In Idlib, Assad's war machine has a lethal message: 'Leave or die'

In Idlib, Assad's war machine has a lethal message: 'Leave or die'
Comment: Make no mistake, ethnic cleansing is both the aim and the effect of Assad-Iran-Russia's war effort, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
03 Feb, 2020
Syrian regime airstrikes destroy buildings near the town of Saraqeb, in Syria's Idlib [Getty]
In the almost nine years of the war in Syria, the sight of tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands civilians fleeing their homes and neighbourhoods has become a disturbingly familiar sight. 

Since the conflict began, the lowest estimate of those
"displaced" stands at 13.5 million, equating to over one million people per year being made into refugees.

The other familiar sight is the destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and markets turned to rubble by Russian or Baathist bombers. In the past 10 days, tens of thousands of people in Idlib - the last rebel-held province of Syria - have been forced towards the Turkish border under the threat of annihilation from a veritable blitzkrieg of Russian airstrikes, and the capture of left-behind ghost towns by Assad-Iran's militias. 

An estimated 6,500 children have fled Syria every day since the offensive began on 1 December last year, with 300,000 children becoming refugees in that time span. Seven hundred thousand people have been cleansed in a mere two months, with 80 percent of those women and children. 

None of this is accidental. The chaos of the destruction wrought by Assad masks the terrifying reality that every element of such destruction is methodical - from the deliberate targeting of civil infrastructure, to the carefully planned evacuations of entire populations.

Though even I describe the cause of this mass exodus from Idlib as a result of "war", this language only tells a small part of the story.  The true story can be summed with two words that the world seems reluctant to use: ethnic cleansing.

An estimated 6,500 children have fled Syria every day since the offensive began on 1 December last year

Make no mistake, ethnic cleansing is both the aim and the effect of Assad-Iran-Russia's war effort. Many people have claimed over the years that ethnic cleansing cannot apply to Syria, since Assad is the same ethnicity as his victims. 

However, even if you momentarily set aside the fact that Assad's forces are as much as 80 percent foreign, or that he is himself largely now a puppet of Russia and Iran, ethnic cleansing is defined by UN Security Council Resolution 780 as "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas".

This perfectly describes precisely what Assad, Iran and Russia have set out to do since the popular revolution gripped the country. Assad, under the growing guidance of Iran, recognised that the protests were so widespread and deeply embedded in the Sunni population of the country. 

[Click to enlarge]

The solution was never for him to rule over Syria as it was before the revolution and war. 

The plan was to sectarianise the conflict, using mostly Alawite militias (Shabiha) and Alawite-led ultra-loyal units of the Syrian Arab Army. Assad had to demobilise two thirds of this national army due to its overwhelmingly Sunni composition and the high risk of defections as it was ordered to massacre Sunni Syrians. 

These Alawite militias eventually became, with the training and financial backing of Iran, the 'National Defence Forces' (NDF), joined by Hezbollah, the IRGC and Iranian-backed foreign Shia militias. Assad would utilise his, Iran and latterly Russia's extensive war machine to cleanse the mostly Sunni hotspots of the revolution. 

The end result would be a Baathist rump state, heavily under the control of Iran and Russia, where reduced and more ideologically compliant populations would be easier to rule over than the demographics who had initiated the revolution and tasted freedom. In the valleys between Damascus and the Lebanese border, Iran even infamously began the process of resettling cleansed Sunni towns and villages with loyalist Shia populations. 

This is precisely why during every conquest of any "liberated" area of Syria by Assad-Iran-Russia, we have seen the targeting of civilians and civil infrastructure.  Normal life in liberated areas has been made almost impossible by the constant targeting of schools, hospitals and markets. 

Normal life in liberated areas has been made almost impossible by the constant targeting of schools, hospitals and markets

When populations have resisted initial aerial bombardments, we've seen Assad's forces use chemical weapons on multiple occasions to escalate the terror and reach into the embedded populations and choke them to death - to burn the images of such cruel and traumatic images of death into the mind's eye of populations so that they will endeavour to get as far away from Syria as possible. Resistance among conquered populations is met with genocidal viciousness, including a network of prisons where tens of thousands of Syrian prisoners have been starved and tortured to death.  

After the brutality of the fall of Free Aleppo, who could forget the famous white buses that turned up to literally cleanse the remaining population? The same "evacuations" took place in DeraaHomsGhouta and in most other parts of Syria reconquered by Assad. The slogan used by the regime has been "Leave or die". 

Though "evacuations" is the term preferred by the media, let's call it for what it is: ethnic cleansing.  Of course, the destination then was Idlib, whose population swelled by millions as it became the primary location of Syrians cleansed from other parts of the country.

And this is why it's time we began to use this term to describe the reality engulfing Syria. To understand this aspect of Assad-Iran-Russia's war in Syria not only exposes yet another dimension of criminality to their actions, but it opens up the reality that what was already the worst refugee crisis since WWII is only going to get worse. 

Those Syrians fleeing Idlib have found themselves trapped at a Turkish border that will not let them pass. Turkey has taken in more refugees than any nation on earth, with at least 4 million Syrians settling in the country. Europe, the so-called bastion of liberalism, which contains the world's richest nations, is mired in overtly racist policies of rebuking the refugees. Turkey doesn't have the necessary resources in isolation, which has led to ugly incidents at the border and protests from desperate refugees. 

Every element of such destruction is methodical

Turkey's only other options have been drastic ones, with it undertaking a criminal attempt to seize land from Syrian Kurds to resettle with Syrian Arabs. One evil begets another. On Monday, Turkish forces in Idlib were shelled by Assad, prompting Turkey to swiftly retaliate. 

Assad-Iran-Russia, it seems, is determined to cleanse Idlib, with Russia probably counting on Turkey eventually relenting to the refugees, thus prompting another so-called refugee crisis in Europe. As with the last time, perhaps it's only a coincidence that the fascist parties that gain ground due to the racist backlash against Syrian refugees tend to be largely pro-Russia

We live in a world where many cannot even bring themselves to face up to the nature of the savagery being perpetrated against Syrians by Assad-Iran-Russia, namely the interrelated crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing.  Only a few voices use these terms to describe the situation in Syria. 

This failure of language of is part of the general failure of the world that allowed genocide in Syria to triumph.

The situation for Syrians in Idlib is now a tightrope between barbarism or survival. It seems like the former is the most likely outcome.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Join the conversation @The_NewArab

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.