Despite the fact that the diplomatic field is witnessing negotiations and talks on the Astana and Geneva paths in order to find a political solution for the Syrian catastrophe, the facts on the ground indicate that the Syrian regime continues to practice the policy of forced expulsion in a number of Syrian areas. This is carried out with the backing and support of its Russians and Iranian allies, and this reveals the falseness of its progression towards a political solution.
The forced expulsion agreement in Al-Waer neighbourhood located in Homs was meant to announce the strong Russian entry into the continuation of the demographic change approach. This approach targets anything the Syrian regime does not consider part of “useful Syria” with the sponsorship and support of the Russians.
Expulsion or settlement
However, the forced displacement agreement in Al-Waer neighbourhood raises questions and queries regarding the similarities and differences between it and other forced displacement agreements that were implemented in Old Homs,
Qodsia, Darya, Muadamiyat Al-Sham and Eastern Aleppo. It also raises questions of whether Russia’s support and the presence of its military police will guarantee the security of the residents who remain in their neighbourhood and prevent their expulsion in the future, similar to the cases in Qodsia, Al-Hamah and the areas of Wadi Barada.
The agreement signed between a committee formed by the residents of Al-Waer and the Russians and the regime aims to expel the neighbourhood’s residents who refuse to reach a settlement with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in exchange for lifting the siege imposed on the neighbourhood. The agreement includes a number of clauses that will be implemented in stages extending up to six months, starting with the expulsion and ending with the Bashar Al-Assad’s forces entering Al-Waer.
The agreement stipulates: “The release of the first batch of fighters a week after signing the agreement towards the areas north of the Homs suburbs, Idlib, or Garables, located in the northern suburbs of Aleppo.” The release will be coordinated by the Civil Authority that will form a committee which will determine the names of those being released. Then the crossings will be opened and government officials will enter to manage the state institutions after the first batch of residents are released.
The agreement is not expected to be implemented in the manner it is meant to, and perhaps what happened in Qodsia, Al-Tal and eastern Aleppo, after the previous expulsion agreements, is the biggest proof that the regime, its shabiha, the Iranian mullah regime and its militias do not respect all agreements and understandings.
The regime forces, its security forces and the Iranian militias allied with the regime that entered these areas immediately after the fighters exited, launched large-scale arrest and recruitment campaigns amongst the civilians and imposed their control over them. This led to later expulsion operations out of fear from the revenge the regime’s forces and Iranian militias.
Russia’s backing of this agreement and the exclusion of Iran reflect the balances of power on the ground in Syria, which is now largely tipped in favour of the Russian occupation.
The remainder of 300 Free Syrian Army fighters in the neighbourhood to protect its remaining residents aims to promote and soften the agreement, as these remaining fighters will not be able to protect the neighbourhood.
It seems that the strategic importance of Homs’ Al-Waer neighbourhood has made the Russians insist on holding the agreement. The Russian side put a gun to the head of the negotiators on behalf of the residents and fighters and gave them a choice between exit, settlement, or killing and annihilating the entire neighbourhood in the event that they reject the agreement.
The families and fighters had no other choice but to sign the agreement because a settlement would mean the return to the rule of the Assad regime, meaning those who remain are subject to arrest or recruitment to the regime’s militias and would be forced to fight in defence of the regime. Meanwhile, exit, or forced displacement is the lesser of the two evils for them.
Reality indicates that there are many similarities between what has happened in Al-Waer and what happened in the rest of the areas that witnessed similar agreements. Al-Assad and his allies adopted the strategy of isolated islands in Homs and its suburbs. He bombed and besieged them and attacked each area separately.
There is no doubt that the forced displacement agreement in Al-Waer is a continuation of the demographic change in Syria witnessed by the city. The neighbourhoods of Old Homs, since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, were the targets of brutal bombings at the hands of regime forces and Hezbollah militias, and this led to their destruction and drove most of their residents out.
A siege was imposed on the city for over two years and it ended with an agreement between the regime and the opposition, under UN auspices and the presence of Iran on 4 April 2014. This agreement stipulated the evacuation of fighters and civilians and relocating them to the northern suburbs and Idlib.
This led to the evacuation of the old city of the opposition and the resettlement of pro-regime individuals in the area instead. The population of Homs dropped from 1.5 million before the Syrian Revolution to about 400,000 now. This means that over 65 per cent of the original residents were displaced.
As for the Darya agreement, it was reached after four years of starvation and bombing which forced the remaining Darya residents to negotiate with the regime in August 2016. They were forced to agree to forced displacement or annihilation. The city, which had a population of 250,000 before the revolution, was emptied.
The same happened with Muadamiyat Al-Sham, which was forced to agree to forced displacement on 6 October 2016, after years of brutal besiegement and starvation, as well as continuous bombing. Hundreds of fighters, along with their families, were displaced and moved towards Idlib in the north.
It also happened before this in Zabadani, which was one of the most targeted areas by expulsion and demographic change. Hezbollah’s militias and the Iranian militias carried out forced displacement operations as part of a series of systematic expulsions, facilitated by regime forces.
Perhaps the recent events in eastern Aleppo provided an example of the forced displacement operations carried out by the Russians after it led a brutal war against its residents and infrastructure. They then sponsored a forced displacement agreement in December 2016 that led to the displacement of most of its inhabitants.
The deployment of the Russian military police in eastern Aleppo and its control of the regime forces and Iranian militias’ behaviour did not prevent the field executions immediately after they regained control of the neighbourhood. A number of documented reports testified to the execution of medical staff in Al-Hayat Hospital in Al-Kalasa district after it was raided.
The forces and militias also executed 34 people and burned nine children to death in Al-Fardous district. They also carried out field executions in Al-Kalasa, Al-Fardous, Al-Salehin and Bustan Al-Qasr neighbourhoods.
The forced displacement agreement in Al-Waer confirms the participation of Putin’s government not only in the dirty war waged against the majority of the Syrians for years but also its dirty participation in the forced displacement process that has taken place in many areas inside Damascus, its suburbs, Homs and Aleppo.
The Russians are not, as they perceive themselves, sponsors of peace who interfered in the Syrian war in order to sponsor “national reconciliations”, enforce peace treaties and establish ceasefire agreements, as well as hold political dialogue in diplomatic forums.
However, the truth is that they came to guarantee the interests of Putin’s government by turning Syria into an area of great and permanent influence for them in the Middle East and in order to supervise the expulsion of most Syrian residents who, in the eyes of Putin’s government, have become strangers who must be uprooted from their occupied homeland.
How can the Russians be guarantors for the Al-Waer agreement in a way that will not turn it into an agreement for the displacement of all the inhabitants of the neighbourhood? No one can guarantee that.
First of all, there are discrepancies between the calculations of the Russians, Iranians and the regime and Homs is significant for each one of them. Al-Waer neighbourhood is especially important given its proximity to many military colleges and bases. There is also the Homs petrol refinery, which has strategic importance, and this prevents any party from being a guarantor unless it is within certain limits.
Therefore, there is no use of deploying a Russian battalion consisting of 60-100 troops to closely monitor the phases of the agreement, guarantee that the parties adhere to it, address any violations and oversee the return of the residents to the neighbourhood. The Russians deployed a similar battalion in Aleppo’s eastern neighbourhoods, but they did not carry out their duty of preventing killings, revenge and forcible displacement of those who remained after the departure of opposition fighters.
After the forced displacement operation is finished, Al-Assad may come to the empty neighbourood on his throne in order to say something similar to what he said in Darya after the displacement of its residents and talk about the “demographic change is changing over generations due to the people’s economic interests, the social situation and the political circumstances.”
However, Al-Assad will not be able to talk about the mothers whose children abandoned them, the family that was forced to leave their home, the child who was forced away from their home and school, or about the Russians who became occupiers after they – along with the Iranians – participated in destroying the neighbourhood.
This will not be the last chapter of the story of the people of the “revolution capital” and its neighbourhoods. Their songs are still alive and their words are echoed by the rocks and streets and are carried by the breeze.
Translated from Al Jazeera, 20 March 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.