Escaping from Deir Ezzor

On December 27, Syrian media group Justice for Life Observatory in Deir Ezzor (JFL) published a report on the challenges facing civilians living in and fleeing from Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh)-occupied areas in Deir Ezzor. In early 2016, the Islamic State seized large swaths of the eastern province, establishing a conduit between the group’s de facto capital in Raqqa and its other occupied territories along the Euphrates River and imposing the group’s restrictive rule on Deir Ezzor’s residents. Conflict between the group and the Syrian Army is ongoing, leaving civilians caught in the crossfire and faced with a difficult decision: should they stay or should they leave?

For one former resident of Deir Ezzor, who used the name Muhammad al-Hassan, staying in Deir Ezzor and joining ISIS at first seemed like the only choice. “I am just like every other man from Deir Ezzor who was forced to join the Islamic State to stay alive,” he told JFL. Al-Hassan listed inability to leave the city and the need of livelihood as his reasons for staying, but noted that some men joined the group as an outlet to seek revenge against those they had a personal vendetta with. Despite his reasons for joining the Islamic State, al-Hassan decided to defect when it became apparent to him that the group did not care about non-members in the slightest. When an air strike on Mayadin’s marketplace killed civilians, al-Hassan overheard another Islamic State member rejoicing that “none of the brothers were killed, [only] commoners,” he began planning his escape. Another man from Deir Ezzor, a father of five who gave the pseudonym Abdullah, told JFL that he fled west with his family to Idlib in the hope that his children would be able to continue their education there, away from Islamic State influence. However, Abdullah, like many displaced from Deir Ezzor, found that his difficulties did not end after he left the province.

Those who decide to leave areas occupied by the Islamic State face serious challenges to doing so. Women especially struggle to leave, as the Islamic State monitors and restricts their movement and forbids them from traveling without a male chaperone. This leaves unaccompanied women, many of whose male relatives are engaged in battle or have been killed in combat, unable to flee Deir Ezzor. Some turn to smugglers for assistance, who can provide their clients with new identity documents, transportation, and help in navigating Islamic State checkpoints without arousing suspicion. However, smugglers face serious repercussions from the Islamic State, which has deemed smuggling a crime punishable by mutilation and/or execution. Families that can secure a smuggler face a long and arduous journey. One woman told JFL that she and her mother and three sisters travelled 24 hours from Deir Ezzor to Salqin in Idlib province, including hours of travel by foot over rough terrain and crossing several Islamic State checkpoints where they were interrogated about the purpose of their travel. Escapees also face landmines and other explosive devices planted by the Islamic State in order to prevent civilians from evacuating areas controlled by the group. The report from JFL indicated that the Islamic State needs to keep civilians in its territories because it uses them as human shields, gets revenues from taxes the group imposes on them.

Despite difficulties in doing so, large numbers of civilians have chosen to risk the consequences and migrate to other provinces. Hasaka province, which enjoys relative stability under the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), has become a major destination for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Others travel to the southern provinces, especially Damascus, where they hope to find job opportunities with the government or shelter with relatives. Unfortunately, they are not always met with hospitality. IDPs reported to JFL that families traveling from Deir Ezzor are often detained indefinitely by Syrian military forces at security checkpoints in al-Suwayda, where they are not given aid but rather forced to buy food and medicine at inflated prices.

The greatest density of IDPs from Deir Ezzor is in Idlib province, in western Syria. Many choose to stay in Idlib, which under opposition control, rather than move on to Turkey, where there are more job opportunities, due to the low cost of living in the province. However, IDPs in Idlib have to adjust to unfamiliar customs and foods and they face poor humanitarian conditions. There is a lack of housing opportunities for IDPs, and those who cannot afford rent for an apartment shared with other IDPs may pitch tents in order to shelter their families. One woman said the worst thing in Idlib was the aerial bombardment they were exposed to in Idlib. While living conditions may be better in Idlib than in the Islamic State-occupied areas they fled, IDPs expressed to JFL a sincere desire to return to their areas of origin as soon as it is safe to do so.

Despite the tenuous situation for IDPs in Idlib and other areas of displacement, there is a reported lack of assistance by local government and relief organizations: “nobody cares about the displaced, except the displaced,” one migrant from Deir Ezzor told JFL. IDPs from eastern Syria reported that they often face discriminatory treatment from locals, who view them as Islamic State sympathizers or affiliates, as well as exploitation by merchants who believe Syrians from the east have more money and inflate their prices accordingly. In the city of Azaz, 40 kilometers north of Aleppo, the Sharia court reportedly banned the entrance of IDPs from eastern Syria under the pretext that they would spread Islamic State doctrine. While there have been some instances of humanitarian action, such as the establishment of temporary camps on land rented by local activists, JFL concludes that the response has been weakened by tribal and regional divisions, leaving IDPs reliant on relatives and other sympathetic IDPs.

Emily Burchfield is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Harir Center.

Related Experts:

Image: Photo: Rebel fighters attend military training in Idlib province, Syria October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah