Redrawing the Map: The Shifting Human Terrain of Syria

Gabriel White

Declaimer: The map included in this article heavily relies upon dated sources including French colonial works, open source information, the now-defunct Syrian census bureau, and previous human terrain mapping efforts. As such it is far from perfect. The map and this paper will not address the massive changes to population demographics caused by internally displaced persons and refugees.

The human terrain of Syria is shifting. Buried below last week’s headlines was the news of what might amount to the largest proposed population swap in recent history. The agreement, allegedly brokered by Qatar and Iran would likely involve 30-40,000 people—swapping the remaining inhabitants of the Kafriya and al-Foua, two Shia Twelver towns in Idlib, for opposition fighters and sympathetic civilians in the beleaguered towns of Zabadani and Medaya.  The immediate plan hopes to alleviate suffering for these communities which have been under siege for years. Yet under close examination, a deeper question emerges: can ethno-religious homogenization end the bloodshed in Syria?

The human terrain of Syria has not only shaped where, but also how the war has been fought. As in all sectarian wars, popular mobilization has played a critical role in defining and compounding the plethora of armed groups involved. As a result, visible patterns of violence, cut across ethnic and religious lines, have emerged throughout much of much of Syria. The intensity of these divisions appears to be especially strong in the Northwestern Governorates of Latakia, Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo.

In the spring of 2015, opposition forces won a string of victories across much of Idlib governorate which culminated in the Salafi-Jihadi collective, Jasyh al-Fatah’s seizure of the provincial capital Idlib city. In tandem, opposition forces also embarked on efforts to secure the Shia Twelver towns of Kafriya and al-Foua.  Mostly under the banner of Syria al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (then known as, Jabhat al-Nusra) launched routine attempts to take the city by force throughout the fall of 2015. In the years since, the towns have remained under siege.

The siege of Zabadani and Medaya, like Al-Foua and Kafriya, began in 2015. Following the successful Syrian Arab Army-Hezbollah Qalamoun offensive, opposition forces were displaced from the strategically significant mountainous border separating Lebanon from Syria. Though regime forces were able to capture much of Zabadani and Medaya, located immediately to the towns south by the fall of 2015, ceasefire efforts, linking the opposition offensive in Idlib against al-Foua and Kafriya, were successful.

In time, the linkage of Zabadani and Medaya in the south and al-Foua and Kafriya in the north has transformed the towns into political pressure points. The denial of humanitarian aid, the flow of food, and clamping down on rampant smuggling of supplies and munitions into the towns have come at times to respond to challenges elsewhere in the country. Nonetheless, reciprocity has also ensured that both clusters have found themselves at the forefront of numerous agreements to exchange civilians and combatants out of the beleaguered towns. This history of both past reciprocal transgression and deal making no doubt contributed to the reported latest agreement – the transfer of the entire populations in exchange for one another.

While the most recent agreement certainly amounts to a potential high-point in the tit-for-tat dynamic between the opposition and regime, the respective towns hold serious doubts whether it is at all achievable. Logistically, the transfer of thousands of civilians and militants out of Idlib alone is bound to be troublesome. This difficulty is further compounded given the poor performance  of both parties in delivering on such agreements in the past. Along with the highly fractious internal politics between the oppositions remaining powers it seems unlikely that all those who remain in Al-Foua, Kafriya, Zabadani and Medaya will see their nightmare come to an end. Once more, due to rising tensions between Ahrar al-Sham (a principal guarantor of past ceasefire agreements for the Shia villages in exchange for deals pertaining to its forces in Zabadani) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham future deals could potentially serve as a flash-point in inter-rebel relations.

The agreement signals what in time might become a lasting trend of addressing the remaining ‘cauldron’ communities and the incremental homogenization of strategically vulnerable territories of the country.  The permanent vacation of Zabadani of fighters and residents sympathetic will close a once highly contested theater of the war in Syria – freeing up much needed forces to participate in operations elsewhere in the country. But it will also likely mean that unlike Hama in 2011, Zabadani will likely never rise again against the Assad regime should it be victorious.

The saga of Al-Foua, Kafriya, Medaya, and Zabadani is but one episode of larger attempts to redraw the human terrain map of Syria. The Assad regime has long been content on funneling opposition fighters out of their various enclaves in the Southwestern provinces (and Aleppo) of the country to Idlib, whether the result of political shrewdness, an attempt to consolidate enemy forces, or a lasting Sunni political concession knowing any campaign in Idlib would be extremely costly at this point is pure conjecture. What is apparent is the consequences of these actions, whatever their intention, will have a lasting impact on the human terrain of Syria and dramatic consequences for the end-stages of the war.

Figure 1. Human Terrain Map of Idlib, Northern Latakia, Al Ghab Plain Northern Hama

Idlib has largely been drained of its minorities. The proposed evacuation of the majority Shia Twelver towns coupled the ever precarious position of Idlib’ s Christians, (it is unclear how many, if any at all, are left) along with the forced conversions and mass killings of its Druze population by Jabhat al-Nusra in 2015, would likely fully homogenize the province now at the heart of the Syrian opposition. It is important to note that religiosity, rather than ethnicity is in large part the foundation of opposition group identity. This is further evidenced by the movement of groups alien to recent Syria, most significantly Uyghurs, and Uzbeks into the towns of Idlib.

Whether the agreement this lends to the opposition’s advantage is unclear, no doubt the removal of al-Foua and Kafriya in some respects make the sustainment of any ceasefire agreement more achievable. After all, the flow of aid and supplies to these beleaguered settlements and others like it have often been subject to the whims of local actors whom are often disinterested in regional ceasefire efforts or peace more generally. Similarly, the removal of the potential for a tit-for-tat like escalatory dynamic between settlements refocuses fighting to more controllable front lines, shifting out the boundaries of the war.

While Idlib may become less diverse, it certainly is no less contested.  The status of the armed opposition today is a far cry from 2011, infighting is commonplace, cross organizational leadership is lacking and political outlooks remain divergent. Members of the armed opposition have long alleged that regime is attempting to transform the human terrain of the country. As numerous opposition held pockets are remain, the potential trend of ethno-religious redistribution may yet become the modus operandi of how the Regime deals with rebel cauldrons in the future, especially as it maintains chronic manpower shortages for offensive operations. Despite this, whatever benefit might be found in tying up loose ends in Al-Foua and Kafriya and gaining forces trapped in pockets elsewhere will be lost as a result of the opposition’s internal divisions and the concentration of regimes forces in the north.

Should the reported exchange only be partially implemented, or not at all, al-Foua and Kafriya for now will likely prove to be as much of a liability as a political lever for the opposition already the path to defeat in the North East. Though regime attempts to break the siege would be costly and difficult, it should not be forgotten that it was the presence of the Shia communities of Nubl and Zahraa that ultimately, lead to the decisive encirclement of opposition forces in Aleppo in 2016. Shia national defense forces there also remarkably thwarted attempts to seize both Twelver majority cities from 2012 through 2016. By the enactment of the second ceasefire the Oppositions’ siege of these cities had been lifted with the coupling of regime lines to Nubl from Eastern Aleppo, which proved instrumental in securing the regimes ultimate victory in Aleppo in 2016.

The sum of these indicators is Idlib is likely to become far more dangerous, a governorate where the Assad regime can contain the threat of the opposition for years to come. The consequences will likely be severe, aiding in the transformation of the opposition’s narrative by exacerbating Jihadist discourse.

A war once defined by a clash of ideologies and the hope of democracy has been soured by brutal sectarianism and near-constant violence. The stories of Zabadani, Medaya, Kafriya and al-Foua illustrate one of the stranger dynamics of the Syrian civil war, the dangerous of demographics that have transformed entire communities into hostages. The ethno-religious fabric of Syria has not only been ravaged by six years of sectarian war, it is also being rewoven all together. Whether irredentism will drive Syria further into war is unclear, what is clear is whatever emerges from the ruins of the war will likely be unrecognizable.

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