There are two aspects to the demographic change taking place in Syria: the forced displacement of millions of Syrian civilians, the majority of whom happen to be Sunnis, and the importation and settlement of foreign nationals of Shia origin.
It is estimated that over half of the Syrian population has been displaced by the ongoing war, either inside or outside Syria. The issue is well documented by various Syrian and international organisations, including UN agencies, so there is no need to repeat the details here. Suffice to say that the widespread and systematic displacement of millions of people was often the result of coercive measures (violence or fear of violence by regime forces and militias) and that many of those displaced have no homes to return to because they have been either destroyed, demolished or ‘reconstructed’ in an unlawful and wanton manner. Moreover, in the majority of these cases, the displacement was not justified by a clear military necessity or carried out for the security of those displaced. As such, the majority of these cases arguably amount to war crimes and, in some cases, crimes against humanity.
The other aspect (the transfer of Shia foreign nationals into Syria) is more controversial and more difficult to establish.
It is no longer a secret that Shiatisation in Syria is on the rise. A concerted programme of spreading the Iranian version of Shia Islam, which had begun during Hafez al-Assad’s reign and continued at a faster pace during Bashar al-Assad’s years,1 took dangerous turns with the current war. Mass Shia processions during Ashura; new Shia mosques, shrines and hawzas; Shia books and symbols on book stalls… all have become common scenes in traditionally Sunni areas in Damascus and other Syrian cities. And all are clearly tolerated, and even encouraged, by the Syrian authorities.
On a state policy level, Bashar al-Assad issued in 2014 a decree allowing the teaching of the Shia doctrine in Syrian schools alongside the Sunni one, coupled with the opening of the first-ever Shia state school in the country in September 2014 (al-Rasoul al-A’tham school on the outskirts of Jableh).2
About 40 smaller private Shia schools had been opened in Damascus, mainly in the districts of al-Amin, Bab Msalla and al-Hamra. Shia hussayniyahs (religious meeting rooms and halls devoted to Imam Hussein) have mushroomed in Damascus and elsewhere in regime-held areas.3
Unfortunately much of the coverage of such phenomena tends to be sectarian, conflating the religious and cultural with the political. Shiism or Shiatisation are not a crime in themselves. Freedom of religion, which includes religious teaching, is a fundamental human right. The only issue that should concern us here is whether there is sufficient evidence to accuse the Syrian and the Iranian regimes of changing, or attempting to change, the demographic composition of certain parts of Syria using unlawful means.
In this regard, there have been many, often unsubstantiated reports about the Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) appropriating land and property surrounding historic Sunni shrines and tombs and giving or selling them, along with the shrines, to Iranians, who then claim the sites belong to historic Shia personalities and build new structures on site.4 More reliable evidence, such as details and documents from land registry offices in the concerned areas, are needed to determine the truthfulness and extent of these allegations.
There have also been many reports and rumours about the Syrian authorities’ granting or planning to grant Syrian citizenship to thousands of foreign Shias. The best known of these is a widely circulated report from 2013 claiming that Bashar al-Assad had “opened the door for naturalising 40 thousand people [in al-Swaida], mostly Shia followers of Hezbollah, both the Lebanese and Iraqi branches, who had been fighting alongside the Assad forces, as well as civilians from the same sect.” “Those who will be granted Syrian citizenship,” the report adds, “will be given known Durzi family names. The authorities have already embarked on the project since about a week.”
On 15 July 2013, a number of Syrian activists from al-Swaida issued a statement condemning the project, describing it as “playing with the demographics of the area,” which is inhabited by a Druze majority.5
The allegations spread widely after two similar articles appeared in two Saudi and Kuwaiti newspapers, al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Qabas, on 13 July 2013.6 The allegations could not be independently verified by the authors of this report, nor is it clear where the 40,000 figure came from. Even if the allegations were true, it is likely that the figure is exaggerated. At the time when the articles were published, there were reportedly only 2,400 Shia fighters in al-Swaida, all accommodated in the city’s football stadium.7
It is no secret that the Syrian and Iranian regimes have brought in thousands of Shia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere to fight alongside and on behalf of the Assad forces, under the pretext of defending Shia shrines.8 Many of them are the children of poor Afghans refugees who had fled their country to Iran during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
It is plausible that some of these fighters have since then brought their families to Syria and settled in the areas occupied by these militias (there have been frequent reports of foreign Shia families settling in certain neighbourhoods of Damascus and Homs, such as Sayyeda Zaynab, Darayya, al-Qusayr and so on 9).
However, as explained in the next chapter, the population transfer prohibited under international law concerns civilians and not combatants. Article 8(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute prohibits “the transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (emphasis added). Similarly, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Furthermore, the majority of the Shia fighters in question are not Iranian nationals – they are mostly Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan. This means that, in the majority of these cases, Iran cannot be accused to transferring its own civilian population to Syria. It could be argued, however, that the Iranian authorities, particularly Sepah Pasdaran, exercise de facto authority over these Shia fighters, as argued in a previous Naame Shaam report.10
In any case, more reliable evidence is needed to determine the scale of these alleged population transfer schemes. There are, however, enough indications and leads to warrant an international investigation by specialised bodies into this serious issue.
It is worth noting that, according to the Syrian nationality law,11 the president has powers to grant foreigners Syrian citizenship but this can only be done on an individual, case-by-case basis and the applicant must have been a resident in the country for at least five consecutive years.12 Thus, the alleged projects of naturalising thousands of foreign Shia en masse would be unlawful under Syrian law, especially as most of the persons concerned would have come to Syria in the past four years (with the exception of a small number of Iraqis and Iranians who had been living in Syria prior to the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011).
Furthermore, the applicant must be “of good conduct” and have “no criminal record.” In other words, the Syrian citizenship acquired by foreign fighters can be revoked in the future on this basis if it can be established by a qualified authority or court that they have committed criminal acts in Syria.
Article 20 of the above-mentioned law also states that anyone found to have acquired citizenship by misrepresentation or fraud shall be deprived of it by a judicial ruling. This would apply to the allegations of falsifying identity documents, such as in Homs and Damascus, but more concrete evidence of falsification is needed.
Finally, the acquired citizenship can also be revoked if the concerned person is found to be serving military service in another country without prior authorisation from the Syrian Minister of Defence. This is likely to be the case of many foreign fighters fighting in Syria, particularly Iranians.
Notes & References:
1. The best known studies of Shiatisation in Syria before 2011 are perhaps the following three: The Shiitization Process in Syria 1985-2006: A Socio-statistic Paper, National Council for Truth, Reconciliation and Justice in Syria, 2006, unavailable online; Khalid Sindawi, The Shiite Turn in Syria, Hudson Institute, 2009, available here; The Shiite Resurrection in Syria 1919-2007 (in Arabic), International Institute for Syrian Studies, 2009, available here.
2. ‘Opening of first special school teaching Jafari Shiism in Syria‘ (in Persian), Shia News, 30 September 2014.
3. See, for example, this video from early 2015 showing a Shia ceremony inside the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, which many Sunnis regarded as a provocation.
4. Here is an example of such reports.
5. See here.
6. ‘News of preparations by al-Assad to naturalise thousands of Shias in order to change demographics in Swaidaa‘ (in Arabic), al-Sharq al-Awsat, 13 July 2013. ‘Hunger sneaks into Homs.. and Damascus is hit with surface-to-surface missile‘ (in Arabic), al-Qabas, 13 July 2013, p.41.
8. For more on this, see here.
10. See here.
11. Legislative Decree 276 of 1969, available in English here.
12. In September 2013, the Syrian Council of Ministers passed a law waiving the 5-year period only for stateless Syrian Kurds who had been granted citizenship under Decree no. 49 of 2011. See here.