THE BLOG

Siege, Transfer And Occupation In Syria - The Evacuation Of Al Waer

20/03/2017 12:07 GMT | Updated 20/03/2017 12:08 GMT

The story of the evacuation and transfer of Syrians from Al Waer sums up so much of what is going on in Syria in 2017 - a mix of siege, bombings, forcible transfer and foreign occupation.

Al Waer is on the outskirts of Syria's third city, Homs with an original population of about 75,000. I used to visit friends there - a large range of fairly decent modern apartment blocs. One area of it used to have expensive villas. But for over three years, it has been under siege by the Syrian army following its capture by armed opposition.

Finally, this month a deal was struck, overseen by Russia following massive bombardment of the area. The choice was stark - surrender or accept even more civilians being killed.

As part of this deal, 16-20,000 Syrians will be transferred away from their homes to other areas of Syria, perhaps the biggest such transfer in the six years of this crisis. They were left with little choice, given that there were no security and protection guarantees for those who remain in Al Waer. Rebels could be arrested and face an horrific prospect of regime jails, where tens to hundreds of thousands have gone before them, many of whom have been disappeared. Men will be conscripted into the army to cover the regime's desperate manpower shortage. Surely this comes under the banner of forcible transfer, a war crime in international law?

The first batch of 40 buses finally left Homs on the afternoon of Saturday 18 March. On board were 1354 who were transferred out of Al Waer, 519 were children, 412 women. They left friends behind and many families were split. "I hate the sight of green buses," a Syrian friend tells me.

The journey meandered through back roads, through decimated villages where there were no signs of life. Until they reached areas under opposition control they saw no civilians. At times, they had to remove the sand berms that blocked the way. Some on board even fainted.

The journey was gruelling. Over 400 kilometres to an area called Omraniya, 9 kilometres from Jarablus near the Syria-Turkish border. Here tents were prepared for them supplied by the Turkish Red Crescent. Except on arrival, the tents were too few and there were no facilities, no water, no electricity and no sanitation.

Almost inevitably the convoy was fired upon, by who, they were not sure but ISIS was the prime suspect.

What was perhaps most galling for Syrians was passing through countless checkpoints not manned by Syrians, but Russians, Iranians, Afghanis, and Hizbollah. Imagine being held up by people from other countries, thousands of miles away who simply have no right to be there. Syria is like a country under multiple occupations. Their destination near Jarablus is territory under Turkish control alongside the Free Syria Army. The suspicion is that Turkey will push them to join its proxy militias to fight ISIS or even the Kurds.

This transfer shows the demographic re-engineering going on inside Syria and the great power games that mean that Syrians have no control over their own fate. Russian soldiers oversaw the transfer and may even police Al Waer. The UN was not involved at all.

Will this be the fate of those living in the other 12 besieged areas in Syria? How many more such grubby deals will be struck? As the Geneva talks kick off yet again this week, ending these sieges in a just and humane fashion must be a priority, not by massive forced population transfers that bode ill for any possible future for Syria.