Syria – the beginning of the end?

After a sustained siege of the city’s rebel- controlled quarters and virtually indiscriminate killing of citizens, the largest human evacuation of the Syrian war took place in Aleppo.

SYRIAN REBELS and civilians wait near damaged buildings to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SYRIAN REBELS and civilians wait near damaged buildings to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the past two months, several things happened in Syria that oblige us to examine the question of where this five-year civil war is going. Namely the fall of Aleppo, followed by the cease-fire declaration and the peace talks in Astana.
Seemingly, the talks are just another failed attempt at halting the fighting while the regime and the Russians continue to attack areas and organization that have signed on to the cease-fire.
Despite this, why is it that we are now able to point to a changing trend in contrast with the previous cease-fires that were signed? In this article, which is divided into three parts, we will attempt to sketch out the answer to this question by discussing three key factors in the continuing campaign in Syria: the population and demographic change in Syria, the Sunni side, and the Shi’ite side.
Much has been written on the numerous deaths that have resulted from Russian and Syrian bombing. Aleppo was the symbol of this carnage. But very little has been written about the implications of the convoys of buses that evacuated the rebels and their families from the city and the resulting demographic and geopolitical ramifications.
The fall of Aleppo symbolizes Syrian President Bashar Assad’s victory. This was the largest city in Syria, with some 2.5 million inhabitants prior to the civil war. Aleppo possesses a history and heritage dating back thousands of years; it is in fact one of the world’s most ancient cities.
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, it was considered to be the commercial center for the region lying between Mesopotamia in northern Iraq and the Mediterranean. However the city descended from its high position over the past several decades, mainly due to the development of alternative commercial routes as Damascus evolved into the capital of the A-Sham (Levant) region.
Aleppo residents were primarily Sunni, while the city also had a Christian quarter.
The city’s demographics reflect a process that all of Syria underwent prior to the civil war. The Sunni population has grown significantly over the years. However, this sizable population lived in poverty and oppression.
This is in contrast with only a moderate increase in the population of the minorities.
Thus, the Sunnis became an absolute majority in the country, and therefore endangered the coalition of minorities headed by the dictatorship of the Alawite Assad family.
As in many cases of revolutions in history, the phenomenon of people taking to the streets is linked with socioeconomic conditions among others; often, this serves as fertile ground for the sprouting of ideological, religious and other conflicts. In mostly Sunni Aleppo, with the city’s magnificent history etched in the DNA of its residents, the poor neighborhoods rebelled, while the revolutionary movements were much less successful in the rich neighborhoods.
After a sustained siege of the city’s rebel- controlled quarters and virtually indiscriminate killing of citizens, the largest human evacuation of the Syrian war took place in Aleppo. In an interview with Fatma, the mother of Bana, a seven-year-old girl who last year told the entire world of the happenings in Aleppo via Twitter, she said: “I left my soul there, they make us leave our country. I don’t want to be like a refugee in other countries.” From Fatma’s words it appears that she doesn’t envision the possibility of returning to Aleppo in the foreseeable future.
The evacuation of Aleppo residents, under UN protection, is not really aimed at saving their lives; rather, it is aimed at vacating the city of its Sunni rebel residents and bringing about a change in its demographic composition.
A website identified with the Syrian opposition’s Southern Front (Al-Jabha al-Janoubiya) aptly described it this way: “Control of this historic and important city...has been taken by Iran, the Persian state, together with the Assad regime. This conquest is of a totally clannish hue.” Even if it is not entirely clear how many Sunnis remain in Aleppo, the tour of the city’s streets by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Suleimani after the city’s fall only strengthens this perception.
This method was also used in other areas of Syria prior to the fall of Aleppo. However, it was particularly effective after the city’s collapse because Aleppo has become a model. That being the case, the war in Syria has not ended with the fall of Aleppo as there are highly active pockets of resistance in the large cities.
However, the fall of the city enables the regime to fulfill its goal in a far more methodical and easy manner – to bring about a demographic change in Syria and create a 50-100 km. wide “strip” in western Syria, from north to south. The strip comprises the large cities, which would have a less than 50% Sunni minority facing a coalition of minorities headed by Shi’ites of different varieties.
Thus, for example, Shi’ites were settled in villages along the Syria-Lebanon border from which Sunnis were expelled/evacuated in order to create a Shi’ite continuity between the Lebanese Bekaa Valley and Shi’ite villages on the Syrian side of the border. Several Arab sources have coined the term “La Syria Utile” for this policy, taken from the term used by the French Mandate following the First World War.
In his speech of July 2015, prior to Russia’s intervention in the fighting, President Assad stated: “The Syrian army must withdraw from certain areas in order to protect other, more important areas.” Then, Assad was ready to temporally forgo Aleppo as part of this policy to ensure his control in western Syria, however Russian intervention two months later allowed him to expand the boundaries of his ethnic cleansing and include Aleppo.
This is being done using the local approach.
The cease-fire and subsequent agreements signed by the leaders are of no significance if they cannot succeed in bringing the parties on the ground to honor them. In places where Assad’s army is succeeding in laying siege on the rebels – inflicting massive casualties and forcing their surrender – local agreements are signed.
Just as in the Aleppo model, in this case the rebels and their families withdraw to another area, and the victorious Assad executes a form of ethnic cleansing or even settles other more loyal populations in the evacuated areas. This process includes not only the killing of citizens and the destruction of homes, but also the torching of agricultural lands, starvation, the acquisition of land in exchange for food, ransom in exchange for the release of Sunnis enlisted in the army and, ultimately, UN-sponsored transfer agreements.
In the past month, we have been receiving reports on agreements for evacuating rebel families in the framework of cease-fire agreements.
This includes the area of northern Quneitra, just a short distance from the border with Israel, and in Mazra’at Beit Jann, on the slopes of Syrian Mount Hermon.
In all, this is one of the largest movements of populations in history since World War II, and it entails a severe refugee problem.
During this war, half of Syria’s pre-war population, i.e. 10 million people, have been displaced from their homes. According to current data from the UNHCR, 4.9 million refugees have left their homes for neighboring countries: 2.85 million to Turkey, 1 million to Lebanon, 655,000 to Jordan, some 220,000 to Iraq and about 100,000 to Egypt.
There are approximately 900,000 shelter seekers in Europe, and it isn’t clear what portion of them has already been counted in the above figures. The figures from 2016 are not very different from 2015, since neighboring countries to Syria closed their borders a year ago, and only a relatively sparse number of Syrians are able to get out of the country nowadays.
Obviously, these are the official figures.
Several more tens of thousands of refugees perished in the sea during the war years in an attempt to leave the Middle East and seek a new life in Europe. It isn’t clear how many refugees continue to wander and remain unlisted in the statistics.
What is the significance of all this? Millions of refugees that, practically speaking, will not return to their homeland. Children growing up for years without prospects; no schools; no education system; destroyed cities and more. Many are asking: “What is the solution?”
In an excellent article published by The Washington Institute, Michael Eisenstadt makes it clear that the US needs to abandon its characteristic “Solutionism” approach to Middle East affairs and understand that this situation calls for a long-term thinking and investment. The age of “shock and awe” has passed. To bring about any sort of bottom-up change in the Middle East it is necessary to sustain efforts that go beyond the military sphere.
Getting rid of the current dictator and appointing a new one via an accelerated process of elections won’t work either, since this is a population for which the values of democracy are foreign. Therefore, it is preferable to begin from the ground. As the Assad policy has proven, working with a local leadership (whatever is left of it) is extremely valuable in these societies – societies in which tribal identity is highly significant.
Secondly, it is necessary to invest in local education in places that can be reached, for example in refugee camps in neighboring countries. In such places, where traditional social structures have broken down, there is more of a chance for new values, considered foreign in Syria, to take root.
Thirdly, it is necessary to examine how to set in motion the distribution of humanitarian aid, restoration processes and economic investments in areas where there is calm in Syria (Kurds, rebels or regime-dominated); or in areas liberated from Islamic State – by working step by step with local village leadership.
Ultimately, if the US or moderate players working with it are present on the ground at the civilian level, in schools, villages, industry and agriculture – one step before Islamic organizations and their sponsor countries step in – then perhaps the next generation to grow there will be able to vote in democratic elections and bring about change without bloodshed.
The author, a major in the IDF reserves, served for 15 years in the military specializing in intelligence and holds an MA in Middle East Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She is the founder and CEO of ALMA, an organization specializing in research and analysis of Israel’s security challenges on the northern border. (