November 15, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1280

Together With Its Allies, The Syrian Regime Is Forcing Demographic Change In Areas Of The Country - For Self-Protection And Self-Preservation

November 15, 2016 | By E. B. Picali*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1280


Throughout the five and a half years of the war in Syria, and along with military action against the rebels, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, together with Iran, Hizbullah, and the pro-Assad militias, have implemented various measures to change the demographics of regions populated primarily by pro-rebel Sunnis, replacing them with pro-regime groups, primarily Alawites and Shi'ites.

These moves appear to be aimed at creating a homogenously pro-regime area with a Shi'ite and Alawite majority in a geographic region many refer to by the post-World War I term La Syrie Utile ("Useful Syria"). This is aimed at helping ensure the survival of the Syrian regime and of its strategic depth with Hizbullah in Lebanon and with Iran, in the event that Syria ends up being divided in any way as a solution to the crisis.

President Assad outlined this policy in a July 26, 2015 speech, saying: "The homeland does not belong to those who live there, nor to those who hold a passport or are citizens. The homeland belongs to those who protect and guard it." Assad explained that circumstances on the ground require the Syrian army to withdraw from various areas "so that it can protect other, more important regions" and that the regime army "cannot fight on all fronts out of fear of losing control in certain areas, [and therefore] we relinquish [certain] regions in favor of important areas under our control." These statements have been interpreted by Syrian opposition elements as proof that such a La Syrie Utile project is indeed underway.[1]

The Assad regime seems to be using a number of methods to carry out this project, including expelling its non-Shi'ite population that is not loyal to Assad and replacing it with an Assad-loyalist Shi'ite or Alawite population; agreements regarding the removal and replacement of local residents; killing and intimidating residents; demolishing homes and burning farmland; besieging towns and starving residents; offering besieged residents food if they sell their land to the regime; burning down land registration offices to destroy records; the buying up of land and homes by Iranian agents. In addition to these methods are the continued Shi'ization of the area, which has been underway for some time.[2]

Some of these measures, particularly the agreements for the removal and replacement of local residents, have been carried out under the auspices of the UN. Both the regime and the UN have been harshly criticized for them, by elements in the Syrian opposition as well as by anti-Syrian regime elements in Lebanon.

This report will review the purpose of this removal of local populations from areas of Syria, the means used to do so, and criticism of it and of the UN. The main sources cited in this report are anti-Syrian regime, anti-Iran, and anti-Hizbullah.  

Creating A Homogenously Pro-Regime Geographic Region Stretching From Western Syria To Lebanon - To Ensure The Survival Of The Regime And Of Its Strategic Depth With Hizbullah And Iran

As stated, the army of the Syrian regime, along with Iran, Hizbullah, and the pro-regime militias, have been working to change the demographics of regions of Syria, using various means to remove their mostly Sunni pro-rebel residents, who include Palestinians, and replacing them with a pro-regime population. These measures are being carried out primarily in Damascus and its surroundings, in the west of the country along Lebanon's northern and central Beqaa Valley, and along the Damascus-Beirut highway, with the aim of creating a contiguous region from Tartus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast eastward to Homs and southward to Damascus - and perhaps even farther south to Quneitra - that will ultimately be populated solely by pro-Assad Shi'ites, Alawites, and others. Many refer to this region as La Syrie Utile, because it  will serve the Syrian regime and Iran if Syria ends up divided as part of a solution to the crisis.


La Syrie Utile region (,

Originally, the term La Syrie Utile, coined following World War I by the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, referred to the borders of Greater Syria minus Jordan and Palestine. It defined the area of the Levant that at that time was considered economically and demographically more important and more central than other areas. The area the term refers to today covers nearly all of Syria's most important economic, administrative, and demographic areas. Many Syrian oppositionists saw proof that the Assad regime had a plan to make this region demographically homogenous and pro-regime in Assad's July 26, 2016 speech to union officials at the presidential palace in Damascus. In it, Assad explained that circumstances on the ground require the Syrian army to withdraw from various areas "so that it can protect other, more important regions" and that the regime army "cannot fight on all fronts out of fear of losing control in certain areas, [and therefore] we relinquish [certain] regions in favor of important areas under our control."[3]

Today's La Syrie Utile region borders on the regime's strategic depth in Lebanon, that is, the areas controlled by Hizbullah and its allies. These include the northern Beqaa Valley, which has a decisive Shi'ite majority; parts of the central Beqaa Valley, whose border with Syria is controlled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC); and the Damascus-Beirut highway. Following extensive removal of the original residents by various means, the Syrian regime and its allies now control a large swath of Syria's western regions and parts of eastern Lebanon in which the population is loyal to tem, rendering actual international borders nearly meaningless.

Syria's creation of pro-regime demographic homogeneity within this region serves Iranian plans to control Syria and Lebanon, and serves the Iran-Hizbullah relationship. In January 2016, the anti-Iran Lebanese lawyer Nabil Al-Halabi, who heads the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (LIFE), told the Syrian oppositionist website Orient News: "Iran's agenda in Syria is aimed at creating a large expanse... that will incorporate the entire [Syrian] border into Lebanon's northern and eastern Beqaa and will connect them to the Baalbek-Hermel area [that is, Lebanon's northern Beqaa], so as to transform it into an Iranian statelet subordinate to [Iran's] Rule of the Jurisprudent."[4] Similar statements were made by 'Abdelilah Fahd, of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.[5]

In this context it should be mentioned that as early as three years ago, Lebanese newspapers that are known to support Hizbullah, Syria, and the resistance axis published articles about the importance of this geographic region in Syria and the need to connect it to the Lebanese depth so as to create a single area that will ensure the survival of the Syrian regime, Hizbullah's strategic depth in Syria, and the geographic connection between them.[6]

Syrian oppositionists and anti-Assad Lebanese have warned about this plan. In August 2016, Syrian oppositionist Ahmad Abazid told the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The implementation of the plan [to bring about] a demographic shift in Syria began in the last quarter of 2012, with the regime using Shi'ite militias to change the composition of the population around Damascus and near the Lebanese border."[7] Earlier, in February 2016, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who was aware of the ramifications of this move for Lebanon, warned: "Lebanon could become a new province of La Syrie Utile, which the Syria-Iran axis is attempting to establish from Daraa to Tartus to Latakia."[8]  

Methods And Means Used By Regime And Its Allies To Create Pro-Regime Homogeneity In La Syrie Utile Region

For the past few years, Arab media, and particularly Syrian and Lebanese media hostile to the resistance axis, have been reporting on what is happening to the mostly Sunni anti-regime population in Damascus and its environs; in Homs, on the Damascus-Tartus road; in the towns of Al-Qusayr and Baniyas, between Homs and the northern Lebanese Beqaa Valley; in Al-Zabadani, north of the Damascus-Beirut highway; and recently also in the town of Madaya (on the Damascus-Beirut highway) and in Darayya (south of Damascus). The latter two locales have been in the news because of the regime's systematic starvation and expulsion of their residents.[9] These reports reveal a wide range of violent methods used by the Syrian regime, Iran, and Hizbullah to shift the mostly Sunni population that they do not want there, including besieging towns and starving their residents;[10] transferring residents as part of ceasefire agreements; demolishing homes and burning farmland; setting up roadblocks to monitor and intimidate the population; forcing residents to sell their property; burning land registration offices in order to destroy records; and killing residents and intimidating the survivors. In addition to these methods are Shi'ization (on which see below) and, following the removal of Sunni and anti-regime residents, settling Shi'ite, 'Alawite, and other pro-regime families in these areas.

"The evacuation of Darayya" (
Al-Arab, Qatar, August 28, 2016)

 Following are examples of these methods, which Syrian regime opponents claim constitute "sectarian cleansing":  

Expelling Non-Shi'ite Residents From La Syrie Utile Region

One violent method used by the regime and its allies to create demographic homogeneity has been expelling non-Shi'ite anti-Assad residents and making it impossible for them to return. Sometimes this is done by intimidating residents and threatening them with death so that they will leave of their own accord.

Thus, for example, in August 2015, the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, which is known to oppose Hizbullah and the Syrian regime, cited General Authority of the Syrian Revolution (GASR) spokesman Ahmad Al-Qusayr as saying that since it occupied the town of Al-Qusayr in June 2013, Hizbullah has expelled most non-Shi'ite residents of the surrounding villages and is preventing them from returning to their homes.[11]

A November 2015 report in another Lebanese daily, Al-Safir, which supports the resistance axis, provided proof for the claim that Hizbullah and the Syrian regime are preventing residents of Al-Qusayr from returning to their homes. Reporting from the town, Al-Safir reporter Ali Duraij said that only former residents whose names are on a Syrian Army list may enter. The daily also quoted a Syrian soldier as saying that pro-rebel residents would only be returning to the town "over the soldiers' dead bodies."[12]

In March 2015, the Egyptian news portal Masr Al-Arabia quoted a young man residing in the old city of Damascus as saying that Shi'ite militias are threatening local young Sunnis with forced labor in order to drive them out of the city, and that as a result many families have abandoned their homes. It also reported that Damascenes are saying that Hizbullah is preventing families who have left from returning to their homes in neighborhoods that Hizbullah has taken over and made into strongholds.[13]

In January 2015, the Syrian oppositionist website Orient News reported that when Hizbullah and other Shi'ite militias occupied the town of Sayyidah Zaynab and others surrounding it, south of Damascus, they executed residents and left their bodies lying in the street to terrorize others and spur them to leave on their own. The remaining residents were forcefully expelled, and the area was transformed into a center for Shi'ite militiamen and their families. Abu Nasser Al-Shami, an opposition activist in southern Damascus, said that the expelled residents had repeatedly tried to return to their homes but that the Shi'ite militias had prevented them from doing so.[14]

The regime has also razed entire neighborhoods in Damascus and Homs as part of new infrastructure plans. cited Syrian legal expert 'Abd Al-'Aziz as stating, in August 2015, that Assad's Presidential Decree No. 66, of 2012, ordering  the demolition of thousands of homes and other buildings in the neighborhoods of Al-Mezzeh, Kafr Soussa, and others in southern Damascus, and the construction of new homes in their place, was aimed at expelling their original residents, since Al-Mezzeh and Kafr Sousa are strategic strongholds housing important security facilities of the Syrian regime.[15] Two months previously, in June 2015, the London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi had cited an Al-Mezzeh resident as saying that the regime had ordered hundreds of families living east of the neighborhood and near the Iranian Embassy to leave their homes because they were going to be demolished to make way for "Iranian towers."[16]

Following the regime's approval of two new plans for infrastructure for Homs' Baba Amr neighborhood,  local residents claimed that the plans as they were approved by the city council are aimed at expelling them from their homes as retribution for their support for the rebels.[17]

On March 20, 2016, Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported, citing Syrian activists and eyewitnesses, on the construction of a nonconventional military facility and on the excavation of tunnels, with help from Iranian experts, on the Syria-Lebanon border and near the Damascus-Beirut highway, and that local residents were being expelled, their homes were being razed, and trees were being uprooted.[18] The following day, the daily again reported that it was feared that the facilities were for the storage of chemical or other nonconventional weapons.[19]

On June 11, 2016, Al-Quds Al-Arabi correspondent 'Omar Muhammad in the town of Madaya reported that Hizbullah fighters who control the southern approach to the town had forced 16 local families to immediately evacuate their homes. According to Muhammad, the fighters then looted the buildings, torched them, and took over the land, as part of the plan to change the demographics of the Damascus environs.[20]  

Pro-Rebel Residents Out, Shi'ite And Alawite Families In

Another method being used by the regime and its allies to change the demographics of the region is to settle Shi'ite and 'Alawite families in areas from which non-Shi'ite residents have been removed. In many cases, ownership of the properties is transferred to the new residents without the original owners' knowledge, and land registration offices have been burned down in order to remove all evidence of original ownership. Fields have also been burned, and homes razed.

In August 2015, the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal reported that privately owned farmland surrounding the town of Al-Qusayr that belonged to Syrians who had been forced to leave their homes was being sold at attractive prices and on installment plans to "a specific sector" (likely pro-Hizbullah) of Lebanese citizens. Additionally, according to the report, Hizbullah had demolished the homes of residents "one after another."[21] Previously, the newspaper reported that Hizbullah was settling its own fighters and their families in homes abandoned by the locals.[22]

Further evidence that Shi'ites were being moved into Al-Qusayr appeared in an August 2015 article discussing the population transfer methods being used by the regime and its allies, that was posted on the Syrian oppositionist website The article cited Samer Al-Homsi, a Syrian oppositionist in Homs, as stating that Hizbullah was settling the families of its fighters in Al-Qusayr.[23] Al-Homsi added that the Homs provincial council, which he said supported the regime, had posted notices on the doors of shops in the city's old marketplace warning that if they did not open for business the property would be expropriated and turned over to new owners - while the regime was preventing the shop owners from returning to the city. He said that the regime is transfering these properties to newly arrived Alawite and Shi'ite families with security clearance.

The article also stated that the Syrian regime and Hizbullah had burned down the land registration office and other buildings in the city where real estate records were stored, so as to eliminate evidence of the ownership of thousands of properties.[24] The anti-Hizbullah Shi'ite-Lebanese website also cited a source that said that the regime had transferred these properties to Iraqi and Lebanese Shi'ites, as well as to Alawites.[25]

The same thing happened in the old city of Damascus. A Masr Al-Arabia report quoted a young resident who said that homes abandoned by their original residents now house Lebanese, Iraqi, and Afghan militiamen whose families recently received Syrian citizenship, as well as displaced non-Sunni Syrians - all in accordance with a regime order giving itself the right to rent out these homes and to hold the rent received in escrow for the owners.[26] The report also quoted residents as saying that the regime had decreed that homes in Damascus may only be rented to people approved by the security authorities - and that only Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan, and Lebanese fighters are approved.[27]

The Syrian oppositionist website reported that in the town of Sayyidah Zaynab in the Rif Dimashq Governorate, Shi'ite militias were settling Shi'ite refugees from Basra, Iraq in homes whose owners had been removed. The report also quoted young resident Abu Radwan Al-Shami as saying said that a militia member had taken over his family home  and refused to leave despite his demands that he do so. Upon appealing to the police, Al-Shami was told that these militiamen are "guests who must be welcomed, and who cannot be removed." The policemen cited Assad's speech about  the land belonging to those who fight and defend it.[28]

An Al-Zabadani city councilmember told the London-based Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily that the regime had demolished some 95% of the homes and commercial areas in the city, set fire to much of the farmland south and southwest of the city, near Madaya, and capped irrigation wells used by the farmers, all in an effort to force residents to leave. Media personality Faris Al-Arabi attested to the torching of orchards and buildings in these areas. According to Al-Zabadani residents, the town's commerce and agriculture had provided a livelihood for thousands, and the city is no longer worth living in because its economy and infrastructure have been completely destroyed.[29]

Hizbullah and the Syrian military have used the tactic of burning farmlands in the Madaya region as well, as reported on September 11,  2016  by the Syrian oppositionist website[30]

On September 6, 2016, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat cited a source close to the Iraqi militias in Syria as stating that the Iran-backed Al-Nujaba militia had begun settling some 300 Shi'ite families from southern Iraq in the towns of Darayya and Muadamiyat Al-Sham, southwest of Damascus. According to the report, the towns' original residents had left as part of population transfer agreements (see following section).[31]  

Siege, Starvation, And UN-Sponsored Population Transfer

The Syrian regime, along with Hizbullah and its other allies, are also besieging areas and starving the residents,[32] with the aim of wearing down the local population, causing it to turn against the rebels, and leveraging it to push rebel forces into signing local ceasefire agreements. The Assad regime calls these ceasefire agreements "national reconciliations" or "local reconciliations," spinning them as a rebel surrender - while in actuality they involve the uprooting of pro-rebel residents and their transfer outside the La Syrie Utile region. This has been implemented in many places, particularly in Homs, the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp, Al-Zabadani, and Madaya and Darayya.

Some of the siege-lifting agreements have been sponsored by UN representatives, even though they were achieved by harsh sieges and by starving local residents, and involved removing residents from their homes and  the departure of the rebels and their families under population transfer agreements. From 2014 to 2016, the regime and the rebels arrived at a number of agreements under which the regime lifted the siege, stopped bombardment, and allowed humanitarian aid into the area, in return for the rebels' and their families' departure. Such UN-sponsored agreements have been signed for Homs' old city[33] and parts of its Al-Waer neighborhood.[34] They were also signed for the majority-Turkmen towns of Kezhal and Umm Al-Qasab in western Rif Homs; rebel families from these towns were transferred to the northern Rif Homs.[35]

Residents of Turkmen towns west of Homs exiled north of Homs (, July 17, 2016)

Nabil Al-Halabi, the Lebanese lawyer and LIFE director, said that in Homs' old city the regime had offered food to besieged residents who wanted to leave the city but only on the condition that they sold the regime their land and property.[36] On January 13, 2016, Al-Mustaqbal reported that Hizbullah fighters in Bloudan had threatened residents of the besieged Al-Zabadani and Madayya nearby who had managed to escape that they would be forced back into Madayya unless they sold their land and houses to them for pennies on the dollar. According to the daily, some of these residents agreed to this extortion in return for food or a handful of coins, while others were brought back into Madayya.[37] It was around this time that the ongoing siege on Madayya - which violated a previous agreement between the regime and rebels in the city - made headlines, after residents and rebels raised an outcry because the residents were reduced to eating weeds, eggshells, and cats, with some dying of starvation, and medical supplies had run out.[38] Earlier in January, Orient News quoted Madayya activists as saying that Hizbullah was allowing residents to leave if they sold them their homes, land, and property.[39]

In September 2015, Iranian representatives, with UN sponsorship and assistance, arrived at a ceasefire with the rebel group Ahrar Al-Sham, which controlled Al-Zabadani. The agreement covered the city and several surrounding towns, among them Madayya, besieged by Assad and Hizbullah, and the Shi'ite towns of Al-Fua and Kefraya in northern Syria, besieged by the rebels, and included a population transfer agreement. Under the latter, armed rebels and interested residents from Al-Zabadani would be transferred to the northern city of Idlib, which is under rebel control and outside of La Syrie Utile, while 10,000 women, children, and over-50 men from Al-Fua and Kefraya would be transferred to Al-Zabadani - thus effecting a demographic shift.[40]

One of the most prominent examples of the regime's removal of anti-regime residents following extended siege, starvation, and bombardment occurred recently as part of a rebel-regime agreement in Darayya, south of Damascus. After four years of siege, Darayya has become a symbol of this regime policy. In November 2012, the Syrian army and its allies besieged Darayya, and only allowed in humanitarian aid three and half years later, in early 2016. Almost four years of siege, starvation, and carpet bombing of the city, and, according to the rebels, regime threats to burn down the city with all its residents, brought the rebels to surrender. On August 25, 2016, the sides reached an agreement under which the armed rebels and residents would leave the city and hand over their medium and heavy weapons to the regime army as it entered.[41] Thus, on August 27, 1,650 rebel fighters and anti-regime residents abandoned Darayya for the rebel-controlled Idlib in northern Syria.[42] The Assad regime said that Darayya had been rendered uninhabitable, and promised that after it was rebuilt, its residents would be allowed to return.[43] However, on August 27, 2016, the Kurdish website Ara News reported that mere hours after the expulsion of its residents, dozens of Iraqi families had already moved in.[44]

According to the opposition, in Darayya the regime had escalated its attempts to subdue the rebels and the residents, threatening to exterminate the population. Syrian oppositionist Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said that regime forces changed tactics after failing to starve the residents in the besieged areas, and that "the threats of 'surrender or starve' that we have heard for four years have now become 'surrender or we will destroy you.'"[45]

The UN was criticized for its role in the Darayya agreement. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura denied that he had had any connection to it, and said he had not even known about it,[46] but city councilman Fahdi Muhammad said, "The council updates de Mistura on events and developments in the city immediately after they happen, and his denial is nothing but an attempt to shirk his responsibility to protect the residents who were expelled by the Assad regime." He added: "UN officials and a Red Cross delegation knew about the negotiations, and even oversaw the expulsion operation."[47]

Among the opponents of the Darayya agreement were Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Abu Al-Gheit, who in a statement called it "a worrisome development that could pave the way for similar arrangements that bring about demographic changes in Syrian cities, especially since they are with UN sponsorship." He added: "Expelling residents under duress is a violation of international law."[48]

Reports in recent months indicate that there will be a repeat of this ceasefire-agreement scenario in the town of Muadamiyat Al-Sham, also southwest of Damascus. On September 1, 2016, the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the Assad regime, reported that an agreement is set to be signed between the regime and representatives of the town residents, under which all rebels  and anti-regime residents will leave the town in order to "settle their status vis-a-vis the regime."[49] The previous day, on August 31, Orient News had reported that the regime is aiming for an agreement like Darayya's in Muadamiyat Al-Sham, and that in talks between the sides, the regime had warned the townspeople that it would burn the whole town along with its residents if the rebels did not hand over their medium and heavy weapons and depart with the anti-regime residents.[50]

Apparently, the Russians, in addition to the UN, are also involved in these so-called "reconciliation agreements" under which population transfers are conducted following siege and starvation. Thus, for example, Russian officials praised the Darayya agreement. On September 1, 2016, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, said that "the successful experience" of removing the rebels from Darayya "will help reduce the level of violence." She assessed that further agreements were forthcoming, stating that the regime had "reached an agreement similar to" the Darayya agreement in Muadamiyat Al-Sham, and called for the international community to support these agreements and for the signing of similar ones on all Syrian battlefronts.[51] Orient News reported that Russian officers had participated in the talks between Muadamiyat Al-Sham representatives and the regime.[52]

In this context, it should be mentioned that the regime and its allies have also taken measures to get rid of Palestinians residing in Palestinian refugee camps who have expressed support for the rebels. Ayman Abu Hisham, director of the general Palestinian refugee authority in the temporary Syrian government of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said that the regime is assassinating or expelling Palestinians who do not support it, without distinguishing opponents from neutral parties. He accused it of starving residents of the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus, and of completely destroying other camps, such as Jaramana on the Damascus airport road and Handarat in northeastern Aleppo, to keep the residents, who had fled, from returning.[53]

On November 8, 2016, the website of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces reported that the regime had bombarded Khan Al-Sheikh, a Palestinian refugee camp in the western Ghouta, in order to drive out its residents, after they did not heed the regime's demand to evacuate the camp.[54]   

Shi'ization And Iran's Takeover Of Property In And Around Damascus

There have also been many reports on significant Iranian activity in Damascus and its environs, including direct and indirect purchase of land and homes, as well as extensive Shi'ite religious outreach and proselytizing, aimed particularly at young people, and the establishment of Shi'ite religious, cultural, and educational centers.

A march of the Al-Imam Al-Mahdi scouts movement in Syria (, January 19, 2015)

The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal cited knowledgeable sources as stating that the Syrian regime was transferring ownership of state buildings and land in Damascus to Iran, as part of a repayment of regime debts.[55] Some three months previously, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which supports Hizbullah and the resistance axis, had reported that the Syrian regime had mortgaged state real estate to Iran in exchange for Iranian military and economic aid.[56]

A Damascus engineer identified as Suheil told that he had sold his home to a Gulf businessman who later turned out to be an agent for Iranian firms, and that many other Syrians had done likewise. The website also reported that the number of Shi'ite residents in many Damascus neighborhoods was on the rise.[57]

The London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat also reported, citing numerous Syrian sources, that Iranian merchants and brokers had purchased property and land in various cities, with Iranian encouragement and support and with the cooperation of the Syrian regime. The daily quoted a report by the Electronic Group of the Syrian Rebellion as stating that Iran had established a network of real estate brokers and speculators for purchasing homes, hotels, and land from Syrian citizens who wish to leave Syria. According to the report, Iran had fraudulently transferred to itself ownership of various assets.[58]

Orient News reported that the Supreme Syrian-Iranian Council, headed by the Syrian Samer Al-As'ad, a representative of Iranian businessman and former IRGC general Rostam Qasemi, had appointed agents on the council's behalf to pressure Damascus residents to sell their assets as part of an Iranian plan to create a demographically homogenous area stretching "from Darayya to the new building of the Iranian embassy in Damascus."[59]

On June 22, 2015, Al-Quds Al-Arabi cited a resident of the Al-Mezzeh quarter in Damascus who said that Iranian Shi'ites fighting in Syria had been pressuring anti-regime owners of homes and land to sell them their assets by various means, including public humiliation, beatings, and even murder. According to the resident, the Kafr Soussa neighborhood is seeing much of this activity as well.[60]

On April 11, 2016, the Iranian news agency Fars reported that Iranian Majlis member Amir Khojasteh had presented a report to the Majlis after visiting Lebanon and Syria with a Majlis delegation. According to this report, Assad had agreed to grant residency visas to the 10,000 Iranian citizens already living in Syria, at no cost.[61]

In recent years, there has been increased Shi'ite and Iranian religious activity in both Damascus and in the town of Sayyidah Zaynab, south of Damascus. Sayyidah Zaynab is the site of the tomb of Zaynab, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and it attracts many thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims annually. Entire areas of Damascus and other cities have turned Shi'ite, after families of foreign Shi'ite fighters immigrated to Syria and occupied homes abandoned because of the war. Further evidence of the rise of Shi'a in Syria was the unprecedented scale of the 2014 'Ashura ceremonies in Damascus, which were held even in areas of the capital that were not recognized as Shi'ite.[62]

The tomb of Sayyidah Zaynab south of Damascus (, January 29, 2016) 

Orient News reported that days after the residents of Darayya left it, as part of the agreement with the Assad regime, Shi'ite militiamen entered it to pray and conduct Shi'ite ceremonies at a tomb that has in recent years become a Shi'ite pilgrimage site. It is claimed to be the burial site of Sayyidah Sakinah, the daughter of Hussein and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.[63]  

Amjad Al-Bahadli, leader of the Iraqi Al-Imam Al-Hussein Brigade militia praying at the ruins of the tomb of Sayyidah Sakinah in Darayya (, August 31, 2016)

The Syrian oppositionist website reported that the Iraqi Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas militia has launched an advertising campaign, aimed at Iraqi Shi'ites, for an eight-day trip to the Shi'ite holy sites in Syria at a cost of $400 per person. The trip includes the tomb of Sayyidah Sakinah.[64]  

Opponents Of Syrian Regime: These Forced Demographic Changes Are War Crimes, Carried Out With UN Complicity - That Serve Iran

The Syrian opposition and its supporters in Lebanon have been extremely critical of the La Syrie Utile project and the measures undertaken, by the regime and by its allies, to implement it.[65] Some said that the regime's methods were worse than Israeli actions against the Palestinians, while others compared them to the Nazi racial policy that eventually become the Final Solution.

The head of the interim government of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Ahmad Tu'mah, said that the regime was changing the demographics in Homs Governorate by forcing Sunnis out and bringing in Iranians to replace them.[66] George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council and a member of the National Coalition, claimed that the La Syrie Utile project was aimed at dividing the country into sectarian statelets that served Iran; he added that the Syrian regime no longer cares about the Syrian homeland or people, but only about self-protection and self-preservation.[67]

HNC member Muhammad 'Aloush called the removal of residents of Darayya and Muadamiyat Al-Sham "a war crime carried out by the Syrian regime, and forced expulsion."[68] Orient News wrote about the siege and starvation of Madaya that Hizbullah and its secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah were using methods "that even Israel does not use."[69]

Syrian opposition officials also harshly criticized the UN, saying that it was participating in these arrangements that are changing the country's demographics. On August 29, 2016, HNC general coordinator Riyad Hijab sent a letter to the UN secretary-general warning the UN not to sponsor measures by the regime and its allies aimed at shifting demographics. Hijab argued that Aleppo, Homs, Rif Dimashq, and other areas are subject to such forced demographic changes, and that the Assad regime and its allies are carrying out these changes with UN sponsorship in the guise of local ceasefires. He asked rhetorically: "Do you believe that this will eliminate terrorism? Will it eliminate extremism? Will it end the spilling of Syrian blood and the killing of women and children? Will it make the world a safer place? Will it preserve the unity and territorial integrity of Syrian soil?" He added that since the start of the political process vis-à-vis Syria, "the regime, Iran, and the militias [supporting them] have killed over half a million Syrians and expelled millions," and that therefore this political process is "backing the regime and its allies in implementing this demographic change."[70]

In an article in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, National Coalition member Abdelilah Fahd alleged: "Officials in UN offices in Damascus have pressured the residents [of the Al-Waer neighborhood in Homs] in an attempt to reach a ceasefire that leads to a surrender [of the rebels]. The [UN] office in Damascus held talks with local residents to persuade them to accept a false ceasefire, which indicates it is a party to the expulsion plan... and that it has failed miserably to defend citizens according to international law." Fahd also stated that the regime is implementing a policy of expulsion, killing, and destruction "in order to preserve the regime at all costs, in the belief that additional crimes will help it eliminate the rebelling Syrian people's desire for freedom." He called the methods being used by the regime "a scarlet letter in the history of the UN and international law."[71]

The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal  has published articles criticizing the demographic policies of the Syrian regime and its allies. In his July 7, 2015 column, 'Ali Rabah wrote: "Hizbullah is attempting to change Syria's demographics by expelling original residents to settle others in their place... This is the modus operandi of Hizbullah - which has for decades warned about a Zionist plan to divide the region - in an attempt to cancel the Sykes-Picot Accords."[72] In another column, published August 12, 2015, Rabah wondered how Hizbullah leader Nasrallah could warn Shi'ites in Bahrain about demographic change that the Bahraini regime might implement against them while he was doing the same thing to Sunnis in Syria - and using the methods that Israel used against the Palestinians in 1948. He wrote: "The [Syrian] villages that Hizbullah wants to empty of their local residents could total a larger area than all of Palestine, or at least larger than all the [Israel-]occupied lands from 1948. Many haven't noticed that the number of Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey and Jordan alone is three times greater than the number of Palestinians expelled by Israel." Rabah added that Hizbullah was occupying Syria and establishing settlements and camps there.[73]

Lebanese poet and literary critic Paul Shaoul, who writes for Al-Mustaqbal, compared Hizbullah to Dracula, saying that it is sucking the blood of Syrians, and added that its policy in Syria was racist and sectarian and aimed at changing Syria's demographics by eliminating Sunnis and expelling them from the country.[74] Mustafa 'Aloush, a member of the Al-Mustaqbal faction's Political Bureau and a columnist for the Al-Mustaqbal daily, compared the plan of Syria, Hizbullah, and Iran to the Nazi racial theory that developed into the Final Solution: "Their despair over the [failure of the] plan for the Rule of the Jurisprudent to control all Syria as its backyard has made the followers [of the Rule of the Jurisprudent] settle for the so-called La Syrie Utile. Today, it appears that Hizbullah's entry into Syria is part of a 'Final Solution' supported by an Iranian fatwa aimed at ethnically cleansing areas bordering the central and northern Beqaa Valley [in Lebanon], possibly in preparation for the next stage, which will bring extensive changes to the political and demographic maps."[75]

* E.B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI




[1] Al-Watan (Syria), July 26, 2015.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1131, Shi'ization Of Syria: In Damascus, Unprecedentedly Extensive Observance Of The 'Ashura, November 13, 2014.

[3] Al-Watan (Syria), July 26, 2016.

[4], January 6, 2016.

[5], September 21, 2016.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 27-29, 2013. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 980, Lebanon Openly Enters Fighting In Syria, June 13, 2013.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 28, 2016.

[8] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 4, 2016.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 12, 2015.

[12] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 4, 2015.

[13], March 15, 2015.

[14], January 19, 2015.

[15], August 21, 2015.

[16] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 22, 2015.

[17], August 27, 2015.

[18] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 20, 2016.

[19] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 21, 2016.

[20] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London) June 11, 2016.

[21] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 12, 2015.

[22] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 30, 2015. Yasser Haidar, a member of the coordinating body in Al-Qusayr, told the Saudi daily 'Okaz that he and other residents were expelled from the town, and that under the auspices of Hizbullah, it has become a center for bandits and gangs of smugglers and kidnappers. 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 7, 2015. According to the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, Hizbullah sent Shi'ite Lebanese criminals wanted in Lebanon to Syria, and particularly to the Al-Qusayr and Al-Qalamoun areas, chief among them the Shi'ite Lebanese fugitive Noah Zaiter, who posted images on his Facebook page of himself along with Hizbullah officers fighting in those areas in Syria. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 15, 2015.

[23], August 21, 2015.

[24], August 21, 2015.

[25], December 11, 2015.

[26] Al-Ba'th (Syria), May 21, 2014.

[27], March 15, 2015.

[28], January 29, 2016.

[29] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), October 20, 2015.

[30], September 11, 2016.

[31] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 6, 2016.

[32] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1221, Local Ceasefire Agreements In Syria: Capitulation To Regime's Siege-And-Starvation Strategy Under UN Sponsorship, January 26, 2016; and Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1069, Syria Regime's Tactic Against Opponents: 'Surrender Or Starve', February 13, 2014.

[33] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 3, 2015.

[34], December 5, 2015.

[35], July 17, 2016.

[36], January 6, 2016.

[37] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 13, 2016.

[39], January 6, 2016.

[40], September 19, 2015.

[41], August 25, 2016.

[42] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 27, 2016;, August 27, 2016.

[43], August 29, 2016.

[44], August 27, 2016.

[45], September 1, 2016.

[46], August 27, 2016.

[47], August 27, 2016.

[48], August 28, 2016.

[49] Al-Watan (Syria), September 1, 2016.

[50], August 31, 2016.

[51], September 1, 2016.

[52], August 31, 2016.

[53] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 2, 2014.

[54], November 8, 2016.

[55] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 12, 2015.

[56] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 29, 2015.

[57], August 21, 2015.

[58] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 26, 2016.

[59], November 6, 2016.

[60] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 22, 2015.

[61] Fars (Iran), April 11, 2016.

[62] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1131, Shi'ization Of Syria: In Damascus, Unprecedentedly Extensive Observance Of The 'Ashura, November 13, 2014.

[63], September 1, 2016.

[64], September 17, 2016.

[66], January 23, 2016.

[67], September 29, 2015.

[68], September 1, 2016.

[69], January 6, 2016.

[70], August 29, 2016.

[71] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), August 31, 2016.

[72] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 7, 2015.

[73] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 12, 2015.

[74] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 12, 2016.

[75] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 13, 2016.

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