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What Syrian refugees tell us about their hopes and fears for the future

Syrian government forces drive a tank during a military operation against the Islamic State in the villages of Zarour and Khanaser last month.

Syrian peace talks that resumed Monday in Geneva seek a political solution to satisfy Syria’s major armed groups and the many international actors now involved in the conflict. What do Syrian civilians want for Syria’s future?

Syria’s war conditions have made it difficult to directly access the views of Syrian civilians.  It is noteworthy, therefore, that several important efforts have recently been made to systematically survey the views of Syrians about their political future.  In late January to early February 2016, we surveyed Syrian refugees living in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, home to approximately 325,000 Syrians. We conducted 264 interviews with 170 men and 94 women, almost all from the Aleppo governorate.

Despite the divisions driven by the war, the majority of these civilians hope to return home to a unified Syria and see the Islamic State as an even greater threat than the regime. Most intriguingly, while unsurprisingly reticent to live near groups associated with the other side in the conflict, our respondents showed a remarkable willingness to help their fellow citizens, regardless of political affiliation.

The survey responses attest to the widespread extent of trauma and losses. Most participants (69 percent) reported that barrel bombs hit the neighborhood they come from at some point during the conflict. More than 27 percent of respondents reported that barrel bombs specifically hit their home building or the one next to it. About half, 45 percent, of respondents reported that the home they were living in was destroyed badly enough to be unlivable.

When asked what groups pose the single greatest threat to the security of Syria, 42 percent of respondents chose the Islamic State, while 23 percent chose the regime (note that 21 percent chose not to respond). This pattern holds even among those who lost their home to regime-perpetrated barrel bombings. Only 10 percent of the respondents, however, reported “international powers” as the main threat, even though these surveys were conducted shortly after Russia began carrying out heavy bombardment of opposition-held areas in and around Aleppo.

The focus on the Islamic State by the Syrians in this survey contrasts strikingly with the findings of an earlier survey of Syrian refugees in Germany conducted with the support of Planet Syria, Adopt a Revolution and the Syria Campaign, which found that refugees’ primary source of fear and reason to leave the country was not ISIS but the organized violence of the Assad regime.

There are many possible explanations for this disparity as these surveys sampled refugees from different parts of Syria at different times. One interesting part of the explanation may be the gender composition of the two surveys – 36 percent female in our study versus 11 percent in the German sample. Among the men in our sample, 49 percent see the Islamic State as the main threat, but the Assad regime is not far behind at 33 percent. However, among women surveyed, this gap is much larger, with 62 percent naming ISIS as the greatest threat compared to only 22 percent citing the regime. Similarly, only three percent of women say that international powers are the greatest threat, compared to 17 percent of men.

Figure 1. “In your opinion, which of the following groups I will read is the biggest security threat to the country of Syria?”


As peace negotiators begin to discuss possible solutions, how do civilians think the conflict should be resolved? We asked whether each of several scenarios would be an ideal ending to the conflict, with respondents free to select as many options as they wanted.

Of those who responded, 71 percent agreed that an “end to the fighting in Syria” would be ideal. Sixty-five percent of respondents agreed that removal of the Assad regime would be an ideal ending.  These results suggest that there would be strong support among these refugees for a negotiated outcome that resulted in Assad’s departure from power, even if this meant ending efforts to overthrow him by force.

While various pundits and diplomats – including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – have mentioned partition as a possible solution, our respondents resolutely reject it. Only seven percent endorsed it as an ideal resolution. Moreover, when directly asked “Do you think Syria should remain united or should be divided?” only six interviewees (2.2 percent) said it should be divided.

Although respondents in our sample want to maintain the integrity of the state territorially, they are apparently less convinced by the possibility of local integration of their communities. This speaks to one of the most difficult dimensions of ending civil wars: how to structure populations who have an overwhelming resistance to partition, yet have little desire to share daily life with other groups. The survey does not reveal whether these views are driven mainly by individuals’ fears for their security in a post-conflict state or by other concerns and whether sufficiently robust security arrangements or efforts at reconciliation could alter these attitudes.

Most respondents do expect to return home at some point, with 95 percent saying that an end to fighting would be sufficient grounds for returning. Despite their rejection of partition, however, they remain apprehensive of living in close proximity with supporters of armed groups – even opposition fighters. Among respondents, 37 percent said that the other members of their community would be willing to live in a building or neighborhood with people who supported other armed groups, such as opposition forces. Only 18 percent could see their community members living together with regime supporters, and just 11 percent thought that their community members would be willing to live together with ISIS supporters.

Figure 2. “Do you think other members of your community would be willing to live in a building/neighborhood with people who supported…”


Despite their reluctance to be neighbors with supporters of rival groups, our survey suggests that Syrian civilians maintain room for compassion. When asked whether they would be supportive of a member of their community who “helped provide services and aid to those in both opposition and regime held areas,” 83 percent said they would somewhat or strongly approve. Only eight percent said they would somewhat or strongly disagree.

Figure 3. “If a member of your community helped provide services and aid to those in both opposition and regime held areas, would you strongly approve, somewhat approve, Be neutral, somewhat disapprove or strongly disapprove of this?”


We also asked, “If you encountered a fellow Syrian that you knew had fought with the regime and that person needed immediate life-saving assistance, would you help the person?” Only 12.5 percent of people said they would not provide life-saving aid in this situation. We regard this as reason for optimism. While participants clearly worry about the consequences of living near to members of other groups, this does not appear to be out of a deeply felt antipathy or hatred.

Syrian civilians, both inside Syria and abroad, lack a direct voice in deciding the fate of their country. While the peace talks are bringing together principally armed actors, a durable solution must ultimately satisfy a larger portion of the population. Determining what civilians want will require a broader process that includes them, for which no survey can substitute. Nevertheless these results provide a useful glimpse into the attitudes of a particular subset of Syrian refugees. Those we spoke with want to return home and say they would if fighting stops. Despite their suffering and concerns about living together in close proximity with supporters of various armed groups, our respondents showed a remarkable compassion for all sides in the conflict. They also showed a strong preference for a united Syria. It is yet to be seen whether those in power and at the negotiating table in Geneva will have the same goals or be able to achieve them.

Kristin Fabbe is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School; Chad Hazlett is an assistant professor of statistics and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles; and Tolga Sinmazdemir is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Bogazici University in Turkey and a visiting researcher in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.