In Syria, the Victors Are Moulding Populations to Their Own Designs

The regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has made dispossession and depopulation potent weapons. The regime’s war effort is a series of encirclements, sieges and surrenders.

As loyalist forces overcome enclaves of opposition, non-combatants are encouraged or induced to flee. Those who remain after defenders capitulated face movement of another kind: They are bussed cross-country to areas outside the regime’s control.

Those people lose their homes and have connections between their new and former lives severed. They likely have few possessions left. While they arrive in already crowded provinces, their former homes are often unused. Towns and cities formerly under siege lie empty, an odd hush pervading their streets.

Given what they have suffered, it would be easy to be buoyed by the story that former residents of Eastern Ghouta – a suburb of Damascus that held out under siege from the regime for years before succumbing to aerial bombardment, chemical attack and a full-scale occupation – have been put in line for housing in the district to which they were forcibly transported.

Unfortunately, however, this story has no positive side.

Afrin, a canton in northern Aleppo province recently captured from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, by a combined force of Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army-aligned rebel groups, has seen its own dispossessions.

The Afrin campaign and the regime’s liquidation of Eastern Ghouta are not comparable, though some commentators disingenuously linked the two. Fewer civilians lost their lives in Afrin by more than a factor of ten; in Afrin, there was no recourse, on the Turkish side, to the use of chemical weapons; Afrin city, when it fell, did not bear witness to a bloodbath.

The fates of the two regions are linked directly, however. Many of Afrin’s civilians fled and those in charge in Afrin are making a point of giving the homes of dispossessed locals to new arrivals from Eastern Ghouta and other besieged areas such as East Qalamoun.

This fixes Afrin and Ghouta together in the minds of observers. It is incumbent on those in power in Afrin to act with consideration; it is in their interest not only to avoid comparison to the behaviour of the regime but actively to repudiate its treatment of those from Ghouta.

Giving the homes of fleeing Kurds to those who have fled Ghouta is no solution to either problem. Not only have Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces become party to ethnic cleansing but they have irreducibly tied sectarian resettlement together with aiding Arab refugees from Ghouta and other places. Some refugees have refused the offered homes, unwilling to be party to such things and fearful of the consequences even innocent acceptance might set in place.

The Turkish and FSA policy, therefore, fails to solve the problem it purports to answer and it makes a mockery of all pretence of acting in the best interests of those without.

It is difficult not to hear echoes of the regime in such a blatant act of ethnic favouritism.

Last month, the regime instituted Law No. 10, a measure designed to punish ‘absentees’. It holds that, to comply with a change to the property registry, Syrians must prove their ownership or occupation of their homes within 30 days or risk confiscation.

Because millions of Syrians – mainly Sunni Arabs – have fled from Syria or suffered internal displacement, they are unable to claim their property. The regime’s policy is correctly seen, in tandem with other methods of forced requisition, to represent a sectarian attempt to dispossess and purge the regime’s enemies.

Those enemies include the people of Eastern Ghouta who cannot return to their homes and who have been consciously prevented from doing so.

For the Turkish and rebel forces in Afrin to house these people only at the expense of fleeing or dispossessed locals demonstrates the extreme perversity and cruelty present in the Syrian war, where essential human rights are seen as zero-sum and where having a roof over one’s head is a political matter, something others will likely have suffered to lose.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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