Ghouta and systematic forced eviction: a strategy of demographic change

The escalation on Eastern Ghouta, that has killed over 600 people so far, marks a continuation of the regime’s strategy of demographic change.

‘Syrian Scream,’ Hani Abbas

Almost 10 days have passed since the beginning of the military escalation on Eastern Ghouta, and no effective action has yet been taken. So far the offensive on Ghouta has claimed more than 600 lives and left over 4000 people injured, while over 30 medical facilities have been targeted in clear violation of international law.

All this has been done with utter impunity, before the unbelieving and distrustful eyes of the international community — an international community that already witnessed multiple other sieges, massacres, and large-scale forced evictions in Syria, and can no longer claim to not understand the stakes of the current offensive on Ghouta.

The fact that it this is all happening in broad daylight, and under the acknowledged powerlessness of the UN, is perhaps the most striking feature of the latest military escalation on Ghouta.

It was Russia which promptly invited the Security Council to meet and discuss the situation in Ghouta at the very beginning of its offensive. After almost a week of back-and-forth to avoid a Russian veto, on Saturday 24 February the Security Council passed a motion supposedly demanding a 30-day ceasefire that would enter into force after 48 hours. This ceasefire was broken almost as soon as it was established — by the Syrian and Russian forces that unconcernedly continued the offensive on Eastern Ghouta as if there were nothing amiss.

A neighbourhood in Eastern Ghouta during the bombing (AFP)

In the light of such obvious disregard for a resolution that Russia itself called for, one cannot help but question the value of such motions in anything but saving the perpetrators’ time.

After 11 Russian vetoes on issues related to the Syrian crisis, it is nothing short of grotesque to reach such a low threshold that even Russia does not consider itself legally bound to the language of the resolution. One could even argue that such a motion provides Russia with the legal justification to resume its offensive, due to its clause excluding from the ceasefire Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra and other unspecified ‘terrorist’ groups, a term repeatedly used by the Syrian regime to describe all those opposing it.

Regrettably, the absurdity of the situation doesn’t end there. After agreeing to a ceasefire and promptly trespassing it, Russia then proceeded to suggest a daily five-hour truce, during which people can leave Ghouta. Civilians reported that flyers had been dropped prompting them to leave Eastern Ghouta, an area that has been almost completely besieged by the Syrian regime since 2012. It is still unclear how and if this daily truce will go ahead, but such action should not be interpreted as an achievement.

Given the current level of violence, local civilians and armed groups will inevitably surrender and reach an agreement similar to those reached in Homs and Aleppo previously, almost inevitably involving the evacuation of Eastern Ghouta.

Around 350,000–400,000 people currently live in the area, many of whom have clearly stated their will to remain. Evacuating the entire area would constitute nothing short of a forced eviction, which should be understood in the larger scheme of political cleansing hidden behind the term ‘de-escalation zone.’

De-escalation zones were established after the Astana peace talks in May 2017, following the agreement reached in Eastern Aleppo. Four regions were declared de-escalation zones: Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and some of the Southern territories (around Dara’a). The agreement was followed by some reduction in violence in the first months. However the latest offensives on Idlib and Ghouta, and the targeting of medical facilities, residential areas and civilian infrastructure (such as schools, bakeries, etc.), show a clear lack of compliance to the de-escalation zone agreement by Russia and the Syrian regime.

De-escalation zones were supposed to represent an effective step toward a comprehensive ceasefire in order to reduce the level of violence and ensure access to humanitarian aid. It has, however, become increasingly clear that these de-escalation zones are in fact being used by the Syrian regime and its allies to intensify localised military operations, targeting one area at a time, and weakening its political opposition by wiping out the areas that incubated the emergence of democratic political alternatives. This background partially explains why forced eviction is Ghouta’s only option — and why it should not be an option.

Previous instances of forced eviction from Darayya, Zabadani, Homs, al-Qusayr, Eastern Aleppo and al-Waer, to name a few, have set the norm for what an evacuation agreement for Eastern Ghouta would entail. Those evicted were never allowed back to their homes. In the case of al-Waer, some tried to return, and found themselves either arrested or killed if their name was found on the list of people who had been evacuated. These precedents understandably make forced eviction an extremely distressing prospect for the residents of Eastern Ghouta.

The Aleppo deal likewise set a scary precedent for civilians, as Russian and Syrian forces started an offensive on Idlib only a few months after the eviction of Aleppo, showing them that their recess from bombardment would not be long-lived should they choose to remain in opposition-held areas.

But residents from Eastern Ghouta may not even have this option; it is highly unlikely that the region of Idlib is able to accommodate more internally displaced people than those that have already been forced there. Out of the 4 millions of people currently living in the region, around 700,000 are internally displaced from other areas of the country. Leaving Syria is also out of the question — at this point the borders are almost hermetically closed from the inside.

Evacuation of Eastern Aleppo, December 2016 (DemocracyNow)

The regime’s policy of systematic forced eviction from besieged areas raises two fundamental questions: what will happen to the people, and what will happen to the territory?

In the case of Ghouta both remain unclear. The people cannot stay, but have nowhere to go to. The fate of the territories regained by the regime is worth discussing in light of the regime’s underlying strategy of ethnic cleansing and demographic change under which forced eviction takes place.

In fact, besieged territories are not regained by the regime — they are wiped out. These territories are no longer under the control of opposition groups, but the implications in terms of control of the territory are not as straight-forward as one would imagine. Once the evacuation deal is brokered, in most cases the regime bans access to the territories, and sometimes repopulates them with foreign militias. The regime’s policy of demographic change can and will generate disputes over territorial claims between various allied militias. It also suggests that the only solution for a demographic balance in favour of Assad will entail mass eradication of opposition-held areas — to reach what Bashar al-Assad once called a “homogeneous population.”

The narrative of forced eviction as an inevitable outcome is dangerous, as it puts the emphasis on rebel groups’ responsibility to put an end to the civilians’ suffering by surrendering without delay.

Focusing on the responsibility of armed groups tends to overshadow the bigger picture: that the Syrian regime and Russia are ultimately responsible for a siege that has lasted over four years. Focusing on the responsibility of armed groups belies the regime’s underlying strategy of death by starvation, its military campaign characterised by the targeting of civilian infrastructure in complete violation of international humanitarian law, and its documented use of chemical weapons in an area that already lost over 1400 lives to sarin gas one night in August 2013.

400,000 is too big a number for an evacuation to be the primary solution, and agreeing to the expulsion of the residents of Eastern Ghouta means that we are complicit in the regime’s dangerous game of demographic change. Putting an end to the atrocities through the forced eviction of yet another opposition-held area is a false solution that will only be short-lived. It begs the question: what will we do when there is nowhere left to send evicted people?