Policy Brief - Council on Foreign Relations Press Foreign Affairs

What Do Syrians Want Their Future to Be?

| May 1, 2017

A Survey of Refugees in Turkey

As the Syrian civil war enters its seventh year, the violence shows no signs of abating. Yet another round of peace talks has concluded in Geneva without any significant progress. Throughout these talks, representatives from different sides in the conflict have repeatedly referred to the Syrian people as the ultimate authority on the way forward for the war-torn country. When asked recently about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future role, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillersondeclared it “will be decided by Syrian people.” The Assad regime has made similar statements, as have the opposition groups, Iran, Russia, and Turkey.

Despite this public appreciation for Syrians’ views about how to bring an end to the conflict, there is surprisingly little hard evidence about what Syrians themselves actually think about the future of their country. A year ago, we set out to address this information gap, conducting face-to-face interviews with 1,120 Syrians in Turkey, a country that now hosts nearly three million Syrian refugees.

Our interviews took place in late summer and fall of 2016 in four Turkish provinces: Gaziantep, Hatay, Sanliurfa, which all share a border with Syria, and Istanbul, which is far from the border but hosts 500,000 Syrian refugees—more than any other province in Turkey. Together, the four provinces host more than half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. We conducted our interviews in urban neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Syrians by randomly selecting streets in these neighborhoods and then randomly selecting households on those streets. Our respondents were diverse in terms of age, profession, ethnicity, language, sect, and region of origin. There was also significant variation with respect to people’s time of departure from Syria, making our sample diverse in terms of their war experiences. Finally, despite the difficulty of interviewing Syrian women because of gender norms about contact with strangers, about 40 percent of our sample consisted of female Syrians.

An overwhelming majority of those we surveyed—close to 90 percent—embraced the idea of returning to Syria when the war is over. These interviews thus provide a rare glimpse into the views of those who consider themselves part of the country’s future. A number of lessons about how Syrians envision the future of their country stand out, many of which undermine the prevailing wisdom about the conflict and the peace process.


The first major takeaway is that despite enormous anxiety in Europe about Syrian refugees coming in from Turkey—and a range of policies such as the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU designed to stop it—most of our respondents had no interest in getting to the continent. We asked our respondents where, ideally, they would like to be living five years from now. The vast majority (90 percent) hoped to return to Syria, whereas only six percent wanted to remain in Europe. When asked for their second choice, the number who wanted to stay in Turkey rose to about 85 percent, but only nine percent reported they would like to be in Europe.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Fabbe, Kristin E., Chad Hazlett and Tolga Sinmazdemir. “What Do Syrians Want Their Future to Be?.” Policy Brief, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations Press, May 1, 2017.

The Authors