On 4 January 2014, the so-called Islamic State in the Levant — Daesh — declared its capture of the city of Fallujah in Iraq. There followed a number of reports about atrocities committed by the new ‘government’ in the city. In early 2016, Iraqi forces aided by the US-led coalition began an offensive to regain control of Fallujah; they declared victory in June last year.
Before the offensive began, widespread messaging encouraged the residents of Fallujah to vacate their homes before the fighting started in earnest; the rationale was to avoid civilian casualties. Thousands heeded the calls. What followed was one of the worst examples of property destruction in the history of modern Iraq, which forced thousands more people to leave the city, adding to the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Many of those who left the city were Sunni Muslims. Even after the dust settled in Fallujah, people remained IDPs; there were no serious attempts to have them resettled. Many are still too afraid to return to what’s left of their homes, fearing retaliation from those now in charge.
The situation was no different in Mosul, also in Iraq. Although the offensive there was fiercer and took longer, it followed almost the same pattern. Like Fallujah, Mosul was predominantly Sunni Muslim, similar messages were sent out before the offensive, thousands left their homes, and more or less the same thousands never returned. Pre-offensive there were already high levels of mistrust between the Sunni residents and the Shia-led Iraqi government. Those who did return continue to live in fear due to the new demographic reality on the ground.
Jroud Arsal is in Lebanon, just a couple of kilometres from the Syrian border, across which there are strong family bonds between the people on both sides; they were, after all, governed by the same entity prior to the European partition of the region a century ago. Its proximity to the border has attracted a number of refugees from Syria into the town, which has inevitably also led to an increase in organised groups against the Syrian government, including Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham.
Since 2014, there have been continual battles between Syrian forces, aided by Hezbollah, and the anti-Syrian forces in Jroud Arsal. Hezbollah acts as a proxy of the Syrian government inside Lebanon, and has been at the forefront of the fighting. Both sides have suffered a high number of casualties over the years but reached a deal recently which resulted in a temporary cessation of hostilities in the town. The ceasefire was confirmed by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV website and the Lebanese National News Agency, which said that the pause was part of a deal brokered by the country’s General Security Agency chief, Major General Abbas Ibrahim. Among the conditions of the agreement is for the fighters of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham and their families to have safe passage to go to Idlib across the border in Syria. Furthermore, any other civilians in Jroud Arsal who wish to leave may do so. The corpses of fighters killed in and around the town will also be exchanged as part of the deal.
Hezbollah has grown in power and might over the years. The war in Syria and the group’s alliances with Iran and Russia have entrenched its political power in the region. As the political opposition in Lebanon, Hezbollah has become the most powerful and organised force in the country; it is stronger than the Lebanese National Army. The demand to hand over the bodies of their fighters demonstrates that power. It sends the message that, “We care about our own, even when they’re dead.” Such an approach has been demonstrated by Israel in demanding its dead soldiers in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners on several occasions.
The developments in Jroud Arsal mirror what happened in Fallujah, Mosul and, indeed, Aleppo. What will happen to the mainly Sunni Muslim civilians of the town when the dust settles? Are they going to be allowed back to their homes? What guarantees are going to be put in place to ensure the safety and security of those civilians who wish to return? Given the examples of Fallujah, Mosul and Aleppo it is almost certain that they will join the growing number of internally displaced persons and refugees in Syria and Lebanon.
In 2015, the province of Idlib was suggested as a possible seat of the Opposition in Syria. Does the expulsion of Sunni fighters and their families have something to do with the realisation of that suggestion or is Idlib a new destination for the final onslaught? The mass, forced displacement of Sunni Muslims to Idlib is beginning to sound more like people being channelled into a slaughter house. All of the signs are pointing toward a systematic ethnic cleansing of the area’s Sunni population.