Packaged as a “coordinated population transfer” ~ in-house, more accurately ~ in Syria’s six-year-long civil war, last Friday’s evacuation of more than 7000 people from four besieged towns isn’t exactly an essay towards rehabilitation, initiated by the Bashar al-Assad regime. It is, on closer reflection, a forced rearrangement of the country’s population, and with sectarian overtones in a deeply fractious land. Through a deft policy of divide and conquer, President Assad has spelt out a choice between him and Sunni Islamist rule, symbolised by the surge of ISIS, if under pressure in Aleppo and the firing of the US cruise missile. In the midst of the increasing turmoil and the muscleflexing by the US and Russia (sailing of the warship), Assad appears to be considering a new course of action in his overall strategy, specifically by splitting the Shias and Sunnis in an intra-religion transfer of people from one city to another. Ignored in the process is the traditional stake in hearth and home, indeed a dislocation of life. “Honestly, when we left Madaya, I felt sadness, anger, and sorrow. But now, on the road, I don’t feel anything. I feel cold as ice,” was the pathetic comment of a resident as he was bussed out of Madaya, besieged by progovernment forces. The towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, from where 2350 people are reported to have been evacuated on Friday, are believed to be wholly inhabited by Sunnis ~ the bedrock of the Caliphate. Another 5,000 people were evacuated in 75 buses from the northern rebel-besieged towns of Foua and Kfraya, both predominantly Shia and loyal to the Syrian government.
At another remove, Idlib province, which recently suffered a chemical gas attack, has come under the hardline Sunnis. The Shia-Sunni evacuation from one city to another points to a calibrated shuffling around of the sects with the implicit objective that they don’t entrench themselves in any part of the country. This apparently is Assad’s strategy to face the challenge six years after the Arab Spring.
The beleaguered Syrian President has effected a 21st century variant of the policy of divide and rule... within one religion and one country. Small wonder that the state-sponsored population transfer has been condemned by the opposition within Syria as a “deliberate demographic change”. The evacuation deal was brokered in March by Qatar, negotiating on behalf of the rebels, and Iran, on behalf of the government. The United Nations is not supervising the Shia-Sunni swap that masquerades as evacuation.
It is far from certain whether the population swap will ease the siege, either by ISIS or the government. Arguably, it could lend a new dimension to the humanitarian crisis. As much was clear from the lament of an evacuee ~ “We were forced to leave. We left our land, our parents, our memories, our childhood... everything.”