In recent weeks, several leading Republican presidential candidates have argued in favor of selectively sealing U.S. borders to Syrians and others. That—and the discontinuation of any Syrian refugee resettlement programs—they argue, will keep the United States safe from terrorist attacks. Such fantastical and ill-informed suggestions are counterproductive on their own terms, but they also distract from very real and consequential ways in which refugees and migrants are being used as political and military weapons.
All sides in the Syrian civil war have, to some extent, strategically engineered mass movements of civilians into and away from their areas of territorial control. In some cases, the systemic depopulation and repopulation of territory represent attempts to gain tactical military advantage. For example, in early October Amnesty International reported that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish rebel group in Syria, was demolishing homes and displacing entire villages in order to, as Mao would have put it, “drain the sea [the civilians] in which the fish [the enemy] swims.” The PYD is not alone. This kind of engineered migration has long been a tool of warfare, since noncombatants can provide safety, succor, and support and serve as a source of recruits.
Conversely, civilians may also be prohibited from fleeing areas controlled by combatants, in order to shield soldiers and their supporters from military attack. Human Rights Watch reported in early November, for instance, that the rebel group Jaysh al-Islam has been keeping civilian hostages in northern Syria in order to deter attacks by government forces.
In other cases, such demographic reengineering schemes appear to be longer-term bids to maintain or secure postwar control of particular pieces of Syrian real estate, through a strategy I have called “dispossessive engineered migration,” a subset of which is ethnic cleansing. It has been reported, for instance, that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been selectively cleansing neighborhoods under their control and repopulating them with regime allies, some of whom are internally displaced War on the Rocks reported last week, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has routinely used violence to encourage “infidels” to flee their lands and then offered their property and assets to incoming loyalists. This strategy of seizure and appropriation through forced migration, too, has a long and rather sordid history.
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