Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dangerous changes in Syria

Demographic changes based on sectarian criteria are underway in Syria that carry the seeds of their own destruction

Dangerous changes in Syria
A Syrian doctor treating a child following a suspected chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib. The attack killed dozens of people on Tuesday (photo: AP)

An agreement has been reached to exchange tens of thousands of Sunni Syrians from Zabadani and Maddaya outside Damascus for thousands of Shia and Alawite Syrians in Kafriya and Foaa outside Idlib, as part of a larger “Four Cities” agreement.

It is the largest and most serious example of deliberate demographic change in the country since the start of the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad six years ago.

The Syrian opposition controls Zabadani and Maddaya, the home of 40,000 Sunnis who oppose the regime, while regime forces and Lebanese Hizbullah militias have tightly surrounded the area for the past three years.

The regime controls Kafriya and Foaa outside the northern city of Idlib, controlled by staunchly pro-regime Shia and Alawites, and the area has been surrounded by opposition forces for the past two years.

Should opposition forces storm these two towns, it would likely lead to sectarian bloodbaths that would transform the Syrian conflict into a sectarian war.

The regime and armed opposition have reached an agreement through Iranian and Gulf mediators to evacuate the original residents of the towns, replacing them with others in a bid to make areas under the control of each side entirely friendly to them.

According to reports, the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people has started and will continue for the next 60 days. According to critics, the changes threaten the future of Syria and the Syrian people.

The Syrian opposition says that the residents do not want to leave their homes, but the conditions under which they live have become unbearable. They have no water, electricity, hospitals, food or medicine as a result of the state of siege, and the exchange will at least solve the misery of civilians.

The regime says the deal guarantees the departure of Shia and Alawite residents from towns loyal to the regime and prevents their possible annihilation. The towns are under siege by opposition forces, though these have made no attempts to invade them.

The evacuation of Sunni residents from the Al-Waar district of Homs in central Syria began two weeks ago, the only neighbourhood of the city that was not destroyed or evacuated earlier. The city has now been transformed from its historic Sunni nature, and it has become almost entirely Shia with the exception of this single district.

A few months earlier, the regime expelled the residents of Daria after two-and-a-half years of siege, handing over in the security of the area to Hizbullah as part of a deal between the regime and city fighters. The deal does not allow the original residents to return even if they are cleared by security as having had nothing to do with military operations or opposition activities.

Daria overlooks the Al-Maza military base, and it has been a source of concern for the regime which has sought to evacuate the regions south and east of the capital Damascus of their original residents and to replace them with loyalists. The latter are of the same religious sect as regime leaders, making this part of an unmistakable policy of sectarian demographic change.

The original residents are taken north to Idlib, a centre of the armed opposition factions. The regime, Iran and Russia claim that the area is a stronghold for Al-Qaeda in Syria, along with the Al-Nusra Front/Fath Al-Sham militias, saying that those living there necessarily adopt these groups’ ideology.

The local people deny these claims and worry that they could be used as pretexts for bombing the city, as happened in nearby eastern Aleppo.

The majority of the forced displacements and demographic changes are being carried out under UN auspices or Russian sponsorship and supervision. Instead of the major powers and the UN sponsoring the population’s stability and ensuring that there are no demographic changes that could impact populations that have existed in the area for hundreds of years, they are instead almost blessing what has been happening.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned at the end of February of the dangers of the demographic changes occurring in Syria. “We are very concerned by sectarian segregation and the movement of groups from one place to another based on ethnicity,” Putin told officers taking part in Russian military operations in Syria.

Yet, his country has been playing a key role in what is happening.

It is difficult to be sure of the scale of the demographic changes taking place. According to the UN, 700,000 displaced people arrived in Idlib last autumn, and this is not the only province that has received such refugees.

A report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think tank in December 2015 revealed extensive demographic shifts in Syria, not only for reasons of the conflict in the country, but also because of deliberate ethnic cleansing carried out by all sides.

Demographic changes have thus been occurring in several areas for several years. They began in Homs in early 2012, and they have included ethnic shifts by the Kurds in northern Syria that have had catastrophic impacts on the area.

The military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) composed of militias such as the People’s Protection Units, the Women’s Protection Units and the Democratic Syria Forces has burned dozens of Arab villages in northern Syria and expelled their residents because they are Arab or Assyrian Christians.

Those who have refused to leave have been massacred, according to international human rights reports, in a Kurdish campaign to vacate northern Syria of Arabs and Assyrians and replace them with Kurds brought in by the PYD and militias from Turkey, Iraq and Iran. This is a prelude to establishing a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria or possibly even independence.

“There have been dangerous population shifts in Syria, whether forced by the regime or the Kurds, or voluntarily to flee death and destruction,” Youssef Dalo, a member of the Syrian opposition, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Some 12 million Syrians have emigrated or fled. Yet, the crisis drags on and the displacement continues from one region to another based on ethnicity, religion or sect. This means there are systematic demographic changes occurring, and their catastrophic outcomes on the Middle East as a whole cannot be predicted until the end of the war.”

Nader Jabal, a human rights activist, told the Weekly that “events in Syria and Iraq are evidence that the Middle East is undergoing serious ethnic and sectarian demographic changes. They could be even more extensive than during the creation of the state of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians.”

What has compounded the pain and danger is the fact that none of the major powers involved in the Syrian conflict and having leverage over those carrying out the displacements and demographic changes have criticised the war crimes and crimes against humanity that are surely taking place.

The demographic shifts in Syria will gravely impact the whole Middle East, however, redrawing the map of the region in preparation for new divisions a century after the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between the European colonial powers.

This time, however, the divisions will be along religious, doctrinal and ethnic lines, at best creating mini-states that bear the seeds of their own destruction.

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