Syria’s population transfers cause sectarian upheaval
Beirut- More than any other battlefield agreement since the Syrian war erupted six years ago, the multilayered “four cities deal” is causing a demographic upheaval in a devastated land, shattering forever the lives of at least 30,000 people, maybe double that, who are being driven from their homes and changing the sectarian make-up of Syria.
The deal, brokered by Iran and Qatar, involves transferring militants and civilians in the Damascus countryside towns of Zabadani and Madaya to rebel-held Idlib in the north-west while emptying the Shia towns of Kefraya and Foua in that province and dumping their populations on the periphery of the capital.
The agreement includes the release of 500 prisoners from Syrian jails, an exchange of the bodies of dead soldiers and similar population transfers between the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus and the besieged village of Boukein near the capital.
Both have been held by Syrian rebels since 2012 and their militants will also be shipped to Idlib.
Zabadani was the first town in the Damascus countryside to fall to Syrian rebels in January 2012. It was briefly retaken by government forces a month later before collapsing into a maelstrom of fighting that resulted in the Syrian Army and Hezbollah besieging the town in 2015.
Before the war started, Zabadani was a prime destination for Arab tourists and a favourite summer vacation spot for Damascenes because of its cool weather and scenery.
Although predominantly Sunni, the town was strategically important to Hezbollah as it lies on a key highway to Lebanon. Hezbollah maintained a base there for ferrying Iranian arms into Lebanon, the Party of God’s military lifeline.
The transfers have caused much bitterness. One former Zabadani resident, Mohammad Abdulsalam al-Hajj, a retired waiter now living in Damascus, said members of his family have been totally uprooted.
“My nephew took up arms five years ago,” he said. “They told him that he could stay behind, surrender his weapons and make use of a presidential pardon but he refused.
“He has been transformed from an outlaw into a besieged person and finally into a refugee inside his own country.”
The same applies to many people in nearby Madaya, 40km north-west of Damascus, which has been besieged by Hezbollah since July 2015.
In addition to uprooting civilians, the deal has squeezed out about 400 fighters, with their light arms, some belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Amer Elias, a Ba’athist writer and analyst, said: “Let’s not forget that these are militants being moved out; the civilian population of these cities was evacuated a long time ago.
“Also, if we’re talking demographic reshuffles, aren’t the residents of Kefraya and Foua being moved out of their homes? Isn’t that also a demographic reshuffle?”
Others argue that resettling some 10,000 Shias in a “belt” around Damascus, which stretches from the capital to the Lebanese border, is a long-term scheme that has Iran’s fingerprints all over it.
One of the reasons why Iran’s pre- 2011 influence was always minimal was the lack of Shia proxies willing to carry arms for the Islamic Republic.
Damascene Shias, who together with Alawites — an offshoot of Shia Islam — form no more than 12% of Syria’s population, always saw themselves as Damascenes first and Shias second, and, as Arabs, they never had much affection for Persian Shias either.
Iran failed to buy them off or pull them into its orbit as it did with Lebanon’s Shias, Hezbollah’s bedrock and a vital strategic asset for Tehran.
Given that political parties and paramilitary groups were not permitted in Iran, the Tehran regime was unable to form proxies in Syria like the Mehdi Army in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
That changed dramatically when Syria’s war broke out in 2011.
Iran and Hezbollah have ultimate influence in regions such as the Qalamoun Mountains overlooking Lebanon and the Shia shrines in Damascus itself.
If 10,000 Shias from Kefraya and Foua were injected into the capital, this would provide fertile territory for Hezbollah to recruit, arm and control, just as it did in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
These days, the residents of the northern city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, are preparing for a similar exodus as US-backed Kurdish forces close in.
Once liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS), the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab inhabitants of Raqqa fear that they, too, will be chased out and replaced by Syrian Kurds as the outside powers entangled in the conflict vie for control of areas they deem vital.
The “four cities agreement” is the first time, however, that entire populations have been ushered into regime-held territory rather than booted out.
It is also the first time that demographic change has been manipulated so completely, making Sunni towns completely Shia and transforming long-time Shia villages into Sunni strongholds.