Who exactly are the new Syrians?

Dr. Halla Diyab
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As divided politicians gathered in a small white marquee pitched on a sweeping lawn at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva, their division spoke of the shrinking hopes of finding a political route out of the overdue Syrian peace talks. Meanwhile, the shores of the Mediterranean were lined with hope for ships passing in the dark nightwith refugees and potential extremists.

Five years on from the Syrian uprising, the international community is fixated on questions of how and when the two sides will agree on a political resolution. However, another question has received little or none of the world’s attention, which is “who exactly are the new Syrians?”


The Syrian crisis has resulted in the largest refugee exodus in recent history. The armed conflict, which erupted five years ago, has forced over eleven million Syrians out of their homes, with 7.6 million internally displaced and four million fleeing Syria. According to the UNHCR data, in Europe alone Syrian asylum applications exceeds 897,645 and the continent has 4,812,204 registered Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees are in the top ten nationalities of Mediterranean Sea arrivals, which numbered 156,519 in 2016. And as thousands of native Syrians pour out of Syria, attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean, there are thousands of Europeans openly travelling to Syria to fight with the terrorist group ISIS – possibly over 6,000 according to one EU source.

Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has established territorial existence in the heart of the Middle East, something which will facilitate the process of settlement and support its long-term goals of reconstructing the identity of Syria.

Dr. Halla Diyab

This spatial and ideological crossover is remapping the Syrian existence and these interconnected journeys, together with the rapid territorial expansion of ISIS in Syria – 50 percent of which is reportedly occupied by terrorists– urgently beg the question whether this mass movement of people is a straightforward exodus of desperation for a better life and the desire for survival, or rather, a strategic ISIS orchestrated ploy to eliminate Syrians from Syria, and a war of Syrian extermination.

With the political instability, and increasing upheaval since the uprising, the mass departure of Syrians on boats and the rapid vacation of Syrian land is an opportunity for ISIS to reinforce its territorial existence in Syria by taking over the land and deserted houses. They can fill these with the European and foreign extremists who are flocking to the country, either immigrating with their families or being encouraged to start new families.

This process of extremist resettlement is not only taking advantage of the precarious situation in Syria but is also supporting the long-term goal of ISIS to rear the next generation of loyalists, who will not only be ideologically indoctrinated with the extremists’ narrative but will also be identified with the territorial existence of ISIS on Syrian land. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has established territorial existence in the heart of the Middle East, something which will facilitate the process of settlement and support its long-term goals of reconstructing the identity of Syria by raising a whole new extremist generation in the county.

The breeding strategy of ISIS is based on offering generous financial incentives to the extremists to facilitate their family’s start up project, topped up with additional money for each child born. With ISIS’ influential propaganda machine successfully attracting thousands of foreigners to Syria, the group is achieving an acceleration of their program of eliminating diversity in the Syrian population and systematically transforming Syria into an ISIS’ state. This represents a gradual and internationally unacknowledged operation of cleansing and genocide of the Syrian people.

With estimates suggesting that the majority of Syrians will be located outside Syria in the coming years, relocating to different parts of the world and taking their culture with them, a territorial and cultural vacuum is being created. The ISIS is eradicating any traces of the most iconic Syrian cultural heritage and zealously pouring their own constructed culture into the void. The population shifts of militants and foreign fighters, and the generation that may follow it, will eventually become known as the new Syrians, with their culture not referred to as ISIS culture, but Syrian culture.

Transnational identity

ISIS transnational identity relies on the elimination of the Syrians’ national identity, but more significantly on the elevation and prioritizing of the rights and presence of Muslims from outside Syria above the indigenous Syrians. This ideological underpinning was manifested in the first audio speech of the group’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, where he encourages Muslims to immigrate to Syria as “Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis … The [Islamic] State is a state for all Muslims”. The land is for the Muslims, all the Muslims”.

History has an abundance of examples comparable to the Syrian scenario where people have had to leave their home countries en masse to survive war or oppression. In the 1970s millions of Indochinese took to the seas, fleeing conflict and brutal communist dictatorship; and many perished on these journeys of desperation. But the historical peculiarity of the Syrian situation is that it was sparked by an uprising which was aimed to bring a more politically and socially just society. However the uprising backfired and the country regressed into a state of collapse with the majority of its population fleeing their homeland.

According to reports, 75 percent of Syrian refugees are men, 12 percent women and 13 percent children; Syria is gradually being emptied of its youth, and the possibility of viable political opposition thriving within the country is increasingly unlikely, The country is left a divided territory with armed factions fighting each other and al-Assad inside Syria, leaving no real hope for any political reform or rebuilding of the country’s destroyed infrastructure.
The spatial exchange is causing the replacement of Syrians with foreign terrorists who have no emotional or national attachment to the country. This can play into the hands of ISIS’ brutality as it allows these fighters to ruthlessly carry out savage atrocities against Syria’s thousand years of ethnic and religious diversity, with the aim of constructing a Syria populated by extremists receptive to the extreme narrative of ISIS.

With the international community focusing its attention on the peace talks in Geneva, and the rising refugee crisis, we cannot afford to disregard the growing threat of ISIS gradually presenting themselves as the new face of Syria, and so we must not be allowed to be fooled into forgetting to ask in whose interest lies the emptiness of Syria of its people? And in what direction Syria is heading if the situation continues as it is now? And, most importantly, how will the world manage the increasing danger of the new Syrians?
Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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