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Eastern Ghouta

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Changing Syria’s Demography

With the fall of Deraa last Friday, the end of Syria’s civil war is within sight. What will Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Ba’ath Party do with their victory?

Polishing off the last rebel-held areas in the south, right up against the Israeli border, won’t take long now that Israel agreed that Syrian government troops can re-occupy those territories so long as Iranian and Hizbollah militias don’t accompany them. (Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discussed the issue with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.)

Recovering the thinly populated eastern quarter of the country, currently held by US-backed Kurdish forces, is a tricky diplomatic issue, but it will be accomplished in due course. Reconquering the one province still held by Islamist rebels, Idlib, may take longer, but it’s not going to stop ‘reconstruction’ in the rest of Syria. And that is going to change things a lot.

Syria’s demography shaped the seven-year civil war, in the sense that all the rebels were Sunni Muslims. Lots of Sunnis supported the regime and even fought for it, but 70 percent of the entire Syrian population are Sunnis and a majority of them, especially in rural areas and the big-city slums, backed the rebellion. Hardly any non-Sunnis did.

The pro-regime non-Sunni minorities were Shia Muslims (including the Alawite sect that is the backbone of the regime), Christians, and the Druze, who all feared that a Sunni victory would mean at best oppression, or maybe exile or death for them. This was mainly because the Islamist fighters who dominated the later stages of the revolt were all Sunni extremists whose language made those fears plausible.

So how could the regime make itself safer from another rebellion? Get rid of as many as possible of the poorer Sunnis, and particularly those who lived in the cities.

The present situation presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that, because more than half of the pre-war population of 23 million are now out of their homes: 6 million as refugees abroad and another 6 million internally displaced. They are almost all Sunnis, and the Assad regime sees them as ‘bad’ Sunnis, so here’s what he is going to do.

Syria’s new Law No. 10 requires property-owners in parts of the country devastated by the war to produce their ownership documents within 30 days. If they don’t, they will have no further claim to their home or the land it once stood on. It sounds quite straightforward, but here’s the trick.

The devastated areas where most buildings were damaged or destroyed are, of course, those that fell into the hands of the rebels and were smashed up by government bombs and shell-fire. Assad’s regime assumes (probably correctly) that most of the people in those areas, mainly on the outskirts of the big cities, backed the rebels.

Many of those people are now refugees outside the country, and most of the rest are internally displaced persons. Their documents may have been destroyed, or they may never had deeds (if they lived in informal settlements). In either case they will be very reluctant to come home and put themselves in the hands of the regime, so they lose their land.

And then, the regime thinks, they will never come home at all – which is the point of the whole exercise. When these areas are eventually rebuilt, the homes will go to people who backed the regime, or at least stayed neutral: ‘good’ Sunnis and the minorities.

Meanwhile the war will go on for a while here and there at a lower pace, but the Kurdish-controlled areas will probably soon be back under government control. Rather than wait to be betrayed by the Americans (who will not protect them from Turkey in the long run), the Kurds will make a deal with Assad that gives them an autonomous Kurdish regional government and protects them from Erdogan’s anger.

Idlib, the last opposition-held area, will take longer. The province’s population has doubled to 2 million, and a great many of the newcomers are hard-line Islamists who were sent there after the negotiated surrenders in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta or Daraa in the past eighteen months.

Assad doesn’t actually want them back, and the Turks (whose troops are already in Idlib province) might fight to protect them. He may just leave them there, safely quarantined, until some opportunity arises to get rid of them. But in the meantime he is re-shaping the population to guarantee the regime’s long-term future.

The cities may be a bit smaller than before, but they will be reliably regime-friendly. The country as a whole will still have a Sunni majority, but probably a less overwhelming one, and the most hostile elements will be living in exile. It is demographic engineering on a very large scale, and nobody can stop it.

To the victor go the spoils.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The pro-regime…plausible”)

Syria Hellish Clash

In weeks of heavy fighting, Syrian government forces have taken back about a quarter of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave, but you won’t have heard much about that. Whereas you will have heard a great deal (unless you are trapped down a coal-mine) about the “massive bombing campaign” that has allegedly killed 500 innocent people there in the past week.

It is “hell on Earth” in the Eastern Ghouta, said United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, and you may have seen video clips of some of the victims of the bombing (always including women and children). You will not, however, have seen any footage of armed rebels belonging to various Islamist groups, although they are there in large numbers.

You will probably have heard at some point that 393,000 people are trapped in this rebel enclave on the eastern edge of Damascus, Syria’s capital, and you may even have wondered who counted them? That was the area’s population seven years ago, at the start of the Syrian civil war, but until about a year ago it was very easy for people to leave. Most probably did.

Civilians can’t leave now, mainly because the rebel fighters won’t let them: they need the civilians as shields against even heavier bombardments by government forces.

Sieges of cities are always dreadful events.

Maybe government troops are stopping them from leaving too — decisions are not always rational seven years into a civil war — but that would not make sense from a tactical or a propaganda standpoint.

At any rate, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and aircraft are not being deterred by the presence of civilians who may or may not be hostages. The offensive continues, including the bombing. If it follows the same course as the government siege of rebel-held Eastern Aleppo in late 2016, the Eastern Ghouta enclave should fall towards the end of this month.

At that point, if the siege of eastern Aleppo is any guide, there will be no massacre of civilians (who will again turn out to be around a quarter of the number claimed to be present during the siege). The remaining fighters will be allowed to surrender and may be transported to some other rebel-held enclave, although those are dwindling in number. And Damascus will be free of bombardment for the first time since 2012.

Sieges of cities are always dreadful events. They involve close-quarters combat in the midst of a civilian population. Street-fighting eats up soldiers’ lives faster than any other kind of combat, so the side that has access to massive amounts of firepower (generally the attackers) deploys it ruthlessly to keep its own military casualties down.

In terms of the scale of the bombardment, Eastern Ghouta is no different from Eastern Aleppo — nor indeed from Mosul in northern Iraq, which was retaken from Islamic State forces last year by U.S.-backed Iraqi troops after a brutal, grinding nine-month battle. Indeed, the worst of the three sieges, in terms of civilian casualties, was almost certainly Mosul.

We heard less about civilian casualties in Mosul, however, because most international news providers are based in Western countries that backed that operation, and many of the aircraft doing the bombing were American. (Belgian, British, French, Iranian and Iraqi aircraft were also involved.)

We hear much more about the bombing in Eastern Ghouta because the planes involved belong to the Syrian regime and perhaps to its Russian backers (although Moscow denies that). The reporting is utterly partisan and therefore completely unreliable.

None of this constitutes a defence of the Syrian regime, whose behaviour before and during this civil war has been indefensible. Indeed, there is reason to suspect that the Baathists’ decision to release more than a thousand Islamist radicals from prison when non-violent protests first broke out in 2011 was designed to turn the revolution into a civil war against extremist Sunni “terrorists” that the regime would stand a chance of winning.

That’s what happened, in any case, and now, with the help of Russia and Iran, the regime has won. More fighting will not change the outcome; it will merely prolong the agony.

It also carries the risk that there will be a clash between the major foreign powers who now have troops in the country, including Turkey and the United States.

The humanitarian thing to do now would be to negotiate a ceasefire that acknowledged Assad’s control of the country but gave refuge to all those who do not wish to live under his rule. That’s impossible, however, because nobody wants to accept more Syrian refugees, and especially not the Islamist leaders who now command almost all the rebel forces.

So the war must go on, one bitter step at a time, until all of Syria that is not occupied by American or Turkish forces is back under Damascus’s rule. And then, unless they decide to partition Syria, the Americans and the Turks will have to be persuaded to leave.