The Syria crisis continues to shock: for all the conferences, peace talks and talking, new events continue to stand out against the background of daily violence. Today a car bomb exploded during a population transfer and casualties are still to be confirmed, but range in the dozens. A previous population transfer in 2016 was delayed when an unidentified rebel group torched coaches to be used in the transfer.
Population transfers, in which people from areas besieged by either the government and its allies or the opposing groups are exchanged, are controversial as critics argue that they effectively amount to forced relocation along sectarian lines. For the people concerned they are welcome relief from years of siege, whether by the government and its allies or the opposition and jihadists. The predominantly Shia residents of Foah and Kefraya have been encircled by rebels and jihadists since early in 2015, while the predominantly Sunni residents of Madaya and Zabadani have been besieged by the Syrian army and Hezbollah since the summer of 2015. The hard reality is that the desperate people being moved are unlikely to argue when the alternative is the continued threat of violence, food shortages and denial of basic human rights. No one wants to stay in a warzone, even if the map is being redrawn as a consequence, and even if Syria’s diverse population doesn’t fit neatly into any attempt at reorganisation along ethnic and religious lines.
The current transfer owes little to the Syrian government, although they have been involved in other local agreements, some in which rebels surrendered their weapons and agreed to exile. In fact, it took over two years of negotiations between regional and local actors to set out a plan that has a timescale of months. The key players in the deal reflect the complexity of the Syrian tragedy: it has been brokered by Iran and Qatar with the involvement of Hezbollah and Ahrar al-Sham. The component linking them and driving the conclusion of the deal were members of the Qatari royal family, whom had been held by an Iranian proxy since they were captured after crossing from Saudi Arabi to Iraq in error in 2015 while hunting.
There are no easy answers in the Syrian conflict, but the killing of desperate civilians in a disputed population transfer is not one of them.
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Dr Carl Turner,