Why Syria Will Produce Many More Refugees

The systematic ethnic cleansing hasn't stopped.

More please?

Photographer: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Fabrice Balanche, a French researcher who spent many years living and working in Syria, has produced a new report on how more than four years of war have change the country's demography. It sheds light on the strategies of President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, the flow of refugees and the realities of any political settlement.

QuickTake Refugee Crisis

In his paper for The Washington Institute, Balanche traces a story of population attrition and systematic ethnic cleansing. He also puts the relative strength of Islamic State into context (less strong than you think).

This map, for example, shows which area is currently controlled by which armed group in the war, but shades only populated areas. The result is a picture in which Islamic State, or Daesh, often said to hold more than 50 percent of the country, looks much more vulnerable because so much of Syria (47 percent) is desert. The IS-held areas are shaded in gray:

Source: The Washington Institute

Looking at how much population each side controls makes this even clearer:

Source: The Washington Institute

That adds up to about 16 million people still in Syria, down from the pre-war projection for 2015, which was 22.6 million. So how is all this expulsion and transfer of population happening and where? Assad and Russia say the cause of refugee flight is people fleeing Islamic State. Just join their campaign against IS, they argue, and the flow would stop. It would not.

According to Balanche, people have left the areas that are most bombed and least secure, moving to safer districts where they may have family. Often, they don't care too much which militia -- for by now the pro-Assad forces resemble a group of militias, too -- is in control. And the least safe, most bombed areas producing most refugees are largely Sunni and held by non-IS rebels. The vast majority of that bombing is done by Assad and, more recently, Russia.

Assad targets the non-IS rebels because they hold territory he wants for his rump state, including the city of Aleppo. And as was the case during the war in Bosnia, population clearance is not random, but planned:

The large-scale population movements have not been a simple byproduct of war. Rather, they represent conscious strategies of ethnic cleansing by each faction.

For now, Syria's overall population figures hide the rampant ethnic separation already occurring within territories controlled by each faction. Acutely aware that its Alawite base is a shrinking minority, the regime has created a zone of control with 41 percent religious minorities, compared to the national figure of 22 percent. The army consistently prioritizes asserting its grip over Christian, Alawite, Druze, Ismaili, and Shiite localities.

Minorities tend to flee IS-held areas; those fleeing regime-held or threatened areas tend to be from the Sunni majority; Arabs leave Kurdish-held areas -- and so it is likely to continue:

The fact that the regime-controlled zone is the most diverse does not mean that Assad is more benevolent than the rebels, Kurds, or IS. Rather, it reflects his political strategy. He knows he must expel millions of Sunni Arabs to make the balance of power more favorable to minorities who support him. 

Source: The Washington Institute

Russia has joined Assad in this strategy, to which Islamic State is for now largely irrelevant. It is mostly outside the rump state Assad wishes to create; far distant from the naval and air base that Russia is determined to secure; and irrelevant to Iran's priority, which is to secure a corridor from Damascus airport to Lebanon, enabling it to resupply Hezbollah. 

By contrast, the Turkmen who Russian aircraft have been bombing lately, triggering a clash with Turkey, are among the most determinedly anti-Assad of all rebels. And they live in the northern part of the Latakia region, which Assad needs to secure his Alawite-dominated state.

What does it all mean? First, returning Syria's ethnic and religious balance to what it was before the war is extremely unlikely; any attempt would be resisted by force of arms. 

Source: The Washington Institute

Second, the country cannot be reunified as the centralized state that existed before the war. It will have to have a federal structure and, during the transitional period, Sunni and Kurdish areas must have complete autonomy to govern and police themselves.  

Third, there will be more refugees, no matter what. If Assad's Russian-backed campaign against non-IS rebels is successful, Sunnis will flee in their hundreds of thousands if not millions. According to Balanche, 200,000 people fled the Aleppo area alone over the last two months. If, against all odds, Assad and the non-jihadist rebels were to quickly agree a cease-fire and turn their joint fire power against IS, refugees would flee those areas, too. And if the Kurds were to succeed in their goal of seizing the IS-held territory that separates the two Kurdish zones, Arab refugees would flee Kurdish control.

For Europe, the conclusion should be to brace for at least another year of mass-migration. The only way to minimize that would be to get cease-fires implemented as soon as possible and create safe zones, giving some hope to refugees that they may be able to go home if they wait just a little bit longer. At the moment, there is no light at the end of the tunnel and no reason to stay in a Jordanian, Lebanese or Turkish limbo.

Above all it means that French President Francois Hollande, U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western allies have to be steely in their refusal to join any anti-Islamic State coalition with Russia until President Vladimir Putin stops claiming that the rebels he is bombing in western Syria are IS and sends his bombers east, where they still rarely venture. Otherwise the West will merely support Assad's ethnic cleansing.

Finally, the world's diplomats should stop focusing on whether or how to transition Assad out of power. Doing so helps only Assad, because so long as talks are deadlocked, he gets to continue using Russian air power to help seize back rebel areas. Instead they should negotiate a transition framework based on a temporary, soft partition of the country that would leave him in partial control, with a view to Syria's later reemergence as a federalized state.

By recognizing what has already happened on the ground, the logjam around Assad's fate could be broken. No external power would have to sacrifice their core interests, and for rebels the Assad question would no longer be a life-or-death matter. Only then can Syria's bloodshed and human flight be brought to a gradual close.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Marc Champion at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at

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