As Syria's war rages on, the regime and its allies, including Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanon's Hizbullah, are engaging in a pointed strategy to pave the way for Syria's future, analysts tell Diyaruna.
This strategy is focused on affecting demographic change in areas around regime strongholds, they say, in order to create a buffer zone of residents sympathetic to the regime and force out dissent.
Regime and allied sources commonly refer to these areas as "useful Syria".
This policy is being implemented in several parts of Syria in various ways, analysts say, which include offering financial incentives to Sunni residents to abandon their property and confiscating the homes and land of the displaced.
Residents of strategic areas around urban centres such as Damascus and Homs also are being forced out via sieges or targeted aggression, they say.
"By monitoring the course of ongoing battles in Syria, one can clearly discern the implementation of a clear plan to empty some areas of their inhabitants," said strategic analyst Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, a retired Egyptian officer.
This is being done with the aim of creating a "security belt to protect the areas fully controlled by the regime", he told Diyaruna.
In the city of Homs, for example, the regime and its allies seized Bab Amr district and later Bab al-Dreib, Bab Tadmur, Bab al-Sebaa, Job al-Jandali, al-Rifai, al-Nazeheen, Karm el-Zeitoun, al-Adawiya and al-Mreijeh, Ali said.
These areas were attacked with "heavy random shelling followed by the storming of homes", he said.
A number of towns and villages in the coastal area, including Jabal al-Akrad villages such as al-Jankil and Babna, suffered similar treatment, Ali added, as did some Sunni neighbourhoods of Latakia city, a core regime stronghold.
The same scenario was repeated in areas around the Syrian capital, including al-Qalamoun and Ghouta, Babbila and Yalda and the Damascus districts of Barzeh and al-Qadam, Ali said.
"This was most glaring in the town of Daraya, whose population has been thinned to a minimum during a stifling siege of the city that lasted almost four years," he said.
The roughly 10,000 remaining residents now have been "allowed to leave permanently", he said.
According to Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam, who resides in Cairo, a group of lawyers affiliated with the regime "forged powers of attorney for people detained in Syrian prisons and sold property to second parties in a series of transactions that make it difficult to trace the sale back to the [original] transaction".
This makes it difficult for the victims to go to court to challenge these powers of attorney, he told Diyaruna.
This trend began with individual cases that were initially deemed to be isolated cases of fraud, al-Bassam said, adding that "it was later discovered that more than 150 such cases had occurred".
More than 50 of these cases involved properties in the Damascus suburb of Qudsya, he alleged, adding that these were sold to a holding company with ties to the regime.
"Such sales target only the homes and property of Sunni residents to clear them out of the area permanently," he said.
Reports in Syrian and international media point to the direct involvement of Iran in the demographic redistribution process, he said, through Iranian companies and businessmen working with Syrian companies close to the regime.
Al-Bassam said his paternal cousins, residents of the Barzeh district in Damascus, were constantly harassed and eventually fled the area for Turkey.
Upon their arrival in Turkey, he said, they began to receive offers to sell, and were forced to acquiesce due to the financial pressures they were under.
Al-Bassam said he later learned that many other Syrians who fled their areas had faced the same situation.
"Such activities do not come to light until an announcement is made that the area is owned by a real estate company that plans to demolish [existing structures] and build large residential complexes in their place," he said.
IRGC and regime co-ordination
Al-Bassam said he had spoken to eyewitnesses who told him the construction projects taking place in Ghouta and al-Qalamoun are not military projects but rather civil commercial and residential projects.
Some of the newly constructed buildings have been used to house Shia and Alawite Syrians and Lebanese members of Hizbullah, he said.
"The project of clearing Syrian areas of Sunnis is being carried out in full co-ordination between regime and IRGC forces," al-Bassam said.
These forces "are clearing the way for a group of businessmen from Iran and Syria to achieve the main goal of forming a residential belt around Alawite-majority areas controlled by the ruling regime in Damascus", he added.
Together, these areas form what is being referred to as "useful Syria", he explained, meaning they will protect and ensure the survival of the regime.
Covert demographic redistribution is being carried out in other areas to ensure their security, Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Diyaruna.
Certain areas are being emptied of Sunni residents under many pretexts unrelated to the fighting, he said, including the withdrawal of residents and fighters from besieged areas and offering incentives to sell land and property.
Ripping the social fabric
In September 2012, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad issued a decree authorising the creation of two urban planning zones within the governorate of Damascus, according to a 2015 report published by Naame Shaam, a group of activists that focuses on uncovering the role of the Iranian regime in Syria.
This was presented as part of a "general plan for the city of Damascus to develop the areas of unauthorised residential housing" the report said, and focused on areas south-east of al-Mazzeh and south of the Southern Highway.
"The decree prohibited the trading in any property within these zones or authorising any new construction projects," the report said. "It also required the City Council to put together a list of all the property owners in these areas within a month, and required all property owners in the area to publicly declare their ownership of their properties and gave them a choice of selling their stakes in the property. The decisions of the 'committee of experts' created by the decree were to be 'final and unappealable'."
This decree provided a veneer of legitimacy for plans to redistribute the population along lines favourable to the regime, al-Abdullah said, noting that its true intentions have begun to come to light.
Compensation paid to residents of those areas did not exceed 300,000 Syrian pounds ($1,000), he said, noting that Syrian, Iranian and Lebanese groups and families have since been housed in this area.
The initiative is in essence an effort to "change the composition and demographics of the population by directly changing the existing percentages by religion, sect or ethnicity", al-Abdullah said.
Such plans have serious long-term consequences, he said, which may include renewed conflicts to remove newcomers who took the place of those forced out.