On August 12, Iran and Turkey helped mediate a temporary ceasefire agreement between Hezbollah and Ahrar al-Sham that halted fighting in three towns in Syria. The ceasefire agreement allowed humanitarian aid to reach these besieged areas and permitted those who were injured or sick to leave and seek care. Negotiations, however, faltered, and the ceasefire agreement collapsed after three days. Each side blamed the other for making unreasonable demands. In unconfirmed reports by Ahrar al-Sham, Iran and Hezbollah demanded civilian population transfers by which the Sunni population would be moved out of Zabadani and the Shia populations would be moved out of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib Province. These claims stoked already existing fears that regional powers are seeking to divide Syria along sectarian lines as an alternative to outright military victory.
Redrawing Syria’s borders is not a new proposal. Syria experts and news outlets have put forth the idea over the past year as a solution to ISIS expansion. Given the sectarian nature of Syria’s war, the proposed solutions most commonly divide the country along Iraq-style lines, with Alawites and Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds each taking their own regions. The problem is that these populations do not live in distinct areas of the country. Many of Syria’s cities include a mix of Sunnis, Alawites, Shias, Christians, Druze, Kurds, and other minority groups. Thus, the division of Syria according to sectarian and ethnic differences will necessitate mass population transfers in order for the country demographics to fit this cookie-cutter solution.
Forced population transfers are strictly forbidden under international law and are commonly equated with ethnic cleansing. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines forcible transfers of populations as a crime against humanity, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has convicted military commanders for forced deportations that occurred during the Yugoslav conflict. To avoid contravening international law, a negotiated settlement must give the local population the option to stay, move to the newly designated area, or relocate to a different location of their own choosing. But in reality, this “choice” is often a false one. According to the UN Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the conditions surrounding treaties that call for population transfers usually create “strong moral, psychological and economic pressures to move.” Particularly in conflicts zones defined by sectarian or ethnic hatreds, members of the group being transferred may be fearful of staying and potentially facing persecution as a minority when the ethnic group or religious sect that fought on the other side of the war takes over the area.
Given the current tensions in Syria, there is no scenario in which Syrians will have a meaningful choice about where to live if negotiating parties agree to population transfers along sectarian and ethnic lines as part of a ceasefire agreement. The result will be economically devastating and most likely bloody for those involved. In the former Yugoslavia, orders for population transfers fueled ethnic tensions and emboldened local Serbs to forcibly removetheir Croat and Muslim neighbors from their homes, leading to bloodshed, rape, and the destruction of homes and mosques. Forced to flee, many left behind everything they owned, and to this day Bosnia is grappling with the issue of compensation for property loss.
Over 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced as a result of the conflict. Policy decisions on where and how they will be resettled as well the parameters of a negotiated ceasefire could lead to attempts to redraw Syria’s ethnic and sectarian map. Experiences from past conflicts demonstrate that population transfers along ethnic and religious lines tend to lead to increased levels of violence, and in Syria, such a plan could create new sources of tension. The United Nations and the international community should closely monitor this issue and ensure that the UN envoy to Syria does not endorse population transfers in order to achieve local ceasefire agreements or national settlements. While such a deal might placate regional or local leaders, Syrians will suffer in the aftermath and the ethnic and religious minorities in each newly formed state will likely pay the biggest price.