Is Iran altering Syria’s sectarian map?

Rumors have circulated recently that Iran is sponsoring a plan to redraw Syria’s demographic map, including the granting of Syrian nationality to 750,000 Shiites from throughout the Middle East. Allegedly, the Iranians have paid $2 billion into the Real Estate Bank of Syria to buy up land in southern Homs province.

The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has declared that the land registry office in Homs has been burned down to remove evidence of property ownership and facilitate the dispossession of Sunnis in the province, in that way changing its sectarian makeup.

“In addition to shelling and systemic killing in Homs, the Syrian regime is also destroying property records ... in a plan to transform the minority into a majority through several steps, including the killing and the displacement of the population,” Jumblatt recently wrote in his party’s Al-Anbaa newspaper.

This came as Syrian opposition sources indicated that Iran was also seeking to extend its influence in the Jabal al-Druze, through local agents. This included settling Lebanese Shiites and Syrian Shiites displaced by the fighting in the area of Swaida.

All this information is suspiciously sourced, so should be treated with caution. That said, Jumblatt does not make such claims lightly, and has long believed that Homs province is the key to the battle in Syria, as it provides geographical continuity between predominantly Alawite areas along the Syrian coast and Shiite-controlled areas in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. For Iran to protect its investment in Lebanon’s Shiites, it needs to ensure that they are not isolated and that they can secure an outlet to the sea in the event of a conflict with Israel.

Even if the reports from Syria cannot be confirmed, it would be common sense for the regime and Iran to prepare for Syria’s likely future if President Bashar Assad’s forces prevail. Even according to the most optimistic assessments, Syria will be in for a prolonged period of instability as the regime claws back power. The priority will be to ensure that there are no further uprisings to threaten Assad rule, and in this volatile context demographic politics will be essential. Assad will see to it that he is not vulnerable again along the strategic axis between Damascus and the coast as he was until recently.

That does not necessarily mean that Iran seeks to create Shiite enclaves, although that would not be so difficult to imagine after Hezbollah used the defense of Shiites in Syria as its initial justification to deploy combatants in Qusair. And Tehran has bought up land in Lebanon to help guarantee a geographical connection between areas of Shiite concentration, most notably around Jezzine, which links southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.

That hundreds of thousands of Syrians are refugees in neighboring Arab countries facilitates schemes to alter Syria’s demographics. That is why the international community must do more to determine whether the Syrian regime and its backers are indeed intending to prevent refugees from returning to their homes, and whether property ownership is being manipulated to facilitate such an outcome.

During the war in Kosovo in 1999, one of the news items that had a great impact on international public opinion was that Serbs were engaging in identity cleansing. They were confiscating personal documents, land titles, automobile license plates, and other official papers to make sure the Albanian population did not come back, or would have no proof of identity or ownership if they did.

Other than Jumblatt’s warning, there have been no such reports from Syria, while the demographic game has been a complicated one. Both sides appear to have engaged in sectarian cleansing in certain districts, but there are also Sunnis who continue to side with the Alawite-led regime. The majority of refugees are Sunnis from rural areas, injecting a class dimension into the overall picture.

The debate will not be resolved through unverified statements, nor will the refugees benefit if their fate is publicized merely to score political points. A systematic, widespread project to “cleanse” the Sunni population, if confirmed, would be a very serious matter, therefore confirming or denying accusations to that effect must be made a priority, especially at the United Nations.

The Lebanese have a particular interest in knowing the truth. If refugees from Homs can no longer return to their villages, they will remain in Lebanon. The Lebanese reaction to the refugee crisis has been inept. To avoid a situation similar to the Palestinians, the government refused to build refugee camps for the Syrians. As a result, the refugee population is fragmented, difficult to control, and open to influence from private groups with agendas of their own.

Moreover, without camps, the Lebanese are at a disadvantage when lobbying for foreign assistance. Donors rightly worry that a disjointed distribution network of aid, where there is little accountability and many middlemen, would facilitate corruption. As usual, the Lebanese have addressed the matter in a slipshod way, while the potential political and social consequences of this neglect are extremely grave.

There was a time during the last century when population transfers were acceptable. Bringing people of the same ethnicity or religion together in one place, the argument went, allowed for more homogeneous and stable entities. And so there were repeated massive population exchanges, for instance between Greece and Turkey after World War I and between Pakistan and India in 1947.

Today the consensus has changed and involuntary population transfers are viewed as reprehensible, even if in the Middle East the notion of religiously uniform entities appeals to many people. That is why the U.N. and its member states must examine what is going on in Syria, and if there is evidence of sectarian cleansing, prevent it and make certain that all refugees will one day be able to go home.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2013, on page 7.




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