The dangers of reshaping Syria's sectarian demographics

The dangers of reshaping Syria's sectarian demographics
Comment: Creating demographic buffer zones will only lead to bloodshed, warns Paul Iddon.
4 min read
19 Jan, 2017
Uprooting communities will likely lead to violence, writes Paul Iddon [AFP]
Iran and its proxy Shia Hizballah militia are reportedly undertaking a systematic policy of resettling Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia Muslims in former Sunni areas retaken from opponents of the Syrian regime.

This, writes The Guardian's Martin Chulov, is part of a strategy by Tehran to shore up key areas between Damascus and the Lebanese border to ensure the Syrian regime's continued control over these key areas.

Damascus has become increasingly reliant on Shia militias backed by Iran in its fight to reclaim territory. Use of such sectarian militias in a Sunni-majority country poses self-evident problems, while outright resettling Sunni areas could inflame underlying tensions and make any reconciliation in Syria all the more difficult - increasing the chance of the country fragmenting completely and permanently in the long run.

While it makes some degree of sense for Tehran to help bolster Damascus' supply lines to Hizballah in neighbouring Lebanon, such a sectarian campaign against the Sunnis could have grave ramifications for those undertaking it.
Sectarian tensions of these kinds in the Middle East are invariably capitalised upon by the worst of extremists

Lebanon hasn't had a census since 1934. Before the Syrian war, it was estimated that Lebanon's population was roughly one-third Christian, one-third Sunni and one-third Shia. This delicate sectarian balance has essentially been upended by the Syrian conflict with the influx of more than a million Syrians, the overwhelming majority of them Sunni.

If they are unable to return to their homes and perceive there to be a sectarian war being waged against them by Shia - supported and encouraged by Tehran - they could be at risk of exploitation by extremists. This could even result in another internal war in Lebanon, and yet more regional instability. 

Sectarian tensions of these kinds in the Middle East are invariably capitalised upon by the worst of extremists. In Iraq, al-Qaeda were able to get a foothold in Sunni communities since they were fighting against the Shia militias driving the Sunnis out of their homes back in 2006.

Similarly, in Mosul in June 2014, the Islamic State group militants initially had some support since they were seen by locals as a bulwark against then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seen by many as a sectarian Shia and whose army they perceived as a threat. In Syria, where the Sunni are a clear majority, a perceived or real sectarian war against them might engender similar reactions and see them acquiescence to rampaging militants groups such as al-Qaeda and IS on the ad-hoc basis that they are combating their enemies.
Iran's alleged policy in Syria could similarly sow the seeds for another vicious sectarian conflict

Repopulating areas to reshape ethno-sectarian makeups is nothing new in the Middle East. The Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein hoped to consolidate his complete control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk by forcing Kurds to leave and replacing them with Sunni Arabs. On the island kingdom of Bahrain, a Shia-majority state, the minority ruling Sunni monarchy has even gone so far as to hire Sunni Pakistanis to fill the ranks of its police force.

Blatant sectarian repression of the Shia majority has, unsurprisingly, given Iran a clear pretext to attempt to interfere in the tiny kingdom's affairs.

Iran's alleged policy in Syria could similarly sow the seeds for another vicious sectarian conflict in the Levant region, where Shia are in a clear minority.

The late Arab scholar Fouad Ajami once dismissed the notion of a "Shia Crescent" stretching from Iran across the Fertile Crescent by pointing out what he called a key problem with the theory, that there were no Shia in Syria. While not totally true, the Shia in Syria do constitute a minority that is sometimes easy to overlook. They have therefore been very vulnerable to sectarian attacks from militants such as the Islamic State group and Jabhat al-Nusra, who see them as heretics.

Nusra, now rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, besieged the two Shia-majority towns of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province, for several months until a Russian-backed regime offensive pushed them back in February 2016. Similarly, in the Idlib towns of al-Fu'ah and Kafriya, Syrian Shia are surrounded by Nusra fighters and have been under siege for nearly two years - leading to the population swaps that Chulov mentions.

While it may make strategic sense for the regime to protect Syria's Shia minority by evacuating them from such indefensible enclaves permanently, uprooting entire Sunni communities is not the solution. It will do little more than further poison the already strained relations between Syria's Sunnis and its minorities and fuel sectarian conflict - and all the unmentionable acts of sectarian violence which invariably comes with such conflicts, for many years to come.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.