in the rubble. He saw his brother Yamen, who was wearing one of Fadi’s jumpers, and discovered that his cousins and their children were also among the dead. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Yamaan. “My heart could not bear the sight of him,” he says. “I wanted his smile to remain as it was in my memory.”

He buried his loved ones in Turkey—Yamaan and his young family together, his father in a single grave. He doesn’t know what happened to his mother, whose body he didn’t see. “I don’t know if she is dead or alive, buried or not,” he says. 

After 12 years of violence, global attention had largely turned away from Syria. But the destruction put the country back in the spotlight, reminding the international community that there has been no end to the ways in which Syria’s people have suffered, no limits to their losses. 

Hundreds of miles away, government officials and advisers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates scurried to coordinate plane and lorry loads of aid. The cargo was not just for Syrians in areas held by opposition rebels supported by Gulf states during the past decade of war. The aid also went to areas under government control. Soon after, the UAE’s foreign minister hot-footed it to the Syrian capital, Damascus, to check in with the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. 

The Arab League placed no conditions on Assad’s return to its table

Gulf kingdoms had ostracised Assad after his government cracked down on protests in 2011 and Syria’s brutal conflict began. Wealthy sheikhs funded and funnelled weapons to groups who took up arms against the Syrian president. At the time, the level of violence inflicted by the Syrian state upon civilians and the strength of solidarity across the Arab world were such that Assad became persona non grata. But as Syria slipped from global attention, things started to change. 

Even before the earthquakes, the Arab world had begun to work again with Assad. Jordan had reopened a border crossing with Syria in late 2018; the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus soon afterwards. But it was the earthquake response that showed Syria’s neighbours were ready to fully re-engage.

In its aftermath, the wheels of diplomacy moved fast. In April, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister visited Damascus and met with Assad—the first time an official from Riyadh had done so since the war in Syria began in 2011. The following month, Assad attended the Arab League summit in the humid Saudi port city of Jeddah. After an absence of more than a decade, there he was, the former eye doctor in a blue shirt and tie, an autocrat who rules over a destroyed country, sandwiched in the official pictures between Kais Saied of Tunisia and Abdul Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt. He has also been invited to attend the COP28 climate conference in the UAE this November.

The causes of Syria’s collapse are many. Government oppression. Barrel bombs. Sieges. Displacement. Enforced disappearances. Islamic State. The economy has failed—90 per cent of Syrians now live in poverty, compared with around 25 per cent before the war began. Six million people have fled the country and nearly seven million have been internally displaced. More people need humanitarian aid than at any time in the past 12 years. Governance is splintered: most territory is under Assad’s control, but a pocket in the northwest is controlled by Islamist rebels. A western-backed, Kurdish-led administration handles the northeast, including the notorious al-Hol camp that houses people linked to Islamic State. 

Intransigence also broke Syria. The country’s conflict has been documented in detail, and yet has proved intractable. It has drawn in world powers including Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States, all of whom have boots on the ground. Each has a stake, while also proposing different ideas about what should happen next. 

In the diplomatic and territorial struggle now playing out in Syria, the lives of Syrians themselves appear low on any country’s priority list. Russia, Turkey, Iran, Arab Gulf nations and Assad call the shots, while no one represents the interests of people like Fadi. 

“Those being forgotten in the shifting political winds around Syria are Syrian civilians, particularly those living outside the regime’s control or outside the country,” says Emma Beals, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute based in Washington DC. “Emboldening Assad slams the door on their chance of ever returning home, while also reducing their safety and limiting their futures in their places of refuge.” 

Like millions of other Syrians, Fadi is living in a state of internal displacement. His family was killed in exile. Maybe they wouldn’t have been in Turkey in the first place if they had not been forced to flee the violence of Assad’s government, had previous efforts at implementing a solution to the conflict worked, or had western nations allowed more Syrians access to safe migration routes. The only areas inside Syria that Fadi considered remotely liveable for his family were those outside Assad’s control, but they had really wanted to go to Europe. “Syria is unstable, and the situation is deteriorating,” he says.

UN-backed efforts to find a political solution to the conflict have faltered. A committee of both opposition and Syrian government officials designed to amend Syria’s constitution hasn’t met for over a year. Efforts to implement a 2015 UN Security Council decision on finding a lasting solution, known as Resolution 2254, have come to almost nothing. 

After years of failed talks, many Syrians feel that conferences and roundtables are rehearsed set-pieces in which senior western officials now increasingly minimise their engagement with Syria. In Washington, the Biden administration is less interested in the country and its people than previous governments. It dissolved the office of the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, handing responsibility to a more general team. 

“The current [US] administration, when it came into office, kept the same rhetorical goals, but it allowed the activities, the programmes, institutions and organisations that were executing the [Syria] policy goals before 2021 to atrophy,” says Joel Rayburn, who served as a US Syria envoy under Trump. 

Western disinterest has influenced Arab nations’ decision-making on Syria, say British, US and Middle Eastern government and humanitarian officials, analysts and other observers. 

Arab nations believe that isolating Assad has not worked and that the west is increasingly uninterested in Syria. Some officials point out that western powers stopped looking for political solutions long before the country’s return to the Arab League. Russia’s 2015 intervention on Assad’s side was a turning point, driving the war firmly in his favour. 

“We have to have a level of realism about how what we can achieve has decreased,” says a senior British government official who, like others interviewed for this piece, spoke on condition of anonymity. “Russia’s intervention diminished the ability of the west and the [Syrian] opposition to have any influence on the ground.”

So Arab states are trying something else. The Arab League, a loose alliance of 22 members, placed no conditions on Assad’s return to its table; Middle Eastern officials familiar with the reintegration say that making demands of the president and his government would have been futile. Rather, the focus was on “the advantages of having them back in the pack versus having them outside”, says a senior official in the Iraqi government, which has pushed for normalising relations with its neighbour. 

Arab countries want help from the government in Damascus in limiting the spread of Iran’s interests across the Middle East, ensuring food security and cracking down on the enormous trade in captagon, a highly addictive drug moved across smuggling routes between Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf. 

“This is sort of an experiment,” said Mohammed Baharoon, a Dubai-based researcher. “But people couldn’t tackle drugs with Assad being ousted. So the other approach is to try and work with him, instead of working against him on issues like this.”

Fadi, a man with dark hair and wearing jeans and a hoodie, looks at the rough soil of a graveyard in Antakya Fadi visits the graves of his family members in Antakya. Credit: Lizzie Porter

The question now is whether Arab nations will be able to lean on Assad so that he commits to a political solution to the conflict, ensuring a safer Syria, or whether renewed ties will simply strengthen his rule over a ravaged country. Many observers are not hopeful. 

“We and other western countries did not support the normalisation by Arab nations, but it wasn’t a surprise,” says the senior British government official. “We told the Saudis, the UAE and the Jordanians: make sure you get something for it from Assad. But they didn’t… We are now talking in detail with these states about exactly how they can pressure Assad and the regime to change behaviour. I am not personally very optimistic.”

Multiple Syrian government officials did not respond to requests for comment for this piece. “We share many of the same goals as our Arab partners with respect to Syria, even if we disagree on the strategy to get there,” a US State Department spokesperson said.

Others have interests in shaping Syria, too. Officials and observers familiar with the matter say that the Kremlin pushed for the Arab League–Assad rapprochement. Pouring its energy into Ukraine, Russia cannot afford to fight a full-on war in Syria, but neither does it want to relinquish the influence it has gained there as a result of its support for Assad since 2015. It manages the Hmeimim air base, and has a naval facility at Tartus port, both on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. 

Fadi’s brother Yamaan and his son Tim, who both died in the earthquake © Lizzie Porter Fadi’s brother Yamaan and his son Tim, who both died in the earthquake © Lizzie Porter

“Even assuming that things got uglier and worse for Russia in Ukraine, they would still want to hold on to Hmeimim and Tartus because it’s considered just so important to project power vis-à-vis Nato into the eastern Mediterranean,” says Hanna Notte, a Berlin-based Russian foreign policy analyst.

Russian officials play down the idea that Moscow went into Syria to get a foothold on the Mediterranean, but they don’t deny that it now serves them well. “To let everybody understand that we would not withdraw [from Syria], we put this presence in the shape of military bases,” says a Russian diplomatic source. “Of course, after we did this, it is reasonable that we’ll look around and see that, oh, we’re having two good bases in the Mediterranean and we’re able to affect the situation in this part of the world, if needed. But when we were opening these bases, we had no idea that we would have this kind of crisis around Ukraine [...] So again, this came as unexpected for us.” 

Russia is also keen for Turkey to normalise relations with Damascus. Turkey’s economy is struggling, and the country is looking for as many trade routes as possible, which may make rapprochement with Assad more appealing. 

Economic woes have “forced the Turkish leadership to think twice about what to do with countries in the region, including Syria,” says Fatih Ceylan, who served as Turkey’s representative to Nato from 2013 to 2018. “The question is, to what extent will Assad be willing to get into a deal with Turkey? I think they will have to listen to the Russians as well.”

Relations with their southern neighbour will not improve overnight, Turkish officials say. Ankara has troops deployed in northwest Syria, which it won’t withdraw because it fears that the border area would be filled either by Kurdish groups it considers terrorists or by pro-Assad forces—a takeover that would push millions more refugees into Turkey. Yet Damascus says it won’t talk about normalisation until foreign soldiers, including the Turks, pull out. 

What happens next in Syria depends not on Syrians, but on policymaking in Ankara, Washington, Moscow and Tehran. Nothing about the embracing of Assad clearly prioritises the lives of Syrians both inside and outside the country.

“The foreign powers in Syria have achieved their goals and are maintaining their interests, but these don’t intersect with the interests of Syrians. That’s why we’re stuck,” says Zaher Sahloul, president of MedGlobal, a humanitarian aid organisation. 

For many refugees, including those who survived the earthquakes in Turkey, returning to their homes in Syria just isn’t safe. There is no sign that Arab diplomacy, Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean or fractured governance will help change that. Many would prefer to stay away than to live in a Syria that guarantees them neither safety nor bread to put on the supper table. 

In Antakya, 37-year-old Ali Al Hassan had re-opened his small bakery just weeks before we meet in June. A slight man with a smile that defies his woes, he wants to stay in Turkey. “There is no law and order there [in Syria], and nothing preserving my safety,” he says. “There is no proper education for my children, and no work opportunities.”

The broken economy means that Syria is becoming even more uninhabitable for those who remain. Sanctions imposed by the US, EU and UK deter foreign investment and will curb the ability of Gulf states to pour money into Syria. Businessmen have fled, violence has destroyed basic infrastructure, inflation is rampant and the economy runs on kleptocratic trade networks that make it almost impossible for people like Ali to operate.

The UN’s migration organisation says it does not have figures detailing how many people are leaving Assad-controlled areas, but observers say that many are trying to get out. “People are leaving in droves—especially the young, the entrepreneurs and business-owners, because of the economic conditions, uncertainty, lack of political change and hyperinflation,” says Sahloul.

How do Syrians rebuild their lives, having lost so much? With little sign of any changes that will benefit them and with human rights issues barely on the table, the grand talk of rapprochement does not mean much for most. 

People like Fadi and his family have been excluded from decisions about their country’s future. Now that his family is gone, he doesn’t know whether he will remain in Syria or not. He is repulsed by the officials from Arab nations who have rebuilt ties with Assad. “I don’t know how they can look at themselves in the mirror, as they are the ones who normalised with those who destroyed Syria and killed its people,” he says. 

Nothing can bring back his family lost to the earthquake. He cannot think about starting one of his own. “People who lose those closest to them don’t think about relationships, or getting married,” he says. “Quite the opposite. They try to distance themselves, so their hearts don’t grow fond of anyone again.” 

Additional reporting by Abdulrezzak Savvas in Antakya