Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Syria’s demographic re-engineering

The demographic changes undertaken by the Syrian regime, Iranians and Kurds are cynical and political and herald the probability of recurrent civil wars

Syria’s demographic re-engineering
Syria’s demographic re-engineering

The Syrian regime has continuously sought the necessary tools to immortalise its reign. For five decades, it had been determined in this endeavour under Hafez Al-Assad, followed by his son Bashar. It suppressed the opposition and put them in jail, established a security state primarily based on sectarianism, and committed crimes whenever it felt a threat to its power. But no Syrian ever expected the regime would resort to displacing residents from their villages, towns and cities to replace them with mercenaries from other countries in a broad operation of demographic change that threatens the national fabric of Syria. It is equivalent to a crime against humanity.

Two years after the Syrian crisis began, the Syrian opposition had taken control of towns and cities across the country and the regime was unable to regain control of them militarily. Instead, the regime resorted to the most destructive weapon of all: Siege and starvation. It also used random air strikes against these towns and villages to force residents and opposition fighters to agree to conciliation. Most of these deals require fighters and residents to evacuate these towns and cities and move to areas in the north in return for their lives. Bashar Al-Assad justified this tactic in an interview last April when he said: “If we do not win the war, this means erasing Syria off the map.”

Historically, Syria consists of religious and ethnic diversity that has greatly assisted its development and openness to the East and West. Syria’s geography was also built on a comprehensive economic and societal foundation, and this social, ethnic and economic diversity allowed it to grow and prosper. Since independence, Syrians did not suffer from discrimination over sectarian, religious or ethnic differences until Hafez Al-Assad came to power in 1973. He immediately changed the army’s top leadership, expelling Sunnis and replacing them with Alawi officers. He also gave privileges to members of his sect in government and security positions, and gave them priority.

In the last decades of Assad’s reign between 1990-2000, the Iranians began plotting to meddle in Syria’s demography. This completely changed the delicate balance that had been in place in Syria for centuries. Al-Assad encouraged this plot and facilitated Iranian infiltration of Syrian society to achieve Tehran’s goal of promoting Shiism and expanding Iran’s economic and cultural influence in Syria — an influence that was primarily based on a distinctly ideological basis.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution and Bashar Al-Assad adopting the tactics of siege and death or forced displacement against any popular dissent, the Sunni majority — for the first time in their history — were subjected to systematic and forced displacement, and were replaced by Shias from outside the country. After they felt they had mostly succeeded in their goals, the sponsors of this plot took measures to ensure the displaced who left the country would never return again, and those displaced inside Syria would not return to their homes and towns that they were forced to leave. This would guarantee that Syria’s social structure remains unstable. But they did not realise that meddling with this ethnic and sectarian balance would probably soon lead to open-ended civil wars, destabilise the region and also have geographic ramifications that would impact the entire region.

The most recent forced displacement operation was on 14 February, when the residents of Maddaya and Al-Zabadani in western rural Damascus were forced to leave and go to Idlib province in north Syria, after years of siege and starvation of civilians by the regime and Lebanon’s Hizbullah. It was one of the largest demographic conversions because it included thousands of residents at once. According to a deal, the entire pro-regime Shia populations of Al-Fouaa and Kafriya were also evacuated to other provinces. Thus, the regime agreed to an operation of dual displacement and demographic change, without even a thought for the lives and stability of Shias who are loyal to the regime and have fought alongside it for six years. This is only because Hizbullah wants to take control of Zabadani and Maddaya because they neighbour areas where Hizbullah is present in Lebanon, and are a crucial part of the arms smuggling route from Iran via Syria to Lebanon.

“By all standards, this deal is a crime against humanity based on paragraph (d) of Article 7 of the statutes of the International Criminal Court,” declared Suleiman Shamri. “The demographic changes undertaken by the regime and its allies in Syria have entered a critical phase because of forced displacement explicitly based on ideology.”

The deal is the latest step in the demographic transformation forced on the Sunni majority in Syria over the past six years. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds forcibly removed Syrian Arabs from more than 50 villages in northern Syria and replaced them with Kurds from Turkey and Iran. They are not Syrian citizens and are loyal to the Turkish PKK led by Abdullah Ocalan, which Turkey describes as a terrorist group. Kurds removed Arab residents from these villages and towns under the pretext of fighting Islamic State (IS), and burnt down some villages when residents refused to leave. They also committed massacres in some areas that were documented by Syrian human rights groups.

Demographic conversion began after the start of the revolution against the Syrian regime in 2011 and consists of two phases. First, before Al-Assad’s address on 26 July 2015, and the second after the speech. In the address, he declared: “The homeland is not for those who live in it or carry its passport. The homeland is for those who defend and protect it.” He also said: “A people who do not defend their homeland have no country and do not deserve to have one.”

The speech came at a time when his military forces were largely losing ground and his regime almost collapsed, albeit for Iran’s critical intervention by sending many Shia combatants from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan to Al-Assad’s aid. They enabled him to remain in place and restore his power. The address indicated the price Al-Assad is willing to pay for any mercenaries who help him stay in power.

And Al-Assad kept his word. In late October 2016, more than one year after his initial address, Al-Assad told US journalists: “Syria’s social fabric is much better than before.” This meant it was better after killing more than half-a-million Syrians, displacing almost half of the Syrian population, and granting citizenship to tens of thousands of mercenaries who were sent by Iran to fight alongside the regime.

Here, one must refer to the forced displacement in Al-Qoseir in Homs in central Syria, which is today entirely inhabited by Hizbullah militias. Also, forced displacement in the old quarters in Homs, Daria and Maadamiyah in western Damascus. In the eastern part of Aleppo, the original residents were removed, as were those in Ghouta in eastern Damascus and other parts of Syria.

“The Syrian regime brought in Iraqi families from southern provinces that have a Shia majority and housed them in many areas in Syria that were vacated,” said Shamri. “Now, the Iraqi Nujabaa Movement led by Akram Al-Kaabi who is directly connected to Iran’s Grand Imam Ali Khamenei, is in charge of this situation and gives every family a house and a monthly salary.”

Many Syrians view what is happening today as an Iranian-Assad plot to replace Syria’s native residents with Shia settlers from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in order to take possession of land and homes — similar to what Israel did when it displaced the native population of Palestine.

Many Syrians also view what happened as the implementation of a covert plot to divide the country, whereby all those in the opposition are removed from “useful Syria”, and all those who demanded freedom and dignity would be huddled into a “religious emirate” that would be under siege by the entire world. Even though “division” is not mentioned in Russia’s rhetoric, Moscow has never intervened to prevent demographic conversions by the regime, Iran or the Kurds.

The regime’s plot for demographic transformation is unfeasible, unsustainable and unstable, because it consists of a minority that is extensively surrounded by native residents. This means the regime’s success in carrying out demographic changes here and there are mere attempts that are unlikely to become permanent demographic realities. At the same time, if it continues, it could bode long and difficult civil wars. This also raises doubts about the intentions of Iran and the Kurds.

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