By Tom Freebairn

Northeast Syria has seen a lot of displacement. But new data shows that migrants in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), were safer and less likely to leave home. They were more likely to leave home for economic reasons than reasons of security or personal safety — and that there were far fewer people displaced from AANES-held territory than other areas.

Massive numbers of people fled, however, from areas of Syria occupied by the Turkish military or the Turkish-aligned armed political opposition, have led to much larger numbers of displaced persons than control by the SDF.

The Turkish-occupied regions had the highest rate of displacement. In some Turkish-occupied areas, 75% to 100% of the population fled. While Turkish-controlled regions saw the highest amount of displaced persons, the opposition-controlled regions similarly had entire communities dispersed. The AANES-administered territory demonstrated a significantly lower rate of displacement than either the Turkish- or opposition-controlled regions.

The REACH Initiative humanitarian situation overview in Syria reports provide valuable data on the conditions of Syrian communities in relation to population movement and the provision of social services. Two reports from March and April of 2019 detailed the conditions of communities in the Northeast and Northwest respectively. The data provided primarily contrasts the areas under the control of three major actors in the Syrian conflict.

In the Northeast, the data almost exclusively covers territory occupied by the US-backed SDF, a multiethnic military coalition, with many of the communities under its administration having been taken from ISIS occupation.

In the Northwest, the communities surveyed fall mostly under the jurisdiction of the anti-regime opposition in Idlib province, northern Hama and western Aleppo along with the area of northern Aleppo and Afrin administered directly by the Turkish military and its opposition proxy groups after the invasion of the Kurdish enclave in January 2018 as part of Operation Olive Branch.

There are significant differences in the data on the two regions. The comparison of pre-conflict population (PCP) to current population paints a disturbing picture in relation to the treatment of civilians by the governing forces in charge of the region.

The April 2019 Humanitarian Situation Overview in Syria (HSOS) report on the Northwest region found that out of the communities surveyed under the direct occupation of Syrian opposition groups, there were nine communities which had seen 75-100% of the PCP displaced. An additional 38 communities under opposition control had seen 50-74% of the PCP displaced.

By comparison, the Turkish-occupied region of the Northwest showed the worst levels of displacement, heavily concentrated in the areas in which Turkish occupation was most severe. In the Turkish-occupied region, a total of 63 communities experienced the displacement of original residents between 75-100%, while an additional 59 communities saw over half the population depart.

Out of the 63 communities which saw 75-100% displacement in Turkish-occupied Syria, 45 were located within the predominantly Kurdish Afrin district of the Aleppo Governorate. The massive departure of citizens from Afrin coincides with the Turkish military and their supporters’ widespread abuses of human rights, as detailed in UN reports from June 2018.

The result of this massive displacement in the Northeast is entire towns and neighborhoods left empty of their original inhabitants, in what were formerly some of the most prosperous areas of Syria. In both the Turkish- and opposition-occupied areas of Northwestern Syria, the most commonly reported reason for departure from people’s homes was reported as the escalation of conflict, with 77% of respondents affirming it as their primary reason for uprooting.

Regions under AANES control saw far less displacement. In contrast to both areas of Turkish oversight and opposition control in the Northwest, the regions of AANES control in the Northeast reported less displacement even in regions taken from the ISIS and similar jihadist groups. Out of the over 600 communities surveyed in Northeast Syria, only one under AANES administration reported a PCP departure rate of over 50%.

The incredibly low rate of displacement in the Northeast is even more impressive considering that the majority of the 600 reviewed settlements are under AANES control. It bears further consideration that the most reported reason for departure in the Northeast was loss of income rather than immediate security concerns, with 67% of the displaced in that region reporting loss of income as their reason for leaving home. Only one-third of the displaced stated that security and personal safety were concerns prior to their leaving home.

The evidence shows that those living under Turkish and opposition control have fled en masse in the wake of severe human rights abuses, while the diverse communities within the borders of AANES territory have remained largely intact. Even those who fled AANES-controlled areas reported economic issues, not security or personal safety concerns, as the most prominent reason for departure.

The given data juxtaposes two different sides of Syria. The data makes it seem clear that the sectarian military occupation by the Turkish and the opposition is far less welcome by its residents than the consensual and tolerant governance provided by AANES.

The current crisis in Syria is one of the world’s worst humanitarian situations. The United Nations estimates that around 6 million people have been displaced within Syria. Another 3 million have fled the country.

While the crisis in Syria and the fight against ISIS has affected every corner of the nation, this data describes important factors in understanding how some areas have had it worse than others. All communities are not created equal in regard to the political factions which control and administer them. The treatment of civilians, particularly in post-conflict occupied regions, varies heavily across Syria.

Turkish occupation, as well as occupation by the opposition, has led to significantly more displacement than control by AANES.

The issue of displaced persons represents a major challenge to rebuilding and recovering in all regions of Syria. The movement of large segments of the population from their home cities and regions leaves entire regions of the country with minimal productivity and resources while simultaneously putting pressure on their new cities to house, feed, employ, and sustain them. The rate of displacement in each community is broadly indicative of the level of safety and access to resources for the civilian population and is thus an important metric for contextualizing the humanitarian and political situation in Syria.