ALEPPO, Syria — Swarms of young Syrians have been fleeing the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra in southern Syria, escaping dire economic conditions (including rampant unemployment and a lack of job opportunities), arrest campaigns by the Syrian government and being drafted into the Syrian army.
The majority of these young people have been heading to the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib province and the northern Idlib countryside and then all the way to Turkey. Many of them have been trying their luck to reach Europe through illegal means and some have gone to neighboring Lebanon. In order to pass through regime-controlled areas, young Syrians often place their destiny in the hands of smugglers who are usually close to the regime forces and security apparatus.
The deadline for the settlement agreement in the south of Syria has ended without any long-term solution, which raised growing concerns among civilians in the southern parts of the country.
This settlement came after the signing of several reconciliation agreements between the Syrian armed opposition and regime forces in southern Syria, which began under direct Russian auspices from June 15, 2018, until the end of July 2018, and covered several areas that were included successively under the agreements, namely in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.
The settlement agreement provided for the return to the status quo prior to the outbreak of the revolution in 2011. One of the agreement’s terms stipulated that Syrian army defectors and those who dodged the draft were given a deadline of six months to join the army, which was renewed by the end of 2018 for another six months until June 2019.
An Aug. 9 report by the Istanbul-based Syrians For Truth and Justice organization says at least 10 to 20 people have been leaving the two provinces on a daily basis. The report says more than 25,000 young people have left Daraa and Quneitra since the beginning of the year through Aug. 7.
Those figures don't seem to mesh, unless far greater numbers were leaving on a daily basis earlier in the year, and one observer told Al-Monitor the totals seemed high. Samer al-Masalmeh, a political activist from Daraa, said, “The number of young people who fled the south of Syria is exaggerated. The settlement area is almost locked down by the regime and it is unlikely that such large numbers of people have managed to escape. They have to pay huge amounts of money and risk their lives.”
Syrians for Truth and Justice says the smuggling journey is a dangerous one for those who seek to leave their homes, as they are subjected to all kinds of extortion from smugglers. The smuggling costs sometimes amount to more than $3,000 per person, and many young people have been handed over to the regime's security services.
“The young people in Daraa and Quneitra, the areas of the settlement agreement, have one thing on their mind: how to escape their bitter reality and the compulsory recruitment into the regime’s ranks to fight against the [Syrian] opposition factions in Idlib,” Ayman Abo Noqta, a media activist in Daraa, told Al-Monitor.
“Young Syrians would rather risk their lives in the dangerous and costly smuggling journeys than live in the unknown. The security situation has become unbearable for them because of the arrests by the security services, the military security forces, air intelligence and political security apparatus. The bombings and assassinations of activists and former fighters in the opposition ranks have been on the increase,” he added.
The Syrians for Truth and Justice report adds that in the first half of 2019, more than 96 people were arrested at military checkpoints in Daraa. It says the number of detained from July 2018 until July of this year was 692 people, most of whom were apprehended at military checkpoints affiliated with the Syrian regime forces and security apparatuses that had been deployed at the entrances of cities and towns in the south of Syria.
“Young people in Daraa are afraid to leave their areas in search of job opportunities because of the security checkpoints and the arrest campaigns, which have crippled them and drowned them further into poverty. I believe this is the main reason why they are desperately trying to escape no matter the costs and risks of smuggling,” Yassin Qaddah, a media activist from the city of Harak in Daraa, told Al-Monitor.
“The majority of the young people head toward the opposition-held areas in Aleppo and its countryside. They have to go through the regime-controlled areas and therefore they are smuggled by officers in the Fourth Division in the Syrian army and Iranian militias that require huge amounts of money to get them to their destination. They sometimes ask for $2,000 per person,” he said.
“Not everyone can afford to pay such an amount. This is not to mention the risks and perils they face en route to the opposition-held areas. The majority of those who make it to Idlib start looking for ways to reach Turkey and for smugglers who can get the job done,” Qaddah added.
He also explained that “some of the displaced people from southern Syria head toward Lebanon, passing through the regime-controlled areas in Homs and are smuggled into Lebanon through the border via Syrian officers. Some others get betrayed by their smugglers and are handed over to the regime and security checkpoints after they rob them of their money.”
Qaddah said, “I believe the Syrian regime wants to drive all young Syrians out of the south of Syria by restricting their movement and forcing them to join the army. Forced displacement is an intentional policy by the regime and its Iranian militias.”
Ahmad Hourani is a young man hailing from the Quneitra countryside who arrived in the Aleppo countryside Aug. 1 through smuggling.
“I had to pay the smuggler $1,800. We were six people and the road took us more than a week. We passed through Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Apparently, there have been agreements with the soldiers at the security and military checkpoints as they let us through. The journey was an arduous and frightening one. We moved mostly in the dark,” Hourani told Al-Monitor.
“None of the international organizations are still active in our areas, which contributed to the decline of the standard of living and the high unemployment rate and lack of jobs. The Syrian government has also dismissed many civil servants from their jobs for several reasons, mainly for not joining the army and for previously working with opposition-affiliated institutions,” he said.
Hourani also said, “Working in agriculture is no longer feasible because of high fuel prices and the difficulty of marketing agricultural products. I was ordered to join the army and if I stayed I would have been conscripted and had to fight against the opposition, which I was part of.”
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