Syria: 'population transfer' or sectarian cleansing?

"More Than 7,000 People Evacuated From 4 Besieged Syrian Towns." That's the somewhat misleading headline in the New York Times of April 14. Reads the lede: "After nearly two years of punishing siege and bombardment by their enemies, more than 7,000 people were bused out of four towns in Syria on Friday in the most recent population transfer during six years of war." Note the euphemistic language. This isn't "evacuation," which implies it is voluntary and in response to some objective disaster. This is "sectarian cleansing," part of an intentional Assad regime strategy to purge its growing areas of control of Sunnis, all of whom are apparently deemed official enemies. "Population transfer," as it is dubbed in the lede, is another euphemistic term, one all too familiar to those who have followed the growing consensus for territorial purging of perceived ethno-sectarian enemies in Israel.

Many of those squeezed from their communities do not expect to return, joining the half of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million that has been displaced by the war.  

Of these millions of displaced persons, an estimated five million have fled the country, becoming "official" refugees.

The report does finally note the criminality of the sieges and forced evacuations. According to Siege Watch, run in cooperation with the Dutch organization PAX, more than 900,000 Syrians are living under siege in 37 areas across the country, with more than a million more under threat of siege. And as the rebels become more desperate in the face of regime advances backed by Russian air power, the sieges are more frequently ending in "transfer."

Critics say the strategy equals forced population transfer, which can be a war crime. An inquiry by the United Nations said that the evacuation of rebel-held eastern Aleppo last year amounted to a war crime because it was coerced by Russian and Syrian military action. More than 20,000 people were transported out of the city before Mr. Assad forces consolidated their control.

In its typical maddening style, the Times only gets around to the specifics of the situation several paragraphs in:

Friday's evacuations concerned four towns. Fua and Kefarya, two Shiite communities in Idlib Province loyal to Mr. Assad, have been surrounded by hard-line Sunni insurgents for about two years. Madaya and Zabadani, two mostly Sunni towns near Syria's western border with Lebanon, are surrounded by Syrian government forces and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

About 5,000 residents were removed from the Shiite villages on Friday and 3,000 more were to be taken out by day's end, according to Firas Amoura, who helped coordinate the evacuation on behalf of the Syrian government. More than 2,200 people were bused out of Madaya and about 150 rebel fighters were waiting to removed from Zabadani.

The evacuations were brokered by the Syrian government and Iran on one side and Qatar, representing the rebels, on the other, and carried out by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The United Nations did not play a role.

The people who left the Shiite villages were taken to Aleppo. Buses departing the rebel-held towns headed for Idlib Province.

BBC News repors that a car bomb targeted a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from the besieged regime-held towns, killing at least 45 people. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which has medical staff in the area, said in a statement:

This forced displacement is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and marks yet another sad chapter in the history of this crisis. The absence of the UN and international community from this process has left the civilian populations especially vulnerable, leading to horrific events such as what took place today. The UN must not abandon its role in protecting innocent civilians and enforcing international humanitarian laws.

As we noted during the evacuation of Aleppo, the areas that the purged are being evacuated to are themselves under bombardment. As the evacuations got underway, Russian warplanes renewed bombing raids on Daraa and Idlib governorates, using napalm and phosphorus weapons, local activists and media report. (Zaman Al Wasl)

The genocidal aspect of the Syrian conflict continues to be ignored or downplayed by Western media accounts.