Strategic Assessment (103): The Future of Syria’s Palestinians

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Abstract:

The legal status of the Palestinians in Syria has allowed them a national practice, which has shaped their political identity. Consequently, their leading role in the various stages of the Palestinian struggle has developed.

Syria’s Palestinians have been divided in a manner similar to the Syrian society whose members have had different political alignment during the ongoing war. Human rights reports have documented cases of murder, detention, and displacement, which fall within the same scope of the Syrian situation in general.

Now after six years, the future is still a mystery which weighs heavily on the situation of Syria’s Palestinians, especially with more than three-quarters of them concentrated in the capital, Damascus, which has witnessed substantial demographic shifts, and whose population has doubled from 4.4 million in 2010 to 8 million in 2016. This puts us in front of three possible scenarios, which are:

The First Scenario: Redistribution of Palestinians in Syria on the basis of “fewer Palestinians in the capital and more in the outskirts.” The second scenario is the restoration of the Palestinians’ status to its pre-2011 condition. The third scenario is the expulsion of Palestinians from Syria. Apparently, according to the available data, the first scenario is the most likely.



First: Palestinians in Pre-Crisis Syria

Many observers to the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in the region believe that the situation of the Palestinians in Syria was relatively the best legally, politically, and socially. In comparison with the situation of the Palestinian refugees in neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon, a clear difference is seen because of the better legal status enjoyed by the Palestinian refugees in Syria. In 1956, Law No. 260 was passed deeming Palestinian refugees in Syria equal to Syrian citizens in all rights and duties except the rights to election and candidature. In subsequent years, this law was a standard of many laws issued by the successive Syrian governments. Despite the differentiation between various segments of the Palestinian refugees in Syria based on the date of asylum-taking in the country, more than 85% of Syria’s Palestinians continued to enjoy the same legal status as Syrian citizens in most rights and duties under Law No. 260.

Palestinians in Syria have been active politically by virtue of Syria’s geopolitical location and the nature of the political regime, which has ruled the country during most of the past decades, from 1963 until today. The Baathist regime in Syria has placed the Palestinian question at the heart of its rhetoric and movements, making it one of its most important political gains to achieve legitimacy internally and regionally. This enhanced the national identity of the Palestinian refugee communities in Syria, allowing Palestinians to develop their role in different stages of the Palestinian struggle. Thus, they have been in the vanguard of the Palestinian factional, popular, and political grass-roots activity.

 

Second: Palestinians in the Early Days of the Syrian Crisis

Social integration between Palestinians and Syrians cast a shadow over all aspects of public life, including when the crisis began in Syria in 2011. Palestinians in Syria have lived in a state of caution, monitoring the development of the Syrian events during the first months of the crisis in 2011. For there was a deliberate intent by some official parties to embroil Palestinians in the incidents, which occurred in Dera‘a and Latakia, in an attempt to contain the protests in Syria, portraying them in the media as an issue of non-domestic identity, as reported in official and semi-official media reports on the events of Dera‘a on 21/3/2011. The press conference of the Syrian Presidential Advisor Buthaina Shaaban on the events of Latakia on the 26th of the same month was an example. As the protests in Syria spread throughout the country and reached areas where Palestinians had no presence, the attempt of some parties to embroil the Palestinian refugee camps (RC) in the crisis proved useless. Thus, the authorities dealt with that reality and attempted to isolate the camps in the next stage. The Syrian regime forces stormed the city of Dera‘a in April 2011 and entered all city neighbourhoods, with the exception of the Dera‘a RC, which played a memorable relief role in the months that followed. The same thing was repeated in the Latakia RC, whose residents were displaced in August 2011 during the bombing of the adjacent Sakantouri Syrian neighbourhood that led the first protests in the city. The RC was not intentionally targeted at the time; however, it paid a price for its geographical location.

 

Third: Getting Involved in the Crisis and the Current Impacts

Although a number of Palestinian activists were involved early in the Syrian revolution, especially in the Dera‘a and Yarmouk RCs, the actual engagement of the Palestinian camps in the Syrian events did not begin until July 2012 after the execution of 14 soldiers of the Palestine Liberation Army in Idlib. That incident was subject to great controversy over the identity of the perpetrators, with some accusing the regime, while others placed the blame on the opposition. With Damascus, where three quarters of Syria’s Palestinians live, taking center stage in the events after the bombing of the National Security building in the Al-Rawda neighbourhood on 18/7/2012, the Palestinian RCs in the capital were entering a new stage of bloodshed and brutality.

The Palestinian RCs’ involvement first took a humanitarian relief nature, when residents of several Damascene neighbourhoods, especially al-Midan and al-Zahira, fled their homes as a result of the intensive military campaign in their areas. During that period, about 250 thousand Syrians were displaced to the Yarmouk RC. At the time, controversy was growing after a pro-regime Palestinian force began to surface; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) established the Armed Popular Committees in coordination with the authorities and some other Palestinian factions inside the Yarmouk camp during a highly tense period. At the end of 2012, the security situation was complete collapsed, especially after armed opposition groups entered the Yarmouk RC; this was concurrent with a huge civil displacement from the camp for fear of bombing and potential hostilities.
During this phase, the situation on the ground in the capital was drastically deteriorating; the armed opposition had entered the two largest camps after Yarmouk in Damascus: Husseiniyeh and Sbeineh, whose combined Palestinian population was about 90 thousand. This led to a massive displacement of the population. In subsequent military actions, the regime regained control of the RCs in late 2013, but prevented the return of their residents. In the second half of 2016, a limited number was allowed to return.

 

Fourth: Palestinians of the Capital

The Yarmouk RC, which had a population of about 220 thousand Palestinians, fell under tragic conditions and witnessed a siege, where 196 died of starvation and disease. Throughout the various stages, only about 3 thousand people has remained there.

Reading the Palestinian situation in the capital Damascus, which was until the beginning of the crisis home to about three quarters or more of Palestinians in Syria, will give us a clear idea of their general condition in Syria. For despite the strong presence of Dera‘a, Ar-Raml, and Handarat RCs in the scene of the crisis, the population number of these camps makes reading the situation partial, despite its importance.

Looking at the largest RCs in Damascus, a sharp decline in the Palestinian population can be seen as follows:
Yarmouk RC: out of 220 thousand residents, only 3 thousand remained in it.

Husseiniyeh RC: out of 65 thousand residents, 30 thousand were allowed to return until today.

Sbeineh RC: out of 33 thousand residents, only 3 thousand were allowed to return until today; two thousand others are expected to be given permission to return. Return was only allowed to the southern sector of the camp, which is close to the Hauran countryside, with residents of the northern sector, which is connected to the neighbourhoods of al-Qadam and al-Assali, located in the vicinity of the centre of the capital, still forbidden from returning to their homes.

It should be noted that more than half of the Palestinians in Syria live in these three RCs (about 310 thousand), while the rest are distributed amongst ten other camps, as well as different Syrian cities and neighbourhoods outside the camps.

The situation in the Yarmouk RC has reached the point where all armed factions inside the camp, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are ready to sign any reconciliation agreement for a safe exit. However, until today, all proposed agreements have failed to reach a final formula, with no apparent substantial reason. This leaves the future of the Yarmouk camp in particular (closest to the centre of the capital, six kilometres) in question.

As for Khan Eshieh RC, the case is different. For although it had witnessed tragic developments during the crisis, however, by the end of 2016, regime forces took over the camp after a reconciliation agreement with the armed and relief groups inside the camp, thus sparing it to a fate similar to Yarmouk, Husseiniyeh, or Sbeineh. To date, nearly half of the camp’s population have returned, and restrictions on the camp’s displaced residents in other areas have been lifted to a large extent. The only significant difference between the situation of the Khan Eshieh RC and that of the camps located south of the capital (Yarmouk, Sbeineh, and Husseiniyeh) is its geographical location, as it is located 25 km south-west of the capital.

 

Fifth: Future Scenarios for Syria’s Palestinians

The fundamental changes in the demographic structure in Damascus are the most important factor that affect the future of Syria’s Palestinians. For about three-quarters of Palestinian refugees live there, with two-thirds living in three RCs (Yarmouk, Husseiniyeh, and Sbeineh) on whose populations the regime imposes strict restrictions to prevent their return.
Based on the above, probabilities may be confined to three scenarios:

First Scenario: Re-distribution of Palestinians in Syria on the Basis of “Fewer Palestinians in the Capital and More in the Outskirts”

This satisfies the aspirations of the security authorities, which are in line with the demographic changes that the war has caused.

Damascus has seen extensive displacement in both directions, those entering and leaving the city, but its population has almost doubled since the beginning of the crisis until today. In 2010, the official census of the city was estimated at 4.4 million, while in 2016, Damascus Governorate Council Member Hussam al-Bish asserted that figures have doubled to reach 8 million. This is notwithstanding the displacement of the city’s population during the war (according to estimates, the number of all Syrian refugees outside the country has reached 6 million, or a quarter of the population). This huge increase in the population of the capital necessarily means a severe housing crisis (which the capital was already experiencing before the crisis). This crisis is in direct contrast to the behaviour of the regime toward major Palestinian RCs in the capital, whose homes remain largely vacant despite the completely calm situation in them since 2013.

The [previously] densely populated RCs in the vicinity of the centre of the capital, which have been subject to changes during the crisis, may prove impossible to restore to their pre-2011 state. Accordingly, the current position of the authorities which is preventing any settlement that would allow the normal return of the population, especially in the Yarmouk RC, could mean the implementation of a redistribution of Palestinians’ project that serves the security needs of the regime. This possibility seems imminent with unconfirmed leaked information talking about a project discussed by the Damascus Governorate involving the redrawing of the area south of the capital (south of the Al-Motahalik Al-Janobi ‘the Southern Bypass’), stretching from Darayya to the international airport road; an area in which lie the capital’s largest camps, whose populations are denied normal return (Yarmouk, Husseiniyeh, and Sbeineh). Leaked information maintain that the area would be reconstructed, thus aiming to secure the southern sector of the capital, which was the main source of military unrest throughout the crisis.

Second Scenario: Restoring the Situation of Palestinians to its Pre-2011 Condition

This scenario sees that the regime’s ability to endure was basically based on its repressive behaviour, which was justified by the political position that places the Palestinian question at the heart of it public speech.

Despite the fact that this carries some truth with regard to the outcomes of the Syrian situation, it explains just a small part of that outcome. However, it may have succeeded in creating a story circulated at the pro-Syrian regime grass-roots level.

The current structure of alliances, regional transformations, and the repercussions of the counter-revolution after the Arab Spring and the extent of its capabilities remain a broader framework of interpretation than narrowing the matter down to the Palestinian situation. This is especially in view of what Palestinians in Syria have suffered, with human rights organizations documenting 3,580 Palestinian deaths, for nearly three quarters of which the authorities take responsibility, while the cases of more than 1,600 Palestinian detainees remain unresolved. If we look at some of the legal changes that took place in the past stage, such as the exclusion of Palestinians from an employment vacancy announced by the Ministry of Education in October 2012, and the uncharacteristic exclusion of Palestinians from benefiting from the 2013 Scholarship Decree, we see that all this could mean an apparent readiness by the government to take arbitrary measures against Palestinians to recycle the issue related to their legal status, branding them a minority that needs the protection of the authority at any turn.

Third Scenario: The Expulsion of Palestinians From Syria

Despite the continuous circulation of this scenario by the public, and the emergence of indicators which support it, facts indicate that, after six years of war, one cannot rely on this possibility. Despite the fact that the Syrian conflict has become a regional and international issue, it is difficult to reach a complete solution without addressing all of the issues related to the existence of the political entity of the Syrian regime which associates itself with the “the Palestinian issue”; thus, the issue of the Palestinian refugees remains at the core of the conflict. Indeed, there are still more than 400 thousand Palestinians in Syria. The number of Palestinians displaced out of the country is estimated at 175 thousand, which is around one quarter of the total population of Palestinians in Syria, close to the percentage of displaced Syrians to the total Syrian population. This indicates that the displacement process was practised in the same manner against the entire population of the country. In addition, the “Palestinian issue” rhetoric used by the regime has proved an invaluable asset, and has, admittedly, been recognized by a considerable segment of people, and will not be abandoned if proven successful.

Therefore, the first scenario is more likely to be witnessed next, i.e., “Fewer Palestinians in the capital and more in the outskirts.” This scenario may provide an explanation for the disparity in the authorities’ general treatment regarding the return of displaced Palestinians to their different camps after the stability of their situation. There is leniency in return permissions to peripheral camps such as Khan Eshieh in the capital, and the camps of Homs, Hama, and Latakia outside the capital, while strict restrictions are imposed when it comes to the camps located in the southern sector of the capital, especially those closer to the centre of Damascus such as Yarmouk, Husseiniyeh, and Sbeineh. In view of the rumours concerning the “Useful Syria” project, a “useful Palestinian” is part of that vision, if ratified, and the security considerations regarding whether a Palestinian should exist or not will be a criterion for the general conduct of the authorities in this matter.

Sixth: Recommendations and Proposals

1. Emphasizing the need to abide by Law No. 260 of 1956, without any amendment under any development of the situation of Palestinians in Syria.

2. With the current state of the national sovereignty of the Syrian state, any development of the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Syria should not be an internal Syrian issue; rather, it is necessary to involve all Palestinians (at all levels) in shaping the future of their camps in Syria.

3. In light of the harmony between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority on one side and the Syrian regime on the other, there may be an official Palestinian-Syrian consensus on any future vision. This raises the risk of reaching an agreement that serves the political settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which has faced the obstacle of refugees, especially the Palestinians in Syria, because of their role and position against such peace settlement. This must encourage Palestinian non-governmental organizations to have a role in determining any possible development.

4. The need for Palestinian actors (factions and institutions) to give priority to the situation and future of the Palestinians in Syria, and to emphasize the importance of total neutrality as a starting point in any discussion on the issue with the relevant parties.


* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Tariq Hammoud authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.

The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 29/9/2017


 

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Overview:

Al-Zaytouna Centre conducts strategic and futuristic academic studies on the Arab and Muslim worlds. It focuses on the Palestinian issue and the conflict with Israel as well as related Palestinian, Arab, Islamic and international developments.

General Manager

Mohsen Moh’d Saleh, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Modern and Contemporary Arab History, the general manager of al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, editor-in-chief of the annual Palestinian Strategic Report, former head of Department of History and Civilization at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and former executive manager of Middle East Studies Centre in Amman.
He was granted the Bait al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) award for Young Muslims Scholars in 1997 and the Excellent Teaching Award (College level), given by IIUM in 2002. Dr. Mohsen is the author of 13 books and some of his books were translated into several languages. He contributed chapters to seven books. He is the editor/ co-editor of more than 30 books. Dr. Mohsen is the editor of electronic daily “Palestine Today,” which has so far published more than 3,777 issues. He has published many articles in refereed scholarly journals and magazines. He presented papers at innumerable academic local and international conferences and seminars. He is a frequent commentator on current issues on broadcasting media.