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Iran Repopulating Syria With Shiites in Bid to Cement Its Regional Control

Iran is repopulating Syrian territory from Damascus to Homs with Shiites families from elsewhere in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, turning the area into “zones of influence” that Iran “can directly control and use to advance broader interests,” The Guardian reported earlier this month.

Calling the Iranian controlled process “a historic shift in populations,” one senior Lebanese leader said, “Iran and the regime don’t want any Sunnis between Damascus and Homs and the Lebanese border.”

Iran is currently focused on the rebel-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya, with talks about swapping their populations with those of two Shiite-majority villages, Fua and Kefraya, located in a Sunni-majority section of northern Syria.

According to the Guardian, such an ambitious population exchange could be a “litmus test” for future such exchanges around Damascus and in northwestern Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority is concentrated.

“Iran was very ready to make a full swap between the north and south. They wanted a geographical continuation into Lebanon. Full sectarian segregation is at the heart of the Iranian project in Syria. They are looking for geographical zones that they can fully dominate and influence. This will have repercussions on the entire region,” said Labib al-Nahas, the chief of foreign relations for the Sunni opposition group Ahrar al-Sham.

There have been examples of such population swaps elsewhere in Syria. Last August, up to 700 rebels fighters and their families were relocated from Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, to the Idlib province in northern Syria as part of a surrender deal. Days later, state media announced that 300 Iraqi Shiite families had taken up residence in the area.

Shiite shrines have also become a focal point for strategic repopulation efforts. Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah fortified the Sayeda Zainab mosque in western Damascus and moved the families of its fighters into the building since late 2012. Iran has purchased homes near the shrine, “and a tract of land, which it is using to create a security buffer – a microcosm of its grander project,” the Guardian wrote.

Lebanese officials have been paying close attention to what they say has been a systematic destruction of Land Registry offices in areas coming under Assad’s control. It has been confirmed that these offices have been burned in the cities of Zabadani, Darayya, Homs, and Qusayr, meaning that residents who fled cannot prove ownership of their homes.

Abu Mazen Darkoush, a former Free Syrian Army commander, said that after many neighborhoods in Homs were cleansed of their residents, families who returned were refused entry into their homes by officials who cited their lack of proof of ownership.

“The displacement from here started in 2012 but increased dramatically in 2015. Now most of our people have already been taken to Idlib. There is a clear and obvious plan to move Sunnis from between Damascus and Homs. They have burned their homes and fields. They are telling people ‘this place is not for you anymore,'” the director of Zabadani’s hospital said.

“This is leading to the fragmentation of families. The concept of family life and ties to the land is being dissolved by all this deportation and exile. It is shredding Syrian society,” he continued.

“This is not just altering the demographic balance,” al-Nahas said. “This is altering the balance of influence in all of these areas and across Syria itself. Whole communities will be vulnerable. War with Iran is becoming an identity war. They want a country in their likeness, serving their interests. The region can’t tolerate that.”

Iran’s effort to extend its influence by forcibly removing Sunnis from what it considers strategic locations in Syria and replacing them with Shiite families appears to be a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49, which states that “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”

A 1958 commentary on Article 49 explained that such transfers were carried out during World War II “by certain Powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonize those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race.”

Ambassador Morris Abram, a member of the U.S. staff at the Nuremburg Tribunal who helped draft the Fourth Geneva Convention, said similarly that the convention was meant to prohibit “the forcible transfer, deportation or resettlement of large numbers of people.”

In The Iranian Empire is Almost Complete, which was published in the December 2016 issue of The Tower Magazine, Hanin Ghaddar explained Iran’s strategy of repopulating areas to create Shiite “security zones” within which it can project its power. (She also noted that the strategy was pioneered in Syria by Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s current president.)

To maintain the regional corridor through which it deploys and supplies its proxy army, Iran has resorted to demographic changes, i.e., ethnic cleansing, mainly in Syria. The Sunni population of Homs and the Damascus suburbs has been evacuated over the past several years and moved to Idlib province. The residents of these areas, who were under siege for four years, surrendered after heavy regime bombardment and deteriorating humanitarian conditions. Assad’s “starve or surrender” tactics in these areas have forced many rebels to give up in exchange for basic needs such as food and medicine.

The towns of Daraya, al-Waar, Ghouta, Zabadani, Madaya, Yarmouk, and other areas around Damascus are targets for ethnic cleansing. Recently, the Lebanese news website NOW and the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat noted that Iraqi families, particularly from Shi’ite-heavy southern provinces, are being moved to Syria to repopulate these areas. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary force close to Iran, has reportedly overseen the resettlement of 300 such families, who were given homes and $2,000 apiece.

These demographic changes are not new. Bashar Assad’s father Hafez actively populated Damascus and surrounding towns with Alawites and other minorities during his time as president. As I wrote in September, in 1947 “only 300 Alawites lived in Damascus (out of about 500,000 metropolitan-area inhabitants),” but by 2010 that figure had soared “to more than 500,000 (of about 5 million in the metro area), or a quarter of Syria’s Alawite community. More Alawites thus lived in Damascus than in any other Syrian city.” Bashar now appears to be escalating his father’s strategy into full-blown ethnic cleansing.

Iran and its proxy militias are very involved in this process. Hezbollah has already conducted ethnic cleansings of its own in certain areas along the border (e.g., its 2013 campaigns in al-Qusayr and the Qalamoun region). Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Sunnis were evacuated from Homs between 2011-2014, when a deal was finally struck with regime forces after starvation reached horrifying levels.

As a result of these efforts, a corridor linking Qalamoun to Damascus, Homs, and an Alawite enclave is almost Sunni-free. In addition to shielding the capital from mainly Sunni anti-Assad forces, this gives Hezbollah safe access to the Golan Heights, potentially allowing the group to open another front against Israel. Iran could also use its reinforced grip over Syria and Lebanon to project more power against Israel, whether by supporting Hezbollah in the Golan or increasing its assistance to Palestinian groups like Hamas.

[Photo: Unknown / WikiCommons ]