Small Wars Journal

Redrawing the Map: The Shifting Human Terrain of Syria

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 11:41am

Redrawing the Map: The Shifting Human Terrain of Syria

Gabriel White

Declaimer: The map included in this article heavily relies upon dated sources including French colonial works, open source information, the now-defunct Syrian census bureau, and previous human terrain mapping efforts. As such it is far from perfect. The map and this paper will not address the massive changes to population demographics caused by internally displaced persons and refugees.

The human terrain of Syria is shifting. Buried below last week’s headlines was the news of what might amount to the largest proposed population swap in recent history. The agreement, allegedly brokered by Qatar and Iran would likely involve 30-40,000 people—swapping the remaining inhabitants of the Kafriya and al-Foua, two Shia Twelver towns in Idlib, for opposition fighters and sympathetic civilians in the beleaguered towns of Zabadani and Medaya.  The immediate plan hopes to alleviate suffering for these communities which have been under siege for years. Yet under close examination, a deeper question emerges: can ethno-religious homogenization end the bloodshed in Syria?

The human terrain of Syria has not only shaped where, but also how the war has been fought. As in all sectarian wars, popular mobilization has played a critical role in defining and compounding the plethora of armed groups involved. As a result, visible patterns of violence, cut across ethnic and religious lines, have emerged throughout much of much of Syria. The intensity of these divisions appears to be especially strong in the Northwestern Governorates of Latakia, Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo.

In the spring of 2015, opposition forces won a string of victories across much of Idlib governorate which culminated in the Salafi-Jihadi collective, Jasyh al-Fatah’s seizure of the provincial capital Idlib city. In tandem, opposition forces also embarked on efforts to secure the Shia Twelver towns of Kafriya and al-Foua.  Mostly under the banner of Syria al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (then known as, Jabhat al-Nusra) launched routine attempts to take the city by force throughout the fall of 2015. In the years since, the towns have remained under siege. 

The siege of Zabadani and Medaya, like Al-Foua and Kafriya, began in 2015. Following the successful Syrian Arab Army-Hezbollah Qalamoun offensive, opposition forces were displaced from the strategically significant mountainous border separating Lebanon from Syria. Though regime forces were able to capture much of Zabadani and Medaya, located immediately to the towns south by the fall of 2015, ceasefire efforts, linking the opposition offensive in Idlib against al-Foua and Kafriya, were successful.

In time, the linkage of Zabadani and Medaya in the south and al-Foua and Kafriya in the north has transformed the towns into political pressure points. The denial of humanitarian aid, the flow of food, and clamping down on rampant smuggling of supplies and munitions into the towns have come at times to respond to challenges elsewhere in the country. Nonetheless, reciprocity has also ensured that both clusters have found themselves at the forefront of numerous agreements to exchange civilians and combatants out of the beleaguered towns. This history of both past reciprocal transgression and deal making no doubt contributed to the reported latest agreement - the transfer of the entire populations in exchange for one another.

While the most recent agreement certainly amounts to a potential high-point in the tit-for-tat dynamic between the opposition and regime, the respective towns hold serious doubts whether it is at all achievable. Logistically, the transfer of thousands of civilians and militants out of Idlib alone is bound to be troublesome. This difficulty is further compounded given the poor performance  of both parties in delivering on such agreements in the past. Along with the highly fractious internal politics between the oppositions remaining powers it seems unlikely that all those who remain in Al-Foua, Kafriya, Zabadani and Medaya will see their nightmare come to an end. Once more, due to rising tensions between Ahrar al-Sham (a principal guarantor of past ceasefire agreements for the Shia villages in exchange for deals pertaining to its forces in Zabadani) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham future deals could potentially serve as a flash-point in inter-rebel relations.

The agreement signals what in time might become a lasting trend of addressing the remaining ‘cauldron’ communities and the incremental homogenization of strategically vulnerable territories of the country.  The permanent vacation of Zabadani of fighters and residents sympathetic will close a once highly contested theater of the war in Syria - freeing up much needed forces to participate in operations elsewhere in the country. But it will also likely mean that unlike Hama in 2011, Zabadani will likely never rise again against the Assad regime should it be victorious.

The saga of Al-Foua, Kafriya, Medaya, and Zabadani is but one episode of larger attempts to redraw the human terrain map of Syria. The Assad regime has long been content on funneling opposition fighters out of their various enclaves in the Southwestern provinces (and Aleppo) of the country to Idlib, whether the result of political shrewdness, an attempt to consolidate enemy forces, or a lasting Sunni political concession knowing any campaign in Idlib would be extremely costly at this point is pure conjecture. What is apparent is the consequences of these actions, whatever their intention, will have a lasting impact on the human terrain of Syria and dramatic consequences for the end-stages of the war.

Figure 1. Human Terrain Map of Idlib, Northern Latakia, Al Ghab Plain Northern Hama

Idlib has largely been drained of its minorities. The proposed evacuation of the majority Shia Twelver towns coupled the ever precarious position of Idlib’ s Christians, (it is unclear how many, if any at all, are left) along with the forced conversions and mass killings of its Druze population by Jabhat al-Nusra in 2015, would likely fully homogenize the province now at the heart of the Syrian opposition. It is important to note that religiosity, rather than ethnicity is in large part the foundation of opposition group identity. This is further evidenced by the movement of groups alien to recent Syria, most significantly Uyghurs, and Uzbeks into the towns of Idlib

Whether the agreement this lends to the opposition's advantage is unclear, no doubt the removal of al-Foua and Kafriya in some respects make the sustainment of any ceasefire agreement more achievable. After all, the flow of aid and supplies to these beleaguered settlements and others like it have often been subject to the whims of local actors whom are often disinterested in regional ceasefire efforts or peace more generally. Similarly, the removal of the potential for a tit-for-tat like escalatory dynamic between settlements refocuses fighting to more controllable front lines, shifting out the boundaries of the war.

While Idlib may become less diverse, it certainly is no less contested.  The status of the armed opposition today is a far cry from 2011, infighting is commonplace, cross organizational leadership is lacking and political outlooks remain divergent. Members of the armed opposition have long alleged that regime is attempting to transform the human terrain of the country. As numerous opposition held pockets are remain, the potential trend of ethno-religious redistribution may yet become the modus operandi of how the Regime deals with rebel cauldrons in the future, especially as it maintains chronic manpower shortages for offensive operations. Despite this, whatever benefit might be found in tying up loose ends in Al-Foua and Kafriya and gaining forces trapped in pockets elsewhere will be lost as a result of the opposition’s internal divisions and the concentration of regimes forces in the north.

Should the reported exchange only be partially implemented, or not at all, al-Foua and Kafriya for now will likely prove to be as much of a liability as a political lever for the opposition already the path to defeat in the North East. Though regime attempts to break the siege would be costly and difficult, it should not be forgotten that it was the presence of the Shia communities of Nubl and Zahraa that ultimately, lead to the decisive encirclement of opposition forces in Aleppo in 2016. Shia national defense forces there also remarkably thwarted attempts to seize both Twelver majority cities from 2012 through 2016. By the enactment of the second ceasefire the Oppositions’ siege of these cities had been lifted with the coupling of regime lines to Nubl from Eastern Aleppo, which proved instrumental in securing the regimes ultimate victory in Aleppo in 2016.

The sum of these indicators is Idlib is likely to become far more dangerous, a governorate where the Assad regime can contain the threat of the opposition for years to come. The consequences will likely be severe, aiding in the transformation of the opposition’s narrative by exacerbating Jihadist discourse.  

A war once defined by a clash of ideologies and the hope of democracy has been soured by brutal sectarianism and near-constant violence. The stories of Zabadani, Medaya, Kafriya and al-Foua illustrate one of the stranger dynamics of the Syrian civil war, the dangerous of demographics that have transformed entire communities into hostages. The ethno-religious fabric of Syria has not only been ravaged by six years of sectarian war, it is also being rewoven all together. Whether irredentism will drive Syria further into war is unclear, what is clear is whatever emerges from the ruins of the war will likely be unrecognizable.

Works Cited

Ayse Tekdal Fildis, “Roots of the Alawite-Sunni Rivalry in Syria,” Middle East Policy Council, Summer 2012, Volume XIX, Number 2

Karen Barkey, George Gavrilis, “The Ottoman Millet System: Non-territorial Autonomy and its Contemporary Legacy.” Ethnopolitics, December 2015

Fabrice Balanche, “Ethnic Cleansing Threatens Syria's Unity,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 3 2015

Frabrice Balanche, “Latakia Is Assad's Achilles Heel,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 23 2015

Fabrice Balanche, “The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis,” Middle East Institute, May 14, 2015

Robert Boulanger, “The Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran,” Trans. J.S. Hardman Hachette, 1966

Genevieve Casagrande, “The Road to Ar-Raqqa: Background on the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Institute for the Study of War, November 22, 2016

Ola Rifai, “The Identity balance during the Syrian uprising: a vehement reconstruction?” Center for Syrian Studies, University of St. Andrews, January 2014

Robert Fisk, “Syrian civil war: The untold story of the siege of two small Shia villages - and how the world turned a blind eye,” Independent, February 22, 2016

Philip Shukry Khoury, “In Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945,” Princeton University Press, 1987, page 209-411

Mohanad Hage Ali, “China’s proxy war in Syria: Revealing the role of Uighur fighters,” Al Arabiya, March 2, 2016

Jim Muir, “Syria prepares response to Jisr al-Shughour 'massacre',” BBC News Beirut, June 8th 2011

Kerim Yildiz, “The Kurds in Syria, The Forgotten People,” Pluto Press, 2005, page 29-37

Mohammed al-Khatieb, “Aleppo Residents Displaced in Their Own Country,” Al Monitor, February 26, 2016

Robert Fisk, “Syrian civil war: The untold story of the siege of two small Shia villages - and how the world turned a blind eye,” Independent, February 22, 2016

Aaron Lund, “Assad’s Broken Case for Idlib,” The Century Foundation, July 14, 2016

 “Syrian government forces 'retake mountain town of Haffa,” BBC, June 13, 2012

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “Druze Clues
Al Nusra's Rebranding and What It Means for Syria,” Foreign Affairs, October 5, 2015

Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Syrian rebels make gains in northern Hama province, capture strategic town,” Reuters, August 8, 2016

About the Author(s)

Gabriel White, an independent defense analyst focused on Europe and Post-Soviet Space, is a Masters Candidate at American University's School of International Service in Washington D.C. He tweets at @Gabriel___White



Thu, 11/18/2021 - 10:58am

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 1:41pm


Reminder, this population swap deal was agreed by Ahrar al-Sham & #Iran:
Likely spoilers: #ISIS, Assad

Aleppo: Sunni civilians and rebels, including #HTS, treating the wounded Shia civilians. #HTS provided dozens of ambulances.

A #Fouah/#Kfarya civilian to @ZamanEnglish News
"A van was distributing crisps (chips). Children started running after it. It then exploded"

BREAKING: Syria TV: Population transfer resumes after blast near evacuation buses outside Aleppo city killed dozens.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 1:28pm

To be clear
The "aid" vehicle from #Assad areas hit the REBEL side of the street.
Dozens of evacuees got "collateral" victims in the busses.

Unlikely that a truck full with explosive can pass dozens of regime checkpoints, unless the regime gave the order.

Because most pro-#Assad forces never left #Fuah and #Kefraya, while all rebels have left #Madaya and #Zabadani.

More than 40 injured victims from the terrorist explosion targeting Fua & Kafreya buses are being treated in @sams_usa hospital nearby @BBC

Regime sent 3 trucks 'of food' & 1 blew up as it approached the buses. There were many rebels standing next to the truck who also died

Charles Lister

Sources in Rashideen:

- SVBIED came from regime area
- Bomber likely #ISIS & ID'd himself as SARC
- HTS & Ahrar among fatalities
- 25+ dead

Serious problem now....
Aleppo: Displaced civilians from #Madaya & #Zabadani are in the hands of pro-#Assad forces now. A total disaster.

Assadis tried to create a fake statement by Jaysh al Islam that claimed responsibility for the attack. What a surprise


Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 10:50am

The car bomb attack against Kafraya and Foua civilians pulls a page from Zarqawi's playbook: fan eternal war weaponizing sectarianism.

Was this potentially a bomb attack via IS sleeper cell.....if a regime vehicle was the bomb actually a magnetic sticky IED....often seen used by AQI/Is in Iraq is the 2009-2010 timeframes...

BUT WAIT...can in fact the interests of IS and Assad have overlapped in this particular attack???

YES they can as this is the indicator....

BREAKING!Tens of ambulances reached Bab-Al-Hawa to rescue the injuries of kafraya& Foua after Assad forces refused to let them in to Aleppo

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 10:06am

THIS is important to inhale and fully understand.......

Regime blames HTS of course.

But HTS fighters are among the dead.

Activists tell me,the regime postponed the entrance to attack the refugees

These activists are highly accurate in their assumptions that Assad was behind this attack as it was Assad forces that did not let the second Sunni town evacuate as agreed to and thus held up these refugees from moving onward as agreed to...

Huge casualty toll from the Aleppo terror attack. Many victims amongst Fuah/Kefraya civilians and rebel fighters.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 9:45am

JUST what the heck...did someone actually use a regime vehicle as an VBIED which was under complete regime control all the time????

Syria pro-regime media first say regime was able to send aid for people in Rasedeen ......then say car exploded was carrying aid.

Initial reports of ~100 people killed in the attack.

Activists reported many HTS/AhS fighters killed and injured in the blast allegedly came from "a parked milk car" dispatched from regime end.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 9:40am

WHAT is extremely sad is the fact that the Sunni FSA rebels guarding the safety of the Shia fighters and their families...were also targeted and killed and wounded in this VBIED strike...

A car bomb hit waiting civilians from Fuah & Kefraya (and guarding rebels) just west of #Aleppo city.
Dozens dead.
A terrible crime!

CORE reason...the Assad regime forces are not holding to allowing the last Sunni town to be evacuated as agreed to....

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 9:47am

This ethnic cleansing swap is now going South in an extreme hurry...sad actually even if an ethnic cleansing...

Unfortunate reports of a remotely detonated car-bomb targeted civilians and fighters evacuated from Fu'a and Kafrya outside Aleppo, Rashdin.

Syria #TahrirSouri explosion hit bus station in#Rashedeen #Aleppo where Fuaa&Kefraya residents waiting to be moved,dozens killed&injured

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 8:57am

Syria Regime loyalist fighters from Kafarya/Fuah pocket & their families still wait for access to Aleppo city

Assad troops have still not allowed Sunni fighters and their families to leave the last Sunni town.....

BUT this is what awaited the Shia fighters and their families prior to being stopped AND it was from Assad forces....

Syria #Assad-forces shelling western outskirts of #Aleppo city were thousands regime loyalist from #Idlib (Fuah & Kafarya) wait for access

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 7:40am

Syria Regime loyalist fighters from #Kafarya/#Fuah pocket & their families still wait for access to #Aleppo city 

Seems both bus convoys with 8000+ people stuck in south #Aleppo
(rebels in Ramouseh, regime in Rashidin)

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 4:20am

This ethnic cleansing exchange is now stalling as it appears Hezbollah and Iran and Assad are not holding to the signed agreement as many in FSA thought would happen....

Syrians stuck around Aleppo as evacuation deal stalls: monitor, activists

Thousands of Syrians were stuck in and around Aleppo on Saturday as a deal to evacuate two Shi'ite villages in return for Sunni rebels and their families being allowed to leave two besieged towns near Damascus stalled, a monitor and activists said.
Rebels and civilians who had left Madaya near Damascus on Friday sat outside rows of coaches in government-held Aleppo city, waiting to move onto their final destination of insurgent-held Idlib, pictures sent by a pro-opposition activist showed.
Meanwhile residents and pro-government fighters who had left the two rebel-besieged Shi'ite villages in Idlib province waited still in insurgent territory on Aleppo's outskirts to cross into the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The British-based Observatory said the delay was because rebel fighters from another town included in the deal, Zabadani near Damascus, had not yet been granted safe passage out.

Assad as usual is behind this move as he was not happy about it and it left him out of the did it leave the Russians out of it...

Outlaw 09

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 2:22pm

An interesting small detail that is highly important in understanding this latest large scale ethnic cleansing.....…

Qatari royal family members used as leverage in Syrian population swap
Fates of 26 members of hunting party, held hostage for more than a year in Iraq, used to negotiate deal to move residents from Shia and Sunni towns.

The deal was finalised in recent days after nearly two years of negotiations between one of Syria’s main opposition groups, Ahrar al-Sham, and Iran. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Qatar have also been central – both taking a stake five months ago when members of Doha’s ruling family were offered up as a component of the swap.

The agreement, and the regional choreography surrounding it, marks one of the most sensitive episodes of the Syrian war. Iran and Hezbollah have been determined not to cast the moves as a demographic swap, while Ahrar al-Sham and members of the Syrian political opposition insist that what has been proposed cannot be characterised otherwise.

As the Guardian reported in January, Iran had earlier tied the future of both Sunni towns to the fate of Fua and Kefraya. While the plan at its essence involves relocating four local populations, the intimate involvement of regional powers underscores how deeply embedded the conflict has become in a broader proxy war for power and influence.

The involvement of Bashar al-Assad’s regime has meanwhile been negligible, with Iran and Qatar seeking the release of 1,500 prisoners from Syrian jails, but not including regime officials in discussions.

Two Qataris, both members of a falcon hunting party that had crossed from Saudi Arabia to Iraq where they were captured in December 2015, were released earlier in the week as the deal neared implementation. Sources close to the negotiations have told the Guardian that urgent efforts to secure the fate of the remaining men led to the plan being finalised.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 1:58pm

Never once in the entire article are the words...sectarian ethnic cleansing used....

Interesting is it not????

And no mentioning of Kurdish ethnic cleansing in the Sunni Arab areas they have taken over....confirmed by HRW....

Ethnic cleansing is ongoing all over Syria....