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The Syrian exodus: The worst is yet to come

A sudden collapse or a fall of a major urban centre will see this steady stream turn into a torrent as millions more become refugees overnight

Headlining the news lately has been the plight of desperate refugees reaching the shores of Europe, trekking across its borders by the thousands. It is estimated that one in four refugees today is Syrian, with a staggering four million outside their country and a further seven million internally displaced within it; around half of the total population.

Chilling and horrific images of washed up dead bodies of Syrian children went viral across mainstream and social media, promoting a deluge of sympathy and public outcry at the indifference to their suffering, bringing the Syrian conflict to the forefront of global attention once again. But as politicians bicker and argue about what to do with the biggest migration crisis since world two, the steady flow of Syrians braving the odds to reach sanctuary continues unabated, in what is now becoming the great Syrian exodus.

The country is being emptied as Syrians abandon their nation in droves in what is probably the biggest mass migration the nation has seen in its thousands of years of history; an exodus to the “Promised Land,” fortress Europe. Along the way they will brave temperamental cruel seas which have drowned thousands before them, unscrupulous people smugglers and armed gangs who rob them along the perilous journey by sea and by foot across Europe’s Eastern and southern Balkan states.

Most of them have only a faint idea of what awaits them once they arrive; the months of limbo in crowded refugee centres, and the momentous challenges they’ll face starting a new life in a new country with a different language, culture and traditions, but they frankly don’t care. The goal is just getting there - that is the unattainable and seemingly impossible dream, all other considerations can wait until later.

Ahmed is a confectionery stand street vendor - a visible symptom of Aleppo’s war economy - who sold what he could of his few possessions and was on his way to Lebanon to board a plane headed for Turkey and then by sea to Greece. As he poignantly put it: “If we drown then our misery will end, and if we reach Europe then our misery will end. Either way, we want it to end.” This, dear readers, just about sums up what is going through the mind of every Syrian refugee risking their life, and that of their family on their perilous journey to sanctuary.

To understand what drives people to give up and leave everything they have ever known behind and rush headlong into an uncertain fate, you have to appreciate what the mindset of someone who has been living in a war zone for years is like. The constant fear, the daily drudgery, the struggle to feed your family and keep them warm amid chronic shortages and a crumbling infrastructure, the expectation that death may come at any moment - or worse mutilation and injury, the uncertainty and worry over your future and that of your children amid the economic squeeze and mounting chaos of a collapsing state.

You cannot underestimate the psychological impact of all that, which is why many who had originally held on and planned to tough it out, have finally lost hope after coming to the realisation that the Syrian war will never end, or if it does, there won’t be anything left in its wake. The descent of many parts of Syria into chaos and extremism as the state melts down and the power of the central government recedes has convinced many that there is no future here. While Government barrel bombs lay waste to entire neighbourhoods emptying them of inhabitants, killing innocent civilians, and rendering them empty masses of rubble, ISIS terrorists swallow up yet more land, beheading scholars and blowing up the nation’s historic treasures as they go, driving thousands of people to flee in their wake.

The military and political impasse shows no signs of ending, and a solution to the conflict appears next to impossible.

Whereas the initial wave of refugees out of Syria when the conflict began were those living directly in the battle zone areas or those impoverished and made destitute by the sudden collapse of much of the economy, this latest wave is in large part made up of fresh college graduates, professionals, skilled workers and small businessmen, many of whom were living in “relatively” safe parts of Syria. The fact that they are selling everything they own - homes, cars, businesses, even pets and furniture - to finance their journey, shows that they don’t plan on ever returning, forever becoming part of the diaspora in Syria’s own biblical-style exodus.

This is the final nail in the coffin of the Syrian nation being abandoned by its own people, and haemorrhaging those most capable of rebuilding it and putting it back together again should the war finally end. There have been campaigns, by both government and rebels, to discourage people from leaving, with slogans such as “your country needs you” and “who are you leaving your country to?” as well as “fatwas” by clerics and religious councils proclaiming it a sin to leave, but they are all falling on deaf ears. It is difficult to convince someone fleeing death from a war they want no part of to stay behind. All the back and forth accusations about a conspiracy for demographic change and sectarian partitioning of Syria via the emptying of its native people seems to have little resonance too.

Other than the obvious and immediate impacts of civil war, which are the bombs and killing and violence, there are many other factors which make life an unlivable hell. Young people in rebel-held areas flee to avoid joining rebel militias and extremist groups, which has become one of the only sources of income there, while those in government areas escape mandatory conscription or reserve duty into the ever-shrinking Syrian army.

While chaos and religious extremism reign supreme in rebel areas, an economic breakdown and increased lawlessness is spiralling in many government-held parts, as well as a crippling shortage of basics and a collapse of services, placing yet more strain on an embattled population. Government subsidies, which used to finance wages, food, fuel and medicine for the average citizen, have all but evaporated, leaving many in dire straits and totally dependent on humanitarian aid, which is patchy at best or nonexistent in parts that are besieged or in the thick of fighting.

Crime and looting in government areas is also increasingly becoming rampant. Factories in the industrial zone in Aleppo are being looted in plain sight and carried off across loyalist checkpoints by “Lijan” militias, a collection of largely ex-con local volunteers and recruits fighting for the regime. Whatever cannot be carried off like large electric transformers are dismantled for parts or melted down for copper. There has been an outcry by Aleppo’s fiercely loyalist head of the chamber of industry, as well as prominent government journalists, but to no avail.

It seems that either the Syrian regime is powerless to stop it, or being cash-strapped, has purposely turned a blind eye to militia profiteering, as long as it keeps them on side. The few businessmen that remained in what was once the industrial and commercial capital of Syria are now leaving, having abandoned any hopes of restarting their factories again as they see them shamelessly looted and carted off.

There has also been a spate of kidnappings for ransom by pro-government checkpoints. Recently a well-known singer from Aleppo was taken near Salamieh, in what has become known as the “million” checkpoint, in reference to the ransom amount usually paid there.

It is important to note that the majority of Syrians still inside the country live in government-controlled areas, and the deteriorating situation there, as well as a series of recent losses and setbacks on the battlefield, are a major driving factor in the current flux of refugees out of the country. This trend will carry on as the state continues to weaken, whereas a sudden collapse or a fall of a major urban centre will see this steady stream turn into a torrent as millions more become refugees overnight to flee the encroaching chaos and bloodshed.

Much of the talk and gossip in Syria today in cafes and between friends and families revolves around smugglers, and smuggling routes and which countries to head to. With tales of acquaintances and relatives who have made it, every household in Syria now knows someone who died in the war, or who is a refugee because of it.  

Leaving is seen as the only hope now, for a people who have lost everything, and continue to suffer unimaginable horrors. As long as there are no serious attempts to end the war, then more and more Syrians will take the plunge and head into the unknown, exacerbating what has become the biggest refugee crisis in generations. It seems that for now, as all others close, they will continue to bang on the gates of fortress Europe.

- Edward Dark is MEE's Aleppo-based columnist and writes under a pseudonym.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Refugees arrive at the main railway station on September 13, 2015 in Munich, Germany. Hundreds of refugees, mainly from Syria and Iraq, arrive in Germany after Hungary has opened his borders for them to travel for Germany. (AA)

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