• Ola Rifai

The Lethality of the evacuation policy

Earlier last week, dozens of the government green buses pulled out of al-Waer neighborhood in central Homs carrying 2000 people; 300 of them were fighters; the buses’ final destination was Jarablus (northern Aleppo). Some 12000 residents of al-Waer including 2500 fighters will follow (to Idlib and Jarablus) in the coming weeks as part of a Syrian regime local deal (backed and supervised by Russia) that permits civilians and fighters to evacuate to other rebel-held regions of their choice. Such evacuation of residents came after those areas being subjected to siege and bombardment for months; a policy the Syrian regime and its allies deployed since the outset of the conflict to force rebels to surrender.

In the past year similar deals have taken place in suburbs of Damascus (qudsyya al-yarmok camp, and Daryya) when a few hundred fighters were relocated in Idlib. Interestingly, the Syrian regime and its followers label these deals as "reconciliation agreements" promoting them as a victorious achievement against what they call "terrorists" and "armed thugs". While on the other hand, regime opponents argue that these agreements are "ethnic cleansing" by the regime which aim at changing the demographic aspect of Syria.

For the Syrian regime the gains of this policy is twofold; firstly is to regain control over territories without engaging its troops on a guerrilla war on the ground. Secondly, and more importantly, is to gather rebels in particular areas that are dominated by radicals and henceforth justifying a later crackdown either by the regime itself or by the West. And thus, emphasising the regime claim that it is fighting terrorists in the eyes of Syrians and the international community while pursuing to play a ‘partner’ role in the fight against "terrorism".

In fact, this evacuation policy poses lethal implications for the ongoing conflict and would not only paralyse any foreseen political solution; it would trigger a yet more violent episode of the war. One of the most significant outcomes is the radicalisation of fighters who were relocated in rebel-held areas (namely in Idlib and Aleppo countryside); those fighters who were evacuated from Homs or from the suburbs of Damascus vary in their ideological beliefs: nevertheless most of them come from an Islamic background that is deemed to be moderate; since they were fighting with moderate militias. However, suffering under the siege; feeling abandoned by their backers and the humiliating evacuation of their homes would most probably provoke them to join extremist groups like Fateh al-Sham (al-Nusra Front) which unlike ISIS; has a majority of Syrian fighters.

Besides, this policy deepens divisions among the already divided factions of Syrian society as it highlights the line between 'us' and 'them'. Further, it stirs up sectarian and ethnic animosity. Those relocated rebels are Arab Sunnis who mostly come from a rural background. They have been transferred to areas dominated by fellow Arab Sunnis and which border the Kurdish enclave. The Arab/Kurd fight had exploded with the onset of the conflict and the entrenchment of Arab fighters would surely fuel that fight.

Indeed, the Syrian regime still believes that the pre March-2011 status can be retained; and hence it is acting accordingly. By employing its long standing policy of divide-and -rule while putting identity groups at odds with each other to create a chaotic situation in which it would appear as the only reasonable alternative. Well, undoubtedly, the pre-March 2011 Syria could never come back. It might be hard to convince the regime of this reality but it is crucial that Mr. Putin, the regime main baker, bears this in mind. And hence, he should start establishing the right environment to pave the way for a transition of power, and to design policies that ease this transition instead of supporting policies that prolong the conflict. Surely, reconciliation agreements that are based on mutual gains rather than the “hunger or surrender" motto; are essential for this. Local truces and cease fires in rebel-held territories (that allows fighters and their families to stay in their areas) would be a vital step toward power sharing, and would set the necessary context for any political solution.

This month marks the six anniversary of the conflict; that is considered by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian disaster since WWII. Outcomes of the Syrian war have gone far beyond its borders. The failure of the Western approach toward the crisis provoked drastic military and geopolitical changes and yielded Russia an upper hand over Syria’s sky and land. Therefore, it seems that Mr. Putin holds the key to either opening a new chapter of the conflict or to drawing an end to it. Until now, eighteen months of Russian military intervention in Syria seem to be fruitful for Russian interests, however, based on realpolitik calculations and on the memory of the Afghan war, the Russians should realise that escalating the conflict would have severe effects for Russia and would embroil Russian troops in a bloody quagmire.


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