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Syria’s Shifting Sands: Demographic Engineering and Refugee Return

When Syrian refugees first began arriving in 2011, Lebanon was welcoming, as it was assumed that the crisis would be brief and that refugees would soon be able to return home. However as the war became increasingly protracted and refugee numbers increased dramatically, the patience of host communities began to wear thin. Now, seven years after the beginning of the war, it seems increasingly clear that certain regime policies and tactics will mean that returning to Syria is unlikely to be an option for many who have fled.

This paper examines the Assad regime’s use of forced displacement and the tactical seizure of property, as well as its attempts to engineer the demographics of post-war Syria in order to consolidate its power. It is argued that in light of the growing body of available evidence, it seems highly likely that returning home will not be an option for a significant number of displaced Syrians, in Lebanon and elsewhere. Political and humanitarian actors alike need thus to acknowledge this fact, and to work together to develop policies that address the Lebanese crisis that are not contingent upon Syrians being able to return home.

Forced Displacement and Seizure of Property

 Since the early days of the war, the Assad Regime and its allies have employed a strategy of forcibly displacing the populations of certain areas that were once held by opposition forces. This strategy has the apparent aim of securing permanent control over these regions. Population transfers are often negotiated after a lengthy siege at the hands of regime forces and their allies, that usually involves surrounding the area in question, cutting off water, power and humanitarian aid (including shipments of food a medical supplies) and indiscriminately shelling the area with barrel bombs and mortar shells before demanding surrender[1]. In the case of Ghouta, Russia and regime forces also made use of phosphorus and chlorine gas in an attempt to force the remaining population into submission[2]. In some cases the regime has deliberately razed entire residential areas, killing many of the occupants and forcing the others to leave, and have also reportedly targeted bakeries and supermarkets to hasten the effects of their strategy of starvation[3].

After surrendering, fighters, their families and remaining residents are loaded onto “green busses” – which have become emblematic of the regime’s forced displacement strategy – and are expelled, most often to areas in the Idlib governorate in the country’s north-west, and to other opposition controlled areas. IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the Idlib governorate, along with rural areas in both Northern Hama and Western Aleppo are now estimated to number over 1.2 million[4]. The Regime continues to conduct regular airstrikes in Idlib, prompting UN officials to express grave concern in regards to the safety of the regions swollen population[5].

The expulsion of residents from targeted areas is often followed by regime forces seizing displaced occupant’s land, housing and property, before beginning to rebuild. This seizure has been enacted through a combination of both legal and illegitimate tactics since the early days of the war.

The production of false documents has been a reportedly widespread tactic employed in transferring legal ownership of property and land from its rightful owners to regime loyalists[6]. Reports have also emerged of the seemingly deliberated destruction of civil registries in Homs and previously rebel-held areas of Damascus[7], as well as the confiscation of documents at checkpoints[8].

The regime is also making use of legal instruments in order to legitimize and make permanent these transfers of ownership. Decree No. 12 of 2016 calls for the digitization of property records across Syria, which has the apparent aim of erasing the past and formalizing the aforementioned illegal transfers[9]. There have even been reports of streets in targeted areas being given new names, so as to further obfuscate the grounds upon which any claim could be made for property that had been transferred illegitimately[10].

The regime has also employed more ‘institutional’ tactics, such as the issuance of Decree No. 66 of 2012, which allowed the government to start legally seizing land in several areas neighboring Damascus[11]. Making provision for property records that were either lost or destroyed in “emergency incidents”, Act No. 33 of 2017 allows any plaintiff to claim ownership of any uninhabited properties, needing only the testaments of witnesses as evidence and the approval of the relevant administrative body to make ownership legally binding[12]. Legislative Decree No. 63 of 2012 allows the Syrian Finance Minister to nationalize the assets and property of anyone who falls under the Counter-terrorism Law of 2012, which itself has an extremely broad definition of what constitutes terrorism[13].

The exploitability of these legal decrees and act is obvious. By taking advantage of orchestrated large-scale absences, and by deliberately targeting enemies of the regime, these measures are an overt attempt to permanently dispossess the forcibly displaced populations of what were previously rebel strongholds via legal means, placing them under the control of the regime and its allies. 

While it has received an unprecedented amount of international attention, Law No. 10 of 2018 simply represents a continuation of this strategy. Disregarding the previous model in which local councils had greater jurisdiction over the areas that they represented, the new law gives the regime the power to establish “organizational zones” in which it will oversee and direct reconstruction processes. Syrians have then have 30 days[14] to register their ownership of any properties that fall within one of these newly established zones, after which time any unclaimed properties will be nationalized[15]. As with the aforementioned decrees and act, it seems that Law 10 will be used to take advantage of large-scale absences and the lack of options displaced populations have for seeking legal recourse.

Although Law 10 allows for ownership to be registered via a relative or other appointed legal representative, it is likely that many people will be unable to present sufficient evidence of ownership due to the aforementioned destruction and confiscation of records, and other measures than are being taken to obfuscate any potential grounds that individuals may have to make ownership claims.

Furthermore, many of those who have been displaced from previously rebel-held areas are likely to be fearful to even attempt to claim ownership of their properties – in person or through a proxy – due to the fact that they are likely to be seen as being affiliated with opposition groups [16]. This is especially true of those from previously rebel-held areas, who have been subject to the regime’s forced displacement campaigns. 

After Law 10 received much criticism from the international community, the regime announced last week that it was amending the law and extending the deadline for property claims from 30 days to one year[17]. While this amendment may ease the pressure on some owners, it is unlikely to change anything for those who are subject to the regime’s targeted strategy of dispossession and displacement, as even if owners are still in possession of documentation, they are unlikely to be willing to lodge a claim with the regime for fear of persecution. Even if such individuals were to lodge a claim, there is no reason to expect that regime officials will accept it.

Demographic Engineering

Seizing large amounts of property serves several purposes for the regime. Firstly, it gives it the capacity to finance the reinforcement of its military and to begin the process of reconstruction. Secondly, it allows Bashar al-Assad to reward the military leaders, businessmen and politicians who have supported his regime throughout the war, either monetarily, with property or with contracts for reconstruction and development. The acquisition of property is likely to enrich regime-linked crony capitalists and to incentivize the foreign investment that will be vital if reconstruction costs are to be met.

Thirdly, such large-scale displacements and property seizure also gives the regime a means to control who returns and to where, meaning that Assad and his allies are able to engineer the demographics of post-war Syria as they see fit.

In 2016 Assad coined the term “useful Syria”, which referred to the districts of Damascus, Rif Damascus, Homs, Hama, Turtus and Latika[18]. This area is of strategic significance for the regime as it includes around half of terrestrial Syria as well as the capital Damascus, the Alawite heartlands of Tartus and Latika and provides access to the Mediterranean. Enjoying hegemonic political influence over this region also diminishes the likelihood of the reoccurrence of an uprising, or of existing rebel groups being able to mount a guerilla campaign in the aftermath of the war.    

“Useful Syria” is also of key strategic significance to key regime allies Iran and Hezbollah, as it is a crucial link in geographical chain between Tehran and the Hezbollah heartland in the east and south of Lebanon, an area that is known colloquially as ‘the Shia Crescent’. Hegemonic control of this area stands to significantly enhance the ‘Axis of Resistance’s’ regional influence, and facilitate the exchange of goods and weapons, and making it easier for Iran and it’s proxies to support Hamas and apply pressure on Israel.

As such, the evidence is mounting that the regime and its allies are pursuing their vision of “useful Syria” by engineering the region’s post-war demographics along sectarian lines. Shiites from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, as well as both Alawites and Shiites from other regions of Syria are being granted Syrian citizenship[19] and moved in to re-populate areas that have been the targets of the strategic displacements detailed above[20].

This began as early as 2013, when Hezbollah expelled the populations from al-Qusayr and the surrounding areas after a two week long siege and repopulated the area with Lebanese and Syrian Shiite families[21].

Homs was soon to follow. After a brutal siege that lasted almost two years, Alawite and Shiite families were brought in to replace the displaced occupants, while Sunni families who attempted to return were prevented from doing so by regime forces[22]. The process was repeated in the long-time opposition stronghold of Daraya, where Iraqi Shiite fighters and families were reportedly moved in following the evacuation of the entire population[23].  Around the same time, Moadamiya al-Sham and Al-Midan were given the same treatment, where Iraqi Shiite families also replaced the original residents[24]. The regime is reportedly incentivising families to move to Syria by offering them housing, citizenship, as well as a salary of around $2000 USD per month[25]. A recent report claimed that more than 2 million people had been granted citizenship, including members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hezbollah fighters from Shitte Iraqi militias and their families[26]. Other areas of the Damascus countryside, including the towns of Qadasiya, Al-Hema, al-Tal and Wadi-Barada were all subjected to large-scale evacuations[27].A deal brokered by Qatar and overseen by Iran saw the evacuation of the towns of Al-Zabadani, Madhaya, Sarghaya, and Baqin, who were replaced with Shiite families from the towns of Al-Fu’ah and Kafariyah in Northern Syria[28].

The regions of Jabal al-Turkmen and Jabal al-Akrad in the Latika governorate have also seen the forced displacement of large numbers, which has served to further entrench the Alawite hegemony in those regions[29].

More recently the former Palestinian camp of Yarmouk has also been evacuated, and the process of moving Syrian Shiite families from rural Idlib in to repopulate the area is ongoing[30].

Most recently Ghouta and the surrounding region has been subject to the same treatment, with an estimated 100,000 residents having already departed[31]. Given the way in which repopulation with Shiite and Alawite families has followed the removal of original populations in almost every case thus far, it is highly likely that the same thing will happen in Ghouta.

Aleppo, despite not falling within so-called “useful Syria”, has also seen the forced expulsion of some 200,000 residents from certain districts[32].

Map produced by the author. Locations are approximate.

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The arrival of Shiite and Alawite families has been accompanied by the creation of numerous new Shiite seminary and secondary schools in the affected regions, as well as the creation of new regulatory bodies to oversee Shiite religious festivals and conduct Shia-specific rituals[33]. Targeted areas have also seen the construction of numerous new Shitte shrines. After the fall of Homs, Iran reportedly oversaw the reconstruction of the originally Sunni Abna Ja’far al-Tayyar mosque, which was remade in the traditional Shiite architectural style[34].

The numerous reports of orchestrated demographic change in so-called “useful Syria” are corroborated by recent population estimates for the affected governorates. Across so-called “useful Syria”, overall Shia populations have increased by more than 10 fold since 2011, while the Sunni population has almost halved, with 42% having left[35]. This dramatic shift is particularly pronounced in the Rif Damascus and Homs governorates, which are of key strategic importance in regards to creating geographic and demographic continuity between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Tehran. The Sunni population has dropped by 49% in Rif Damascus, while the Shiite population has increased 13 fold. In the Homs governorate over 80% of the Sunni population has been displaced or expelled, while the Shia population has increased 7 fold, and the number of Alawites has also increased by just under 50%, in comparison to 2011 estimates[36].

While the scale and scope of this project is perhaps unprecedented, it is worth noting that this is not the first time that political leaders from the region have used demographic engineering as a means of consolidating power. Hafez al-Assad razed several districts in Hama following the uprising that occurred there in 1982, which were quickly rebuilt and repopulated with regime loyalists after the uprising had been quelled[37]. Saddam Hussein’s ‘arabization’ tactics followed a comparable logic, moving Sunni and Shia Arabs into regions around Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Mosul after expelling the original Kurdish, Turkmen and Assyrian inhabitants, as part of a broader strategy to quell Kurdish and Turkmen-led resistance against the regime in Baghdad[38].

Conclusions and Policy Implications

The scale on which the Syrian regime has dispossessed its own citizens and endeavored to reengineer the demographics in certain areas of Syria (and continues to do so) is likely to mean that a significant number of refugees and IDPs are unlikely to be able to return home. While the seizure of housing, land and property may have made return practically and economically challenging, the demographic engineering that is taking place in so-called “useful Syria” is likely to make return almost impossible for many Syrians who either fled or were expelled from the affected governorates. Those that fled from areas that were previously opposition strongholds are the most likely to be affected.

Furthermore it is estimated that 1.5 million Syrians are wanted by the mukhabarat[39], many of whom are adult men, who are seen as traitors who fled conscription. Reports are emerging of many returning refugees facing detention, torture and even execution due to their suspected affiliation with opposition groups or for having fled conscription[40].

Assad is likely to be unconcerned about drastically reducing Syria’s population, as permanently exiling large numbers of perceived disloyalists serves to consolidate regime power and to lessen the scope of the reconstruction project that lies ahead.

As the post-war order emerges, the fact that return will not be an option for many displaced Syrians is a fact that needs to be acknowledged by political groups in host countries, and by humanitarian actors operating there.

In Lebanon, politicians such as Michel Aoun and others in the Free Patriotic Movement have been employing increasingly hostile rhetoric towards Syrian refugees. However continuing to demand that Syrians in Lebanon return home without taking into account the fact that return is not a realistic option for many is not only unproductive, but also serves to aggravate tensions between refugee and local populations. Human Rights Watch reported the Syrian refugees are subject to increasing levels of harassment and evictions from many municipalities in Lebanon[41].  

By the same token, humanitarian actors in Lebanon, such as UNCHR and other refugee-aid oriented NGOs need to work towards developing policies that reflect an understanding of the fact that many refugees will be unable to return home. Continuing to accommodate Syrians in Lebanon without a long-term strategy is not in the best interests of refugees, who will continue to be held in limbo in a country that does not have the capacity to support them in such large numbers. Neither is it in the interests of the Lebanese people, who are understandably frustrated at being held hostage by the disputes of their neighbors for the second time in recent history.

It is therefore in the best interests of all stakeholders to search for long-term solutions to the Lebanese crisis that are not reliant upon the eventual return of all Syrians in Lebanon. Both political and humanitarian actors in Lebanon ought to cooperate to begin developing long-term solutions for Syrians in Lebanon who are unable to return home. For the government, allowing UNHCR to resume refugee registration would be step in the right direction. At the same time, UNCHR and other NGOs should publically acknowledge that Lebanese situation is unsustainable and that solutions which are not wholly contingent upon return need to be given significantly more time and thought.

Multilateral cooperation on such solutions is in the best interests of the Lebanese people, their leaders and the Syrians who have sought refuge here.

[1] Hussain Ibrahim Qutrib, Useful Syria and Demographic Changes in Syria, King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, 2017, 27.

[2] Orwa Khalife (translated by Vanessa Breeding in cooperation with The Ghota Campaign), Ghouta: Forced Displacement after a war of extermination, al-Jumhuriya English 2018: https://www.aljumhuriya.net/en/content/ghouta-forced-displacement-after-war-extermination

[3] Jon Unruh, “Weaponization of the Land and Property Rights System in the Syrian civil war: facilitating restitution?”, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding (2016): 460.

[4] Mustafa Abu Shams (translated by Vanessa Breeding in cooperation with The Ghota Campaign), Ghouta’s displacement in northern Syria: Awaiting the Unknown, al-Jumhuriya English, 2018: https://www.aljumhuriya.net/en/content/ghouta%E2%80%99s-displaced-north-syria-awaiting-unknown

[5] IFK MENA team, Syria Fact Sheet: 20 March 2018 – 10 May 2018 No. 68, Insitut für Friedenssicherung und Konfliktmanagement, 2018.

[6] Unruh, Weaponization of the Land and Property, 457.

[7] Unruh, Weaponization of the Land and Property, 459.

[8] Ibid. 457.

[9] PAX and The Syria Institute, No Return to Homs: A Case Study in Demographic Engineering in Syria, 2017, 38.

[10] Unruh, Weaponization of the Land and Property, 461.

[11] Enab Baladi’s Investigations Team, “Properties Ownership” Law No. 10: Regulation, Acquisition of Demographic Change, Enab Baladi, 2018

[12] Enab Baladi, Properties Ownership, 2018.

[13] Human Rights Watch, Q&A: Syria’s New Property Law, 2018: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/29/qa-syrias-new-property-law

[14] The regime later amended the law, allowing owners one year to register claims.

[15] Enab Baladi, Properties Ownership, 2018.

[16] Maya Yahya, The Politics of Dispossession, The Carnegie Middle East Centre, 2018.

[17] French Press Agency, Syria Extends Deadline for Contentious Property Claims Law, The Daily Star, 2018: https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2018/Jun-02/451756-syria-extends-deadline-for-contentious-property-law-claims.ashx

[18] Hussain Ibrahim Qutrib, Useful Syria, 4.

[19] Ibid. 15.

[20] Souriatna (translated and edited by The Syrian Observer), Displacement and Demographic Change Create New Realities in Syria, The Syrian Observer, 2017, www.syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/32483/Displacement_Demographic_Change_Create_New_Realities_Syria. NB – This article originally appeared on Souriatna, a media outlet controlled by Syrian opposition forces. As such, there exists the potential for a conflict of interest.

[21] Ibid. 14.

[22] Ibid. 14.

[23] Souriatna, Displacement and Demographic Change, 2017.

[24] Al-Sharaq al-Awsat (translated and edited by The Syrian Observer), Iraqi Shiite Militias Seeking Demographic Change in Syria, The Syrian Observer, 2016, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/31603/Iraqi_Shiite_Militias_Seeking_Demographic_Change_Syria

[25] Unknown Author, Iraqi Families Sent to Syria to Change Demographic, Asharq al-Aswat, 2016.

[26] النهار, “حزب الله” بين مليونيّ شيعي منحهم الأسد هويات سورية, 2018: www.annahar.com/article/811851-حزب-الله-بين-مليوني-شيعي-منحهم-الأسد-هويات-سورية

[27] Souriatna, Displacement and Demographic Change, 2017.

[28] Hussain Ibrahim Qutrib, Useful Syria, 14-15.

[29] Souriatna, Displacement and Demographic Change, 2017

[30] Leith Aboufadel, Breaking: Rebels agree to surrender Yarmouk Camp positions to Syrian Army, Almasdar News 2018: www.almasdarnews.com/article/breaking-rebels-agree-to-surrender-yarmouk-camp-positions-to-syrian-army/

[31] Orwa Khalife, Forced Displacement, 2018.

[32] Souriatna, Displacement and Demographic Change, 2017.

[33] Hussain Ibrahim Qutrib, Useful Syria, 12.

[34] Ibid. 12.

[35] Ibid. 19.

[36] Ibid. 19.

[37] Unruh, “Weaponization of the Land and Property”, 461.

[38] David Romano, Who’s House is this Anyway? IDP and Refugee Return in Post-Saddam Iraq, Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 18, No. 4, 2005. Oxford University Press.

[39] Enab Baladi, Properties Ownership, 2018.

[40] Sally Hayden, Arrests and Torture of Syrian Refugees Returning Home Reported, The Irish Times, 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/middle-east/arrests-and-torture-of-syrian-refugees-returning-home-reported-1.3429762

[41] Human Rights Watch, “Our Homes are not for Strangers”: Mass Evictions of Syrian Refugees by Municipalities, 2018: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/04/20/our-homes-are-not-strangers/mass-evictions-syrian-refugees-lebanese-municipalities