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Analysis: Why the War in Syria May Not Be About Demographic Change

As the war in Syria enters its seventh year, the widespread displacement of Syria’s majority Sunni population is fueling fears of sectarian cleansing. Syria researcher Aymenn al-Tamimi explains why that may not be the full picture.

Written by Aymenn al-Tamimi Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A Syrian man drives his vehicle past destruction in the once rebel-held Aghiour neighborhood in Aleppo during a sandstorm on March 10, 2017. AFP/JOSEPH EID

QUNEITRA, Syria – Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the Syrian conflict is the concept of “demographic change”: the allegation that the Syrian government, with the support and participation of its ally Iran, is trying to engineer a new sectarian balance. According to this argument, featured prominently in a wide range of media outlets, the government is trying to reduce the proportion of Sunnis who may pose a threat to its rule, and repopulate majority-Sunni areas with foreign and/or native Shiites – alongside Iranian efforts to pursue broader Shiification: that is, conversions to Shiite Islam among the wider population.

Some allegations used to prove this theory, such as those of sectarian cleansing and Shiification, are rooted in empirical reality. But on their own, they are not enough to prove a deliberately engineered population change policy and there may be alternative explanations. Other claims – for example, that the government is resettling Sunni areas with Shiites – do more closely support the narrative, but are not as well supported by the evidence. Some cases, such as those of population transfer agreements, reflect an overlap of these two strands.

First, the concrete points. Sectarian cleansing – the displacement of Sunni Arab populations from multiple areas – has been a part of the war since at least 2012. Iran’s property purchases in Syria, and the establishment of recruitment offices for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah, also speak to the narrative of broader demographic change.

Within this context emerged Syrian Hezbollah, a group of Syrian Shiite militias tied to Iran that operate similarly to Lebanese Hezbollah. It is most apparent in existing Syrian Shiite communities, such as the villages of Nubl and Zahara’ north of Aleppo city, areas of Homs province and Homs city and some neighborhoods of Damascus city. One example tying Syrian Hezbollah to the broader goal of Shiification is the creation of Liwa al-Baqir, a militia that claims 3,000 fighters and traces its origins to 2012. Rooted in Bekara tribesmen who have converted to Shiite Islam, the militia has played an important role in the Aleppo fighting and received training from the IRGC and Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has also recruited Syrians in predominantly non-Shiite areas, even in eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the so-called Islamic State has been trying to take the last government-held outposts. In January 2017, at least two Syrians from Deir Ezzor were killed fighting in Hezbollah’s ranks while pushing back the ISIS offensive. There is also a Syrian Hezbollah group in Deir Ezzor under the name of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin. In a conversation in early February, Abu Aboud, the group’s military leader and a petroleum engineer by profession, confirmed that the militia is still fighting in the province.

Some Iran-backed foreign militias have even integrated into the apparatus of local forces: The Iraqi group Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, for example, is a part of Dir’ al-Watan, a set of militias affiliated with the al-Bustan Association, a charity organization bankrolled by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf. The militia’s leader, Hayder al-Juburi, assumes a military command role in Dir’ al-Watan. Another Iraqi Shiite militia, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, overlaps with the 4th Armored Division, an elite Syrian army unit. Some Iraqi groups have also formed close working relations with the private militia Suqur al-Sahara’ and operated in its ranks.

However, even when combined, these facts do not definitively illustrate a plan of demographic change. The sectarian cleansing has mostly taken place along Alawite–Sunni lines. The Alawites are the minority sect from which Assad comes, but contrary to popular perception, they are distinct from the Shiites. Alawite militiamen have engaged in sectarian cleansing, in places such as Homs and Baniyas. But this was more because they saw rebellious Sunni populations as a security threat to key Alawite areas, rather than to engineer a broader Iranian-backed demographic shift.

The development of “Syrian Hezbollah” and the integration of foreign militias do reflect Iranian aims in Syria – but do not necessarily point to demographic change. Both developments give Iran lasting leverage in Syria’s security affairs, thus reducing the risk that Syrians will resent what they perceive as an occupation by unintegrated foreign forces. Logically, Iran will want to establish a long-term or permanent presence in Syria – particularly for the estimated several thousand personnel in the Afghan Shiite units of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the majority of whom were refugees living in harsh conditions in Iran before the IRGC recruited them. At least four contingents of the Fatemiyoun Brigade were manning the front line in the area around Palmyra when ISIS retook it last December; it’s possible Iran may even plan to establish large bases there, integrated with Syria’s armed forces, that will amount to settlements for these fighters.

The rise of Syrian Hezbollah among existing Syrian Shiite communities and the resultant affinities with Iran undoubtedly fit in with Tehran’s desire to promote its ideology among Shiite communities and position itself as their protector and guarantor of their interests. However, the clearest example of Shiification, in the case of Liwa al-Baqir, is actually not a wartime phenomenon: Conversions among Bekara tribesmen, driven by Iranian-backed proselytization, were already occurring before the war. These conversion initiatives were successful partly because of the connection drawn between the tribe’s origins and the fifth Shiite imam, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir.

Other examples cited to support the narrative of demographic change better fit the argument, but are less substantiated. One such case is the Damascus suburb of Darayya. Four years of government siege saw a significant drop in the suburb’s original population, culminating in a final evacuation agreement for the remaining rebels and civilians in August 2016. The Guardian claimed that the government then resettled “more than 300 Iraqi Shia families” in Darayya, which is home to a Shiite shrine. The Guardian attributed its claim to Syria’s “state media.” But while this claim is a staple of Saudi-funded media outlets such as Asharq al-Awsat – avowed enemies of the Syrian government and Iran – a search of Syria’s pro-government media revealed only a report by pro-government site Damascus Now. It mentions the arrival in Damascus – not Darayya – of Iraqi families fleeing the Islamic State in Mosul. It does not specify their sect.

Speaking to Syria Deeply in January 2017, Damascus Now denied that Darayya had any inhabitants at the time. Abu Haydar al-Harbi, an Iraqi member of Hezbollah forces in Syria, corroborated this claim, describing the area as a military zone. According to open-source evidence, there are reportedly ongoing discussions within government circles about the return of civilians to Darayya, with some steps taken toward allowing farmers to go to agricultural areas for the purpose of agriculture only.

Discussions of demographic change frequently turn to the “Four Towns” agreement, which binds the fate of the Shiite towns of Fou’a and Kafraya in northern Idlib to the Sunni towns of Zabadani and Madaya, west of Damascus near the border with Lebanon. Rebels have largely kept Fou’a and Kafraya under siege since expelling government forces from most of Idlib province in the spring and summer of 2015. Meanwhile, government forces and their allies – including Hezbollah – have besieged Zabadani and Madaya since July 2015. Under the terms of a cease-fire agreement dating back to September 2015, humanitarian aid can enter one town only if simultaneous deliveries are made to the others.

In the initial negotiations, Iran reportedly proposed a population swap that would see the people of Fou’a and Kafraya go to government-held areas, and the people of Zabadani and Madaya go to rebel-held areas. Though this proposal is certainly interesting, it does not necessarily support a demographic change argument. Rather, it can be tied to Iran’s aforementioned interest in promoting itself as the protector and upholder of the interests of Shiite communities.

The proposal also reportedly came up again as the last residents and rebels of east Aleppo were being evacuated in December 2016, but, despite certain misconceptions, no agreement was made. Speaking privately to Syria Deeply between January 18 and 19, organizers of the Facebook page “Besieged al-Fu’a and Kafariya News Network” denied that there was any plan to evacuate residents of the two villages, whose original population stood at 20,000 civilians. Only 1,000 people had been allowed to leave by that point, as part of an agreement to evacuate 4,000 women, children, wounded and ill.

Even if all the inhabitants were evacuated, it is unclear how such numbers could bring about a meaningful demographic change in Syria. It is more likely that, rather than a full evacuation of Fou’a and Kafraya, government forces and their allies will try to break the siege by advancing into Idlib province, a theory discussed by Iran-backed Shiite militias. There have also been repeated demonstrations calling to break the siege of Fou’a and Kafraya.

In broader terms, the demographic change narrative does not account for the government’s multifaceted approach to retaking and managing rebel-controlled areas, which varies according to circumstance and need. What’s more, the government is not in a position to ignore the fact that Syria has a Sunni Arab majority. As it seeks to regain more territory, and particularly as it struggles with manpower deficiencies in the face of widespread army draft evasion and desertion, the government will need some level of consent and participation from the Sunni majority. Therefore, the recent increase of militias seeking to recruit locals in reconquered areas and the pursuit of “reconciliation” deals in opposition-held areas is not surprising.

In this regard, the Guardian’s claim that Syria and Iran don’t want Sunnis along the border with Lebanon from Damascus to Homs – based solely on quotes from an anonymous Lebanese official – does not stand up to scrutiny. It does not account for the pro-government militias in the Qalamoun area that have been recruiting in areas with Sunni populations since the beginning of 2014. More recently, as the government seeks to retake the last rebel-held areas in the countryside west of Damascus around Mt. Hermon, near the borders with Lebanon and the occupied Golan Heights, it has established the Hermon Regiment militia to recruit locals –including former rebels – in the villages that have agreed to its “reconciliation” deals.

If the government continues to gain ground and remains on the path of political ascendancy, nuanced analysis of events and trends inside government-held territory will become more important than ever. The narrative of demographic change may seem tempting at first, but it ultimately fails to stand up to in-depth examination.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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