SyriaSource April 4, 2019

The institutionalization of demographic change in Syria

By Hasan Arfeh

Before 2011, Syria’s population was estimated at twenty one million people. But after eight years of conflict, five million fled the country, and more than six million are internally displaced people (IDP)s between Idlib province and northern Syria. This displacement is not merely a consequence of the war, but rather a specific goal of the regime and its allies’ strategy in order to regain control of the country. The regime carried out widespread forced displacement in Homs, Damascus, Aleppo and the nearby countryside to effect demographic change. The regime rewarded loyalists with homes in Damascus and punished opposition figures and communities by forcibly evacuating them from their homes to the other side of the country. This tactic is integral to the regime in order to consolidate control over Syria after the war ends.

Early on in the Syrian popular uprising, the regime revealed an intention to alter the demographics of certain cities; with Homs a prime example of its future strategy. The initial signs were first seen in February 2012, when regime forces destroyed Baba Amr neighborhood, an opposition held territory, in southern Homs. After an intense assault, the regime drove out an estimated 35,000 residents to other parts of Homs and the countryside. This was followed by the massacre of the Karam al-Zeitoun neighborhood, in which an estimated 50,000 residents were forced out and unable to return. After regime’s forces ended their offensive with opposition in Baba Amr, they turned their focus to other opposition held neighborhoods such as Bayada and Khaldieh in March 2012. The regime displaced 190,000 residents that year. Late in 2013, residents of Qusayr neighborhood, located in Homs countryside along the Lebanese border, were also forcibly displaced.

A Systematic Approach to Demographic Change

After the regime began to gain the upper hand militarily, it used Russian or Iranian mediated negotiations to create reconciliation agreements—although they more closely resembled terms of surrender—as another method to forcibly displace armed opposition groups and remaining residents. As part of the negotiated terms, all were required to leave in government sanctioned—and thereafter—iconic green buses; all overseen by UN observers and Russian military advisors.

A series of agreements began between February and May 2014 to evacuate opposition fighters and civilians from Old Homs and Damascus to the rest of the city and countryside; with some eventually displaced to northern Syria:

In April 2017, a key agreement was reached regarding four long-contested cities—al-Zabadani, Madaya, Kafraya, and Fuaa—which was actually agreed to in 2015, but not executed until 2017. The agreement was signed by the extremist groups Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham from one side and the regime, along with its allies Hezbollah and Iran on the other. The agreement stipulated that the signatories would exchange prisoners and that there would be an exchange of residents from Madaya and al-Zabadani in the Damascus countryside for the residents from Kafraya and Fuaa in the Idlib countryside.

Iran was an essential part of the reconciliation agreements with the opposition and would send its own negotiators to work with the opposition to ensure the regime’s interests were represented. The four-cities agreement, for instance, moved the mainly-Shia regime loyalists closer to the capital, shoring up the regime’s and Iran’s control. It forced opposition residents from Eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside to Idlib essentially emptying long held opposition control in surrounding areas. By having a role in these agreements, Iran sought to secure its influence in Syria remains after the war, and protect its regional interests.

Bassam Quwwatly, the president of a human rights organization focused on Syria known as Ahrar, says, “Iran sees its goal as connecting Iraq with Lebanon, the Mediterranean sea, and the Syrian-Palestinian borders. It is going about this by changing the demographic building blocks to a sect [Shia] that is more loyal to Iran than its own community. Even if Iran were forced out of Syria, it will retain a presence and will remain a key stakeholder—from Abu Kamal through Deir Ezzor to Palmyra, Homs, al-Qusayr, and Damascus.”

Legalizing Demographic Change

The regime did not use reconciliation agreements by itself to enforce demographic change. It went further and ratified new laws to legalize its control of properties and land across the state. On April 2, 2018, Assad issued Law No. 10, which stipulates that any administrative body or local council has “the permission to create one or more development areas within the administrative units’ public development plan.”

Any area in need of development can be transferred to a holding company which can start development projects. Moreover, within thirty days property owners must present proof of ownership. Otherwise, ownership goes to the administrative body. Thirty days is not enough time for property owners to submit papers especially for displaced people. This paves the way for the regime to repossess vast amounts of property and land.

Law No. 10 builds on Decree 66, which ordered the establishment of two development areas in the ring around only Damascus province. In contrast, Law No. 10 extends the Syrian regimes’ authority to redevelop residential areas in all of Syria. This law gives wide-reaching authority to the Syrian regime to control vast territories, especially those that it recovered from the opposition. By reclaiming property and land from those that oppose the regime, it can punish them even further.

The regime however claims, according to Rama Zahir, the aide to the Minister of Public Works and Housing, that, “Law No. 10 takes part in treating residential slums, collective offenses, and areas destroyed by terrorist activity. It guarantees the building of various industrial, residential, and investment complexes that have services and high quality infrastructure.”

Ibrahim al-Husayn, a Syrian judge and the head of al-Kawakiby Center for Transitional Justice and Human Rights, says:

“The basic principle of the state issuing legislation that aims to develop slums or rebuild areas that have been damaged due to disasters and wars is praiseworthy. Law No. 10 might seem to fall under this framework. However, one cannot help but be suspicious of it due to the circumstances under which it came about.”

A number of human rights groups and analysts criticized the law, which forced the regime to issue Law No. 42 / 2018 to amend it. The amendment extends the grace period for the owners to submit their documents to one year instead of one month.

Nonetheless, this amendment does not ease people’s fears, and it will not be able to guarantee that this law, other property, and penal legislations will not be used to punish the regime’s opponents, especially since Legislative Decree No. 63 / 2012 grants the regime the ability to seize opposition members’ properties.

The regime utilized several tactics at once—war, displacement, reconstruction—in order to effect major changes in the demographic makeup of Syria. As the regime continues to act with impunity, it is unlikely displaced Syrians will ever see their property again. International bodies are also unlikely able to hold the regime accountable for these legal changes as it has been unable to halt the war and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. These changes will have a significant overall effect on stability in Syria, and will create an environment ripe for ongoing sectarian conflicts in the not too distant future.

Hasan Arfeh is a Syrian journalist based in Turkey.

Image: People get on buses to be evacuated from al-Sukkari rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail