Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1323, (8 - 14 December 2016)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1323, (8 - 14 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Demographic change in Syria

The Syrian regime aided by Russia and Iran is attempting systematic demographic change in opposition areas of the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The presence of green public-sector trucks on the outskirts of areas under siege in Syria have become an ominous sign for residents, especially those associated with the opposition to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The trucks often mean that a process of forced evacuation has started of activists and residents who oppose the regime, rounding them up and sending them to various destinations in what appears to be a process of coercive demographic change.

This action by the regime is prevalent in areas where there are armed opposition factions. It begins with military operations accompanied by heavy air and artillery fire that result in a heavy loss of life and the destruction of infrastructure, especially hospitals, power transformers and water plants.

This is followed by a period of siege in which materials are blocked from entering or leaving the besieged areas. Then come negotiations with the residents, mostly forced local forms of reconciliation that promise a ceasefire and an end to the destruction. Any combatants and their civilian supporters are then shipped out to northern Syria, leaving regime forces to take control.

Meanwhile, Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghan militias play a key role in the sieges and participate in the regime strikes. After a reconciliation, or displacement, deal is struck, some of these militias are deployed in a process that is changing Syria’s demographic identity.

The armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party has also burned dozens of villages in northern Syria, vacating them of their original residents and claiming they are Kurdish villages and annexing them to Kurdish self-governance areas with an eye on secession.

The Syrian opposition and residents of towns and cities where local reconciliation deals have been made say that the regime is carrying out systematic ethnic cleansing through the forced evacuation of existing residents. This has occurred in the Blodan, Dariya, Maadamiya, Al-Tal and Khan Al-Sheikh areas around Damascus and in other towns and cities, they say.

The regime is insisting that combatants and some residents leave for Idlib in northern Syria, a red flag for the opposition since the regime appears to be assembling opposition fighters from across the country in this northern city in preparation for targeting them later.

Humanitarian conditions are difficult in the areas under siege, which is why the opposition fighters have accepted to negotiate with the regime. The latter has promised local residents that it will end the sieges and will not deploy its loyal militias inside the cities.

However, in reality a civil security committee composed of regime supporters is then appointed to the city supervised by the Syrian intelligence services. Demographic shift operations are carried out with its consent, while residents are unable to protest.

There have been several campaigns to protest against forced displacements and demographic changes, while human rights activists have filed legal recourses with the UN and other international bodies documenting the actions of the regime and its militia allies.

But these attempts have been in vain, since no one on the regional or international stages seems interested in the demographic changes taking place in Syria.

A study by a Syrian human rights group on forced displacements and sieges with the aim of displacement has revealed that 1.25 million people are living under siege today east of Damascus and 250,000 to its south.

There are 100,000 people living under siege in Deir Al-Zor and 500,000 in eastern Aleppo. The groups adds that more than 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes during the conflict in the country, meaning that Syria’s demographic map has changed drastically during six years of war.

“The purpose of the forced evacuation and the changing of demographics by the regime is to divide the country based on ethnicity and sect,” said the National Coalition of Opposition Forces. “It is about finding a formula to keep Al-Assad in power.”

Salim Hajo, an activist living under siege in eastern Aleppo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the residents of eastern districts have refused to leave and have turned down the regime’s offer to evacuate them from the city under UN supervision as they understand that if they leave their homes they will end up like the residents of Dariya, Maadamiya and Blodan.”

“They will be scattered across the land, and the regime will bring in Iranians to occupy their homes, ending any hope that they could ever return,” he said.

Georges Sabra, a member of the opposition’s Supreme Commission for Negotiations (SCN), accused the UN of assisting the regime in the displacement policies. “A UN report stating that 50 per cent of eastern Aleppo residents wanted to leave is fictitious and prejudiced,” Sabra said.

“It is unfortunate that the UN is supporting the Al-Assad regime in its displacement policies. The opposition will reject any proposal to evacuate Syrian people from their homes under the pretext of protecting them. The UN must come up with solutions to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians instead of going along with the Al-Assad regime’s starvation policies,” he added.

SCN spokesman Riyad Naasan Agha accused the regime of replacing the original residents with Iranian and Iraqi combatants. “What is happening is a plot to expel residents from areas surrounding Damascus and replace them with Shiite settlers from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in a way similar to what Israel did when it displaced Palestinians from Palestine,” he said. 

Agha said the reason opposition fighters were being relocated to northern Syria was “to cement a stealth plan for division. The opposition will be removed from areas under regime control, and all those who demanded freedom and dignity will be crammed into Idlib. The city will then be put under siege and pummelled by the international coalition as part of the war on terrorism just because they do not support the regime,” Agha said.

During the six years of war in which the Syrian regime has resorted to security and military options to confront a people demanding political change, the country has been subjected to multiple political, social and economic shocks that have threatened its very existence.

The regime has hired foreign forces to support it with force of arms. It has adopted a strategy of evacuating various areas and replacing entire populations. The goal is to change the country’s demography to favour the regime.

The worst risk in areas subjected to siege, starvation and the direct threat of extermination are the “national reconciliation” deals sometimes supervised by Russia. These help to reduce the salience of the Syrian cause on the international stage and increase the Syrian people’s sense of abandonment.

If the crimes of forced displacement and demographic change carried out by the regime and the Syrian Kurds continue, allowing foreign militias to replace the original residents, Sunni Muslims may become a minority in Syria even though they once accounted for 75 per cent of the population.

This would facilitate the Iranian plot to create a “Shia Crescent” in the region that Tehran has now been working on for almost a decade.

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