Syria’s Demographic Changes Buttress Assad’s Authoritarianism

Syria’s civil war appears to be ending after almost eight years since it began in March 2011. Discussions and planning should naturally move to post-conflict subjects including reconstruction of infrastructure and the economy, security and rehabilitation of communities, and repatriation of millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. But before this work can begin, there needs to be a realization of the serious demographic change that has resulted from eight years of conflict, and specifically because of tactics employed by the Syrian regime. To be sure, the human dimension of the war is the most poignant reminder of the utter criminality with which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime prosecuted the war. In 2011, Syria’s population numbered some 21 million, but in 2018, it decreased to almost 18.5 million—instead of increasing naturally, as is the norm. A total of 12.2 million have either fled the country (5.6 million) or become IDPs (6.6 million). Additionally, and according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, 560,000 Syrians have died in the conflict.

Over the years of the war––which has had regional and international dimensions––the Syrian regime has committed war crimes, such as the use of chemical weapons. It has also violated international prohibitions on the conduct of war by forcing millions of people to flee their homes in order to spur demographic changes in the country. This has had a profound impact on the sectarian and ethnic composition of Syrian society which is unlikely to be ameliorated or reversed any time soon. In all, the Syrian regime employed five different tactics that constituted a coordinated effort to create a more pliable political environment that stifles dissent and assures long-term control.

Population displacement had a profound impact on the sectarian and ethnic composition of Syrian society which is unlikely to be ameliorated or reversed any time soon.

1. Use of the Air Force

The heavy, systematic, widespread, and indiscriminate use of the Syrian air force against areas controlled by the opposition began in July 2012 and continued throughout the war. In fact, compared to other instances of war when government assets were employed against rebels, Syria’s was the worst because of the unprecedented heavy toll on civilians. For example, the Russian air war against rebels in Chechnya in the 1990s was just as sinister, except that it was limited mostly to Grozny. In Syria, the air force was dispatched everywhere and targeted residences, hospitals, schools, water resources, bakeries, infrastructure, and livestock. Studies have shown that three quarters of the deaths in aerial bombings were civilian, and one in every four civilians was a child under 18 years of age.

Most devastating among the attacks by the Syrian air force were those wielding barrel bombs made either from explosives or flammable liquids, resulting in widespread destruction and fires in targeted areas. These bombs were used specifically against crowded urban areas and were responsible for thousands of deaths. Despite the unanimous adoption (due to Russian and Chinese acquiescence) of United National Security Council Resolution 2139, which called on parties to lift sieges of Syrian cities and facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, the Syrian regime continued to use these weapons indiscriminately against civilian targets. Indeed, much of the destruction in civilian areas was caused by barrel bombs as well as cannon and missile fire. Such bombardment naturally resulted in people’s abandonment of their homes and cities to look for shelter elsewhere inside and outside the country.

Much of the destruction in civilian areas was caused by barrel bombs as well as cannon and missile fire. Such bombardment naturally resulted in people’s abandonment of their homes and cities to look for shelter elsewhere inside and outside the country.

2. Sieges of Rebel Areas

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) defines a siege as a blockade imposed on an area by an armed force, one that impedes the entry of regular humanitarian aid and prevents the willful exit of the elderly, sick, and injured. Sieges have been used widely against several rebel-held areas in Syria as a weapon of war, according to documents from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Since the end of 2012, regime soldiers have come to utilize a crude slogan, “surrender or starve,” as collective punishment against every area of the country that the regime and its affiliated militias were unable to conquer.

While the UN Security Council issued its resolutions prohibiting the use of this tactic against civilian areas, the Syrian regime could not but see its utility. Such was the case with UNSC Resolution 2401 of February 24, 2018, which unanimously demanded an end to the use of sieges and to depriving civilians of access to food and medicine. The aim was to allow humanitarian organizations quick entry to besieged areas and ensure safe passage for civilians wishing to depart. Like other resolutions related to the Syrian war, UNSC 2401 was ignored by the Syrian regime.

Among other effects, sieges clearly have a direct impact on civilians. They lead to the spread of black-market goods made available through networks of smugglers from the armed groups or Syrian officials overseeing the siege. Syrian forces also impounded goods at checkpoints, only to come back and sell them to starving civilians. This tactic did not only skew the economic well-being of besieged areas beginning in 2013, but it also destroyed any resistance and allowed the regime to force people to relocate to other areas of the country under the pretense of assuring their access to food and services. This strategy helped the regime empty entire areas of their long-time inhabitants.

Sieges did not only skew the economic well-being of besieged areas beginning in 2013, but it also destroyed any resistance and allowed the regime to force people to relocate to other areas of the country under the pretense of assuring their access to food and services.

3. Ethnic and Sectarian Crimes

Many civil wars have witnessed ethnic and sectarian transgressions as well as torture and rape. Such practices historically in Lebanon, the Balkans, and different civil wars in Africa have led to demographic changes on the ground. Indeed, widespread fear has a fierce grip on civilians, making them believe that a nefarious entity intends to harm them, and the best response would be to flee one’s home in search of safety and protection. This was evident in the early years of the Syrian war, but the dominant crimes in Syria were massacres based on ethnic and sectarian lines. Rape was also practiced, especially in prisons.

The specific aim of the massacres, which amounted to ethnic and sectarian cleansing, was to create a loyal Syria. General Jamil Hassan, head of Air Force Intelligence––one of the most notorious Syrian security services––had no qualms about liquidating the large number of anti-regime activists (estimated at three million) because, to him, “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.” Such a threat cannot be limited to those targeted but to all their relatives who may believe that it is better to leave the country than to be liquidated as collaborators.

4. Voluntary and Forced Displacement

Most, if not all, internal armed strife leads to displacement, which the United Nations defines as forcing individuals or groups to run from human rights violations and flee their homes in search of safety and security. Additionally, displacement should not necessarily mean the permanent loss of domicile or the beginning of a demographic change because international law guarantees a people’s right to be repatriated to their homes and property if they were made homeless due to circumstances beyond their control.

The Syrian regime has promulgated several official laws and proclamations that contain both written and ambiguous rules that punish residents of rebel areas who have opted to flee military operations. These official acts have resulted in the inability of absentees either to return to their places of residence or reassert their property rights. Additionally, during military operations, hundreds of thousands of homes in rebel areas were ransacked and looted down to the tiles and electrical wires, which made the homes simply uninhabitable. This was universal in all areas over which the regime was able to reestablish its authority.

With assistance from Russian and Iranian forces, the Syrian regime was able to force the opposition to relocate to the north of the country after military defeats. While the regime considered these “reconciliation agreements,” the opposition considered them to be accords of forced displacement that resulted in tens of thousands of civilians displaced to some 30 cities and localities, especially from Homs and Aleppo. This allowed the regime to effect a new demographic reality that is based on sectarian purity in certain areas of the country. There also are many stories about granting Syrian citizenship to large numbers of Shia from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran and settling them in the areas evacuated by Sunni Syrians. This will most likely prevent IDPs—those who are displaced but have not crossed an international border—and refugees from returning to their homes.

5. Official Decrees

Once IDPs cross the border to another country, they become refugees, a fact that defines the fate of almost six million Syrians today who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and other countries. But what has beset these Syrians are official policies that amount to their involuntary dispossession. Syrian regime forces and supporters have confiscated the refugees’ homes, land, and properties. In thousands of cases, forged documents were used to claim ownership of such possessions by regime loyalists; in fact, there was intentional destruction of civil records in Homs as well as other areas, in addition to the confiscation, at roadblocks, of legal documents from real owners. Finally, there was systematic destruction of property, streets, and entire neighborhoods on the pretext of fighting extremists. The government also put in place new schemes for city planning that changed street and neighborhood names to help sow confusion and a feeling of estrangement.

But what implicates the regime itself in the dispossession of refugees and others are official decrees promulgated by the government. These include:

Decree 66 of 2012: Allows the confiscation of properties in areas around Damascus from people accused of a number of crimes, especially terrorism; practically, this is aimed at anyone who has opposed the government.

Decree 12 of 2016: Stipulates digitizing property titles around the country, which makes many of them outdated if their owners do not have quick and easy access to their records.

Law 33 of 2017: Allows anyone to claim ownership of any vacant property as long as this claim is supported by witnesses and a controlling local authority.

Law 10 of 2018: An update of Decree 66 of 2012, this law attracted much international attention because of its wide sweep. It allowed the regime to establish “administrative areas” where it can manage and supervise reconstruction operations. The law also controls all regulations promulgated over the last half century regarding property rights in general. When it was originally issued, it gave Syrians a mere 30 days to claim properties personally or through legal representation; given that many refugees could not satisfy these conditions, however, their claims would not be considered. After the international outcry over the law, the government extended the deadline to one year, which still may not be enough time for many to satisfy the law’s stipulations.

The Way Forward

The different tactics used by the regime in the Syrian civil war have produced a demographic challenge whose resolution is essential for a future peaceful Syria. To be sure, if the United States and the international community are serious in rehabilitating millions of Syrian IDPs and refugees currently in neighboring and other countries, there is an urgent need for a political strategy that does not emphasize reconstruction only but also stability, accountability, and justice. Bashar al-Assad and his regime must not be rewarded for the crimes they committed against the Syrian people over the last eight years. It is thus incumbent on the international community to work on a strategy that includes a process for political transition that guarantees peace and security, an internationally supervised reconstruction effort, and insistence on accountability and justice.

It is thus incumbent on the international community to work on a strategy that includes a process for political transition that guarantees peace and security, an internationally supervised reconstruction effort, and insistence on accountability and justice.

Without such a strategy, the Syrian diaspora will remain outside of Syria while Syrians inside the country will continue to live under extremely difficult political and economic conditions. Today, Syrians inside the country suffer from unemployment, high prices and inflation, shortages, and a collapsed local currency, all conditions leading to a failed state over the long run. As has been seen before, these factors create a context that encourages the rise of terrorist organizations. Indeed, the Syrian crisis will endure as long as the authoritarianism that created it in the first place continues and thrives on the backs of millions of Syrians.

Radwan Ziadeh is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Radwan and read his previous publications click here