Facts on Syria
In Germany, deportations to Syria are repeatedly a topic of discussion. We have summarized the key facts on this here —including key sources on the human rights situation in Syria.
The widespread belief that the war in Syria is almost over is wrong. In some parts of the country, the war continues; in other regions, there is a threat of new escalations. Furthermore, the land is fragmented into different territories. Since the Assad regime claims to seek to recapture the entire territory military, there is the threat of more offensives.
In addition, several regional and international conflicts overlap in the Syrian war, for example between Turkey and the Kurds, between Iran and Israel, and between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And even if military peace should come to Syria, large sections of the Syrian population will continue to suffer great violence from the repressive apparatus of the Assad regime.
Many observers point out that although the military conflicts have decreased, the conflict is not coming to an end, but is entering a new phase.
"While fighting has declined significantly overall, areas are still affected by the conflict and its immediate consequences: The regime can continue to carry out air strikes across the country, except in areas under Turkish or Kurdish control. Terrorist attacks can occur in any part of the country. In addition to these general dangers, there is also the blanket risk of becoming a target of state repression, especially for those who are considered oppositional by the regime." Status Report of the Federal Foreign Office, November 2018, p. 14
In an expert meeting on Syria convened by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), analyst Christopher Kozak concludes that while many countries would be keen to present the situation in Syria as if the war was soon to be over, the war was instead moving "into a new, no less dangerous phase of the conflict."
Superficially, this would seem less violent, however, this is not a post-war phase, but a new manifestation of the conflict. "Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war is increasingly associated with several stubborn regional conflicts—Turkey against the Syrian Kurdish PYD, Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran, the US' anti-ISIS coalition against Iran and Russia. This overlap of regional and local conflicts has been present throughout the war, but it is now coming to the fore." (See in particular p. 12 and p. 15)
The claim that the war will soon be over, for one thing, contradicts the high probability that hostilities can still be expected on different fronts in Syria. Secondly, under the rule of the Assad regime, because of its massive persecution of large sections of the population and massive arbitrary use of force, there can be no question of peace even if the intensity of hostilities were to actually sharply decline.
"There is a high risk that the Syrian government will continue its efforts to force people to submit when the fighting is over. (…) The international community and humanitarian actors in Syria must understand that "post-surrender" does not mean "post conflict" (...)."
Assad has repeatedly affirmed his desire to recapture the whole territory, no matter what. Against the backdrop of the recent military offensives of the regime and its allies, these statements of intent seem credible. The regime is currently trying to take over the Idlib region with Russian support, with civilian casualties occurring almost daily. (See also chapter 2 and chapter 6 on Idlib).
Nor can it be ruled out that the Assad regime might actually attempt to recapture the Kurdish controlled areas in the northeast and/or the northwest areas controlled by Turkish troops or Turkish-backed militias. (See also chapter 2 on the Kurdish-influenced northeast)
There are threats of escalation between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds especially. The Turkish government sees the Kurdish autonomous region on its southern border as a threat. The PYD is a sister party of the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization in Turkey as well as in Europe. The Turkish government has supported different Syrian opposition military groups to control the region of Afrin in January 2018. As Turkey vowed to secure 30 km of its borders at the Syrian depth and with the help of the Syrian National Army (An army consists of different Islamic/rebel military factions), military clashes occur between the Turkish army or Turkish-backed military factions and armed Kurdish forces.
Assad regime and Kurdish self-government
A conflict between the Kurdish-influenced northeast and the Assad regime cannot be ruled out. The Kurdish self-government distances itself from the uprising against the Assad regime and was in turn spared militarily by the Assad regime from air strikes, shelling and offensives. Military confrontations between SDF/YPG and troops loyal to Assad are rare.
Due to the advance of the Assad regime and the threat by Turkey, the Kurdish self-government is apparently negotiating with the Assad regime for autonomy status. To what extent the Assad regime will allow autonomy of the region in the longer term and to what extent Kurdish self-government is prepared to hand over state control to the Assad regime is uncertain.
Presence of the USA in northern Syria
Stability in north-eastern Syria largely depends on the presence of American troops, who provide the region with protection against attacks by Turkey and attacks by the Assad regime and its allies. Whether and to what extent the US will remain in the region is uncertain.
Internal conflict potential
In northern Syria, there is a threat of conflicts between Arab and Kurdish populations, although civil society actors on both sides are trying to reduce this potential for conflict
.On top of many historical reasons, the conflict is fuelled by Turkish intervention in the northwest, where Arab-influenced militias are present in Kurdish regions where they commit serious human rights violations (see Chapter 2).
In addition, the territory governed by the Kurdish self-government, after the victory of the YPG/SDF over the "IS", extends deep into regions with mostly Arab populations (Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and the east of the province of Aleppo around the city of Manbij). Although the Democratic Federation of North Syria calls itself a multi-ethnic and democratic state, displacement and repression of Arab populations are reported repeatedly (see Chapter 2). The "IS" and the fight against the "IS" have led to mistrust on both sides.
Furthermore, terror attacks by jihadist groups such as the "IS" or HTS are to be expected throughout the country. In 2018, the "IS" perpetrated several complex attacks, killing over a hundred civilians. Despite the military victory over the "IS" in early 2019, it can be assumed that individual cells will continue to remain active in Syria and commit terrorist attacks.
"In parts of the Syrian-Iraqi border area and elsewhere, IS continues to exist locally and continues to be in a position to carry out attacks throughout the country." Status Report of the Federal Foreign Office, November 2018, p. 6
It can be assumed that some armed opposition continues to exist underground and carry out attacks. This does not just apply to jihadist groups. In the Daraa region, a group called "Popular Resistance" carries out attacks and assaults on regime actors.
The Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah and other Iranian and Iran-funded Shiite militias have long supported the Assad regime. They were able to gain significant political influence in Syria and build military infrastructure that is directed against Israel.
Israel regularly flies air raids against weapons depots and other targets associated with the Iranian presence in Syria. It is difficult to predict how the military conflict between Israel and Iran will develop in Syria. Escalation cannot be ruled out.
The Assad regime owes its military advance to the support of many different actors. The entirety of armed forced loyal to the regime comprise many different militias and army units. These include local Syrian militias, Iranian-funded militias such as the Afghan-Shiite Fatemioun militia or the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi-Shiite militias, Russian and Russian-led troops, Russian military police and mercenary companies such as the Russian Wagner Group.
Many of these armed groups are accused of war crimes as well as looting, kidnapping, smuggling and other criminal activities for the purpose of their own enrichment. There have been repeated reports of fighting between various armed groups loyal to the regime. Some observers report conflicts between Iranian-backed and Russian-backed armed actors loyal to the regime.
Some observers have therefore diagnosed Syria with warlord-ization or feudalization, consequently, with a loss of state sovereignty. Other observers emphasize that the regime has succeeded surprisingly well in recent years in keeping the different actors together.
Regardless of how profound the conflicts are between different factions loyal to the regime and whether there could be a military escalation in the future, it must be assumed that there is no clear state monopoly on power in the regions held by the Assad regime. Civilians in Syria face the arbitrariness of various armed parties loyal to the regime. The Syrian state is not willing or able to reliably protect its citizens from attacks by militias loyal to the regime.
"Attacks by non-state actors have increased dramatically. First and foremost, these were attacks by pro-regime militia, for whom the transition between political mission, military or police tasks and mafia-like business conduct is fluid." Status Report of the Federal Foreign Office, November 2018
Furthermore, Syria is falling apart in territories controlled by different actors. In none of these regions do those who seek protection find reliable protection.
The threat of serious human rights violations and military escalations exists in both in the areas controlled by the Assad regime and those controlled by other actors.
"There is no comprehensive, long-term and reliable internal protection for persecuted persons in any part of Syria; there is no legal certainty or protection against political persecution, arbitrary arrest and torture" Status Report of the Federal Foreign Office, November 2018
According to UNHCR, Syria has no internal refugee or resettlement alternative for those seeking protection: "Given the prevailing conditions in Syria, in particular the numerous and complex conflicts, the volatile security situation, the countless reports of human rights abuses and the deep-rooted mistrust of persons of divergent origin or descent, in the opinion of the UNHCR, it is not appropriate for States to deny international protection to persons from Syria on the basis of an internal refugee or resettlement alternative." (UNHCR Considerations 11/2017)
Idlib is currently controlled by various oppositional and radical Islamist militias. Turkey has observation posts in the region and supports some of the militia present in Idlib. In the meantime, the region is dominated by the Hai'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militia, which emerged from the Nursa front, which was originally linked to Al Qaeda. At the beginning of 2019, HTS was able to bring numerous areas in Idib and the northern outskirts of Aleppo under its control, including cities such as Atareb or Maarat al Numan, whose civilian population had long resisted HTS.
Other militias are still present in Idlib, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Failaq al-Sham and Nureddin-al-Zenki and other groups that once belonged to the Free Syrian Army. All these armed groups commit war crimes and/or serious human rights violations. HTS, in particular, which is internationally classified as a terrorist organization, is known for its targeted persecution of political opponents. HTS is accused of numerous political murders and numerous cases of enforced disappearance and torture.
Since the beginning of 2019, the Assad regime and Russia have massively increased their air strikes on the region and have begun a ground offensive. The grenade and air strikes are largely on civil targets, including hospitals, refugee camps and markets. To sabotage the civilian population's food supply, the Assad regime fires incendiary bombs on cornfields. In the period from February to June 2019, several hundred civilians were killed and around 300,000 people were displaced within Idlibs.
Around 3 million people live in Idlib, around half of whom are internally displaced persons. Past regime offensives in Homs, Aleppo, East Ghouta, Daraa and other places formerly held by opposition militia resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians and armed persons to Idlib. Among the civilians are numerous civilian activists who would face massive persecution if the region were captured by Assad. The escape route to Turkey is usually closed to people; Turkey has largely sealed off the Syrian border and is building new border fortifications, partly on Syrian territory. The humanitarian situation of the people of Idlib, and in particular those who are internally displaced, is considered difficult to catastrophic. Around 1.6 million people depend on humanitarian aid.
The largest area outside the control of the Assad regime is the Kurdish-influenced Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Politically, the region is controlled by the PYD party and militarily by the Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) and the Kurdish-influenced Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The PYD and YPG are considered to be sister organizations of the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization in Germany. Although the region is relatively stable compared to other parts of Syria, it cannot be considered as an internal flight alternative.
Military conflicts between the Kurdish de facto autonomous region and the Assad regime also cannot be ruled out, at least in the long term. The Assad regime has repeatedly stressed that it wants to recapture all parts of the country. The Kurdish self-government distances itself, however, from the uprising against the Assad regime and was in turn spared militarily by the Assad regime from air strikes, shelling and offensives. Military confrontations between SDF/YPG and troops loyal to Assad are rare. Due to the advance of the Assad regime and the threat by Turkey, the Kurdish self-government is apparently negotiating with the Assad regime for autonomy status. To what extent the Assad regime will allow autonomy of the region in the longer term and to what extent Kurdish self-government is prepared to hand over state control to the Assad regime is uncertain.
In the fight against the "Islamic State" (IS), the Kurdish self-government received military support from the USA. The USA is cooperating with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish group affiliated to the YPG, which has meanwhile largely destroyed the "IS" militarily with the help of US air support. Co-operation with the USA has hitherto protected the region from attacks by Turkey (which designates the group as terrorist militias) as well as attacks by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. On 19 December 2018, US President Trump declared that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria. The extremely controversial decision was later gradually put into perspective—a small portion of US troops were to remain in the region—but this has led to great uncertainty.
In some of the territories recaptured from the IS by the SDF (e.g. Raqqa and the eastern part of the Deir Ez Zor region), the situation of the civilian population continues to be difficult to catastrophic. The war against the IS has led to several thousand civilian casualties—largely due to the massive air strikes of the US-led International Coalition—and has caused massive destruction of Raqqa and other places. Overall, the region is characterized by major refugee movements.
The fact that the Kurdish PYD and YPG controls large, primarily Arab-influenced areas, and that there is considerable mistrust or massive hostility between the Arab and Kurdish population groups for many reasons, creates considerable internal conflict potential.
In the past, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly reported displacement of Arab populations by Kurdish armed groups. The reports were vehemently rejected by the Kurdish side. It is clear that despite its democratic self-image, the PYD repeatedly pursues political opponents, and that forced conscription and other human rights violations, including cases of enforced disappearance, occur.
"Whoever is not with me is against me." That is the regime's logic. The security services' criteria of who is to be regarded as an enemy, are numerous and complex and cover a large part of the Syrian population. Even someone who may only possibly be against the regime can be arrested, tortured and killed.
Due to the high degree of arbitrariness of the security services and militias loyal to the regime, ultimately no one is safe from persecution. This is especially true for returnees. There are numerous documented cases of returnees who have been arrested and tortured by security services of the regime and some have disappeared in detention.
Syria is a full-fledged surveillance state. The intelligence services maintain large informant networks and monitor citizens' communication. Intelligence agencies and militias loyal to the regime control the streets with fixed and mobile checkpoints and carry out door-to-door checks. The security forces use laptops and barcode scanners to check the IDs of people they find suspicious. Among other things, they check whether the persons being checked are on a wanted list.
"Through the slow decline in hostilities, the influence and access of security agencies and intelligence agencies is also increasing." Status Report of the Federal Foreign Office, November 2018, p. 23
According to the Federal Foreign Office's report (11/2018), 1.5 million Syrians are officially wanted, while other sources speak of 3 million names on the regime's wanted lists.
Populations from areas formerly controlled by the opposition are under particularly strict surveillance. When communicating with people abroad or in areas beyond the control of the regime, they fear making themselves suspicious. The great fear of repression of people living in the regime's areas makes it much more difficult to report on human rights violations in these regions.
Syrian secret services also monitor Syrians in Germany. This is clear from several cases in which people who were deported from Germany or who returned to Syria were arrested and tortured for political activities in Germany. (See chapter 3.3)
Persecution by the Assad regime is characterized by a high degree of arbitrariness. Anyone even suspected of being disloyal to the regime can become a victim of persecution—from harassment and attacks at checkpoints, to arbitrary detention, torture, being disappeared, and even death.
The suspicion of being hostile to the regime may be based on the place of origin, a specific neighbourhood, belonging to a denominational or ethnic group or a particular milieu or family, on acquaintances with other suspects, on denunciations by informants or on other factors that in many cases are non-transparent to those affected.
Among other things, the largely unpredictability of persecutory acts is due to the fact that the repressive apparatus is composed of many different actors, some of whom act with great independence and pursue their own interests. Even people who do not consider themselves subjectively as opponents of the regime can therefore become victims of persecution. This applies in particular to returnees.
Numerous sources confirm that returnees are systematically questioned by the intelligence services at the airport, at checkpoints or even after their return. On return, Syrian refugees and asylum seekers face a significant risk of being suspected of rejecting the Assad regime and thus of becoming victims of arbitrary detention, torture and being disappeared.
This applies especially to persons who have made statements critical of the regime abroad because the Syrian regime spies on exile communities—even in Germany. Likewise, conscientious objectors and deserters are massively endangered. Moreover, returnees may also become victims of persecution for reasons that are not transparent to them or due to mere arbitrariness.
Arbitrary detention and the practice of "enforced disappearance" are part of the Syrian repressive apparatus' standard repertoire. In a large proportion of cases, victims of arbitrary detention are detained for weeks, months or years in official or informal detention centres without their relatives knowing their whereabouts. This practice not only terrorizes those directly affected, but also their family and social environment.
It is estimated that currently 80,000 to 100,000 people have "disappeared." In many cases, relatives only learn years later that their detained relatives have long since been tortured to death, died in prison, or executed (see Chapter 6.4). Arbitrary arrests and the practice of enforced disappearance continue.
The number of disappeared persons is evident from documentations by Syrian human rights organizations—which, however, are incomplete: Due to the fear of repression, many families are silent about their missing relatives. The Syrian government does not provide reliable information on detained persons.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of people—probably well over one hundred thousand people—were victims of arbitrary detention and/or enforced disappearance in Syria during the conflict and that tens of thousands are still "disappeared".
With "reconciliation agreements" and amnesties, the Assad regime wants to give the impression that it shows leniency towards its militarily defeated opponents in order to restore social peace. But neither amnesties nor reconciliation agreements offer protection against persecution. On the contrary, the goal of "reconciliation" in line with the government is the forced control and subjugation of citizens under its arbitrary regime.
The fact that the Assad regime has little desire to reintegrate refugees into society is also illustrated by a series of measures that challenge refugees' property rights and prevent them from returning to their hometowns. The regime's reconstruction plans do not serve the needs of the refugees, but the regime's nepotism.
During the process of recapturing the territories held by opposition militias, the regime or its Russian envoys often negotiated local agreements with local militias or community representatives. These capitulation agreements differ greatly from region to region. Typically, they envisaged that armed people and their families, as well as civilians who did not want to fall into the hands of the regime, would be able to flee north on buses.
Often, the agreements also provided that the population remaining in the city or region would initially be spared forced conscription and other repressions. It was typically agreed that the Russian military police would first take control of the captured city or region, and the regime's security forces would only advance after a period of generally six months.
These local "reconciliation agreements" are supplemented by individual "reconciliation offers." They provide that individuals from formerly opposition-controlled territories can "reconcile" with the Assad regime by reporting to their security forces and expressing their loyalty to the regime. As confirmation of the "reconciliation" they then receive—under certain circumstances—a "Security Approval" ("Taswiya").
For example, persons who do not seek "reconciliation" because they fear being abused, abducted or killed by the security services during the procedure, as well as persons who do not receive security approval, cannot pass checkpoints and are therefore heavily restricted in their freedom of movement; in many cases they cannot rent a flat, buy or sell real estate, cannot assert property rights and are barred from access to education or other commodities.
All independent reports document that the regime does not abide by the collective or individual reconciliation agreements and that no security guarantee follow from them. Time and again, despite Security Approval, people become victims of severe repression, such as arbitrary arrest, torture or degrading treatment and enforced disappearance.
In particular, the Russian government, the protector of the Assad regime, staging its role as a peace-making force, argues that refugees could return to Syria, provided that Europe supports Syria in reconstruction.
However, the Assad regime, through a series of measures, to makes it more difficult or impossible for internally displaced persons and Syrians who have fled abroad to return to their hometowns or homes.
Tailor-made regulations ensure that people who fled the Assad regime to other parts of the country or abroad have massive difficulties in asserting their property rights or returning to their homes. In some places—such as Qaboun and Daraya—the regime is destroying homes of displaced persons to make room for real estate projects and is denying access to former residents.
This type of "reconstruction" allows the regime to punish or expel dissident milieus while rewarding regime-loyal actors. In addition to the high risk of becoming victims of persecution, arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and murder, returnees face the risk of being deprived of elementary rights such as the right to property and housing.
Syrian civilians do not just have to worry about accidentally becoming "collateral damage" of warfare. Targeted attacks on civilians are part of the military strategy of the Assad regime and its allies.
Civilians in areas controlled by opposition militias were and are considered by the Assad regime to be enemies and are collectively punished. War crimes against civilians—including bombing of civilian targets, the use of banned weapons, and sieges—have so far remained unpunished and have paid off for the Assad regime in a military capacity.
Currently, the regime and its Russian allies are committing massive war crimes during their Idlib offensive. It is likely that the Assad regime will commit war crimes and crimes against humanity elsewhere, if it sees fit.
"The Syrian regime declares its military action as an anti-terrorist operation. However, the attacks, from the start and continue to be, focused on armed opposition forces and large parts of the population especially. In addition to opposition positions, both residential areas and civilian infrastructure were attacked, including hospitals and schools. In this context, the mass use of internationally outlawed barrel bombs occurred." (Status Report of the Federal Foreign Office, November 2018, p. 5 et seq.)
Attacks on civilian targets are described by many independent observers to be part of the regime's military strategy. All reports by UN institutions, human rights organizations and other independent agencies document targeted Syrian and Russian Air Force air strikes and artillery shelling on civil infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, markets, neighbourhoods and other non-military targets.
Time and again, internationally outlawed weapons are used in the attacks, including cluster bombs, incendiary bombs, barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Although casualties fell in 2018 compared to previous years due to the reduced intensity of military conflicts, Syria was still the most dangerous country for civilians in 2018 worldwide. As in previous regime offensives—for example on Homs, Aleppo; East Ghouta, Daraa and South Damascus—the current offensive on Idlib is also characterized by war crimes.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria investigated 37 uses of poison gas up until January 2018—the UN attributes 32 of these poison gas cases to the Assad regime and no one has been identified in the remaining five cases. There is no doubt that the Assad regime has repeatedly used both chlorine gas and sarin.
Human Rights Watch and many other organizations have described the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as systematic. The use of chemical weapons has remained unpunished, with the exception of largely symbolic unilateral US military strikes. It must be feared that the Assad regime will continue to use chemical weapons.
Beside the bombardment of civilian targets with conventional and chemical weapons, sieges and displacements are typical elements of the Assad regime's warfare. These are punishable as war crimes under international law. All besieged areas have now been taken through the Assad regime's military advance and a large part of the population displaced expelled to the north of Syria, especially to Idlib. The transfers of fighters and civilians, organized with big bus convoys, were called "evacuations" by the Assad regime and the Russian government. There is consensus in the expert community that these were displacements that are punishable as war crimes.
The United Nations calls this practice of sieges and subsequent displacement “starve and surrender tactics." Last year, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator said Syrian siege and starvation policies are now "routine and systematic." The use of hunger as a weapon of war makes it clear that the Syrian government has declared the civilian population in the opposition territories as their "enemies." According to Pax, punishment as an oppositional population does not cease when the siege ends, instead, it shifts into a new phase. In the case of the Idlib offensive, the Assad regime apparently set fire to grain fields in order to destroy the upcoming crop.
Numerous sources evidence that tens of thousands of people have been killed by executions, torture (See more in Chapter 2), denied medical aid and food and water deprivation in the detention centres of the Syrian government since 2011. It can be assumed that these killings continue to this day.
"Prisoners are crammed into confined spaces, bodies are sometimes cleared away only days later, medical care is scarce, and hygienic conditions are terrible." Status Report of the Federal Foreign Office, 11/2018, p. 18
Syrian men of almost any age face forced conscription by the Syrian army or militias loyal to the regime. Anyone who defies military service or has deserted faces arbitrary punishment, such as torture, immediate deployment to the front, imprisonment or execution.
Recruits face being forced to participate in war crimes. Attacks on the civilian population are part of the Assad regime's military strategy. Therefore, Syrian deserters and conscripts are not violating their "civic duties"—they refuse to serve in armed units that commit the most serious war crimes and crimes against humanity.
War crimes are also being committed by all other conflict parties to the Syrian war, though to a lesser extent than the Assad regime and its allies, largely due to reduced military clout.
Opposition militias repeatedly use arbitrary force against civilians, including shelling and firing rockets at civilian targets. In regime areas, warfare also results in civilian casualties. In the course of the war, opposition militia also used sieges as a tactic of war. The "IS" is also accused of using mustard gas.
The air strikes of the US-led International Alliance against the IS caused a shockingly high number of civilian casualties (see Chapter 1). Here, too, war crimes were most certainly committed and must be punished.
Due to the loss of territory by IS, HTS and other jihadist and radical Islamist groups, it is to be expected that they will increasingly carry out terrorist attacks in future. This is a threat both in areas under the control of the Assad regime and in areas of Kurdish self-government in northern Syria.
War crimes by opposition actors as well as those of the Assad regime are well documented in the United Nations reports cited above, as well as in the reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, SNHR, VDC, SOHR, and other sources cited here. Sources on the victims of the International Coalition can be found in chapter 1.
Long before the start of the 2011 uprising, the Assad regime's rule was based on oppression, surveillance, arbitrary detention, systematic torture and killings.
Since 2011, well over 100,000 people have been tortured by Assad's secret services and militias loyal to the regime. Tens of thousands died under torture or inhuman detention conditions. Around 100,000 people have disappeared in the torture prisons.
Torture, enforced disappearances and executions are also currently being used by the regime as a tried-and-tested means of securing power—those responsible do not yet have to fear any punishment.
Torture, rape and other abuse by state security and intelligence services are widespread and systematically applied, in detention centres especially, but also at checkpoints and during house searches. Many prisoners are repeatedly and routinely tortured and subjected to the systematic withdrawal of food, water, fresh air, medicine and medical assistance.
In addition to other sources, the UN Commission on Inquiry reports that even detained children under the age of 13 are being tortured, among other reasons to put pressure on their families. Torture in Syria is well documented, the following sources are by no means exhaustive.
7.2 Sexualized torture and rape as a weapon of war
The UN and numerous human rights organizations report systematic sexual torture of women, children and sometimes men. A report by the UN Commission of Inquiry into Sexual Violence in Syria in March 2018 suggests that the Assad regime uses rape as a weapon of war.
7.3 Proceedings in Germany against torturers of the Assad regime
In Germany as well as in other European countries, charges and investigations are pending against high-ranking officials of the Syrian regime. The basis for this is the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows crimes against humanity and other serious crimes to be brought before national courts, even if committed by foreigners abroad. In Germany, arrest warrants have already been issued for torturers of the regime.
7.4 Torture before 2011
Even before the uprising began in 2011, the Assad regime relied on a vast apparatus of surveillance and repression, which was effectively not bound by law. There are numerous reports documenting cases of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances long before 2011.
For one thing, there are several cases of people who were deported from Germany to Syria before the beginning of the current conflict and tortured there.
Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the regime's state organs will refrain from serious human rights violations following an end to the armed conflict.
The United Nations, the UNHCR, human rights organizations like Amnesty International all assume that Syrian refugees still need protection. Even the often extremely restrictive decision-making practice of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has up until now granted Syrian asylum seekers protection status in almost all cases. Proposals that call for deportations to Syria or qualify the need for protection of Syrian refugees are usually based on domestic political motives and not on developments in Syria.
In the medium or long term, however, there is the risk that the domestic political motive to deter refugees from Syria or even to deport may affect the BAMF's decision-making practice Federal Government's assessment of the situation in Syria. This would not only have fatal consequences for Syrian refugees, but also foreign policy consequences.
The Assad regime tries to rehabilitate itself through the lever of "refugee return". Numerous actors are working internationally and also in Germany towards a normalization of the Assad regime. Internationally, rehabilitation of the regime would be a strong signal that crimes against humanity and war crimes remain unpunished.
UNHCR's latest updated version of its November 2017 "Recommendations on the Protection Needs of Syrian Refugees" assumes that the "vast majority" of Syrian refugees are eligible for refugee protection.
In response to numerous reports of serious and widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights, as well as ongoing armed conflicts in many parts of the country, UNHCR believes that the flight of civilians from Syria continues to be a refugee movement and provides international refugee protection to the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers because they meet the requirements of the refugee definition in Article 1 A (2) GCR." UNHCR Considerations 11/2017 p. 15
UNHCR generally considers that the relevant criterion for the granting of refugee protection of a causal connection between the cause of persecution and the persecution as met:
"For many civilians who have fled Syria, a causal connection with a persecutory reason exists in the direct or indirect, actual or supposed connection with one of the conflicting parties. A typical aspect of the conflict in Syria is the fact that the different parties to the conflict often attribute political opinions to larger groups of people, including families, tribes, religious or ethnic groups, and entire cities, villages and residential areas, because of their ties. In such cases there is a great and real risk of harm and this is by no means mitigated by the fact that an intent to cause injury is not specifically directed at the person concerned."
UNHCR has developed risk profiles in its "Recommendations" that apply to many Syrian protection seekers and which, as UNHCR points out, should not be understood to be conclusive. If—and only if—it is established that an asylum seeker does not meet the risk profile and does not otherwise fulfil the criteria of the GCR, the extended refugee criteria should be taken into account and, for example, subsidiary protection or other forms of protection should be granted.
No domestic flight alternative
UNHCR clearly answers in the negative that Syrian protection seekers can find protection within Syria: "Given the prevailing conditions in Syria, in particular the numerous and complex conflicts, the volatile security situation, the countless reports of human rights abuses and the deep-rooted mistrust of persons of divergent origin or descent, in the opinion of the UNHCR, it is not appropriate for States to deny international protection to persons from Syria on the basis of an internal refugee or resettlement alternative."
UNHCR warns against voluntary returns and deportations
UNHCR calls on States not to forcibly return Syrians to Syria. Likewise, UNHCR "cannot endorse or support refugees returning from host countries." The conditions for "a voluntary return to the home country in safety and dignity" are not met.
UNHCR Considerations with regard to people fleeing the Syrian Arab Republic— 5th updated version (11/2017)
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria also currently warns that a safe and sustainable return to Syria is still impossible:
Alleged voluntary return movements—especially from Lebanon—are often seen as signs of improvement to the situation in Syria and used as an argument for deportations. In fact, many refugees are forced to return from Lebanon. This is evidenced by several reports.
The question of whether Syrian refugees need protection is clearly affirmed in Germany by the competent Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). So far, the BAMF decision statistics do not give any reason to discuss deportations to Syria: Syrian asylum seekers subject to enforceable deportation, who can only not be deported due to the deportation stop, hardly exist—the vast majority of Syrians in Germany have a protection status.
However, BAMF decision-making practices are a cause for concern: Increasingly, decisions are being issued that deny the risk of arbitrary or targeted violence, such as torture, claiming that regions under Assad's rule could be considered "safe". The basis for this tightening is not the actual situation in Syria, but rather the increasingly refugee-hostile climate in Germany.
Decision practice of the past years
Between 2015 and 2017, 99.9 percent of Syrian refugees seeking protection of their asylum status were granted protection status, compared to 99.8 percent in 2018. From January to the end of May 2019, the so-called "adjusted protection rate" for Syria was 99.9%. This is evident from the BAMF's Asylum Statistics. Therefore, despite the BAMF's restrictive tendencies, almost all Syrians still enjoy protection status.
BAMF Asylum Statistics
Hardly any revocations
In the case of fundamental changes to the situation in the country of origin, the BAMF can revoke the granted protection status. If other conditions of the protection status are in question, a revocation can be made. With regard to these revocation and withdrawal procedures, up until the end of 2018, it was apparent that the BAMF assumed that Syrians continue to need protection. In 2018, 127,998 revocation proceedings were filed with regard to Syrian refugees with protection rights. These procedures were decided in 2018 in 53,541 cases; in 99.34%, the corresponding protection status was confirmed.
BAMF Revocation Statistics 2018
From refugee protection to subsidiary protection
Even if the right to protection has so far been affirmed by the BAMF, from 2016, Syrian protection seekers have increasingly only received subsidiary protection. After the legislature withdrew the right to family reunification from people with subsidiary protection from 2016, the BAMF changed its legal opinion and generally only granted subsidiary protection to Syrians—contrary to the above-mentioned considerations of the UNHCR on the protection needs of Syrian refugees. The change in decision-making practice was purely politically motivated and aimed to prevent family reunification and deter refugees with family from fleeing to Germany.
From 2016, the changed decision-making practice led to a flood of lawsuits before the administrative courts. In many cases, BAMF rulings that only provide subsidiary protection for Syrian asylum seekers have been corrected by administrative courts. For Syrian refugees, the success rate in court was 62 percent in 2017. However, in many cases, higher administrative courts ruled that subsidiary protection had been correctly granted by the BAMF.
Supplementary information on asylum statistics for the year 2018 (3/2019) (German)
Asylum.net: Rechtsprechungsübersicht: Welcher Schutzstatus ist bei Wehrdienstentziehung in Syrien zu gewähren? [Jurisprudence overview: Which protection status should be granted in the case of draft evasion in Syria?] (4/2019) (German)
Asyl.net: Erste OVG Entscheidungen zum Schutzstatus von Asylsuchenden aus Syrien veröffentlicht [First higher-court decisions on the protection status of asylum seekers from Syria published] (2/2017) (German)
Guideline update March/April 2019
In March 2019, the previously low number of Syrian protection seekers, to whom the BAMF only granted a legal prohibition of deportation, increased. The tenor of the relevant decisions was that after the advance of the Assad regime in certain areas, there was no more conflict. The persons concerned were only granted a legal prohibition of deportation because of the poor humanitarian situation. The often-documented danger of arbitrary violence by actors loyal to the regime was not discussed in the relevant decisions.
The background of the decisions, it became clear on the basis of parliamentary questions, was a change in the Federal Office's internal guidelines. The wording of these guidelines is not public. The Office also did not provide any information as to the basis for its new assessment, which obviously blatantly deviated from the Status Report of the Foreign Office from November 2018.
The unsubstantiated guideline update was withdrawn after talks between the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of the Interior in April. However, it demonstrates the political will of the BAMF leadership to trivialize the danger of arbitrary violence and persecution by the Assad regime to prevent Syrian refugees from securing a certain long-term stay in Germany. The main intention is probably to reduce the still high number of Syrian asylum seekers through a dissuasive decision practice.
Asyl.net: BAMF ändert Leitsätze zu Syrien und gewährt Abschiebungsverbote statt des subsidiären Schutzes [BAMF changes guidelines on Syria and grants prohibitions on deportation instead of subsidiary protection] (4/2019) (German)
Asyl.net: BAMF setzt Entscheidungen über subsidiären Schutz bei syrischen Asylsuchenden aus [BAMF suspends subsidiary protection decisions for Syrian asylum seekers] (4/2019) (German)
Berlin Hilft: BAMF entschied Asylanträge für Syrien auf eigener Lagebeurteilung ohne Freigabe vom BMI [BAMF decided on asylum applications for Syria on its own assessment without approval from BM] (6/2019) (German)