No Return to Homs: A case study on demographic engineering in Syria

The Syria Institute and PAX published a new report today entitled: “No Return to Homs: A case study on demographic engineering in Syria.” No Return to Homs explores the mechanisms and impacts of state-directed population displacement in Syria through a case study of Homs city, which in 2014 became the first major urban center to succumb to the government’s siege and destroy strategy. Former residents of Homs city were interviewed to understand how the state-directed population displacement strategy was carried out in Homs city, and how it impacts the future of that city today. The ‘Homs model’ has served as a blueprint for the destruction and depopulation of other key locations such as Darayya in Rural Damascus and Eastern Aleppo today.

Between 2012 and 2014, the Syrian military and affiliated militias systematically displaced more than half of the population in Homs city. Their tactics included: detention, torture, rape, massacres, full-scale military assault with ground and air assets, siege, and the targeted destruction of civilian infrastructure. Displaced residents of Homs continued to face persecution even after their initial displacement and many are still trapped under siege in other parts of the governorate. Interviewees identified a long list of physical and administrative barriers created by the Syrian government that prevent them from returning to their homes. As a result, they are effectively excluded from rebuilding efforts undertaken by the Syrian government in cooperation with UN agencies with the support of foreign donor states.

This report shows that the government’s displacement strategy in Homs city is a form of demographic engineering, which seeks to permanently manipulate the population along sectarian lines in order to consolidate the government’s power base. Under these conditions, international support for government efforts to rebuild the Homs neighborhoods that it intentionally destroyed and depopulated may serve to incentivize similar atrocities elsewhere by paying the government “war crimes dividends,” instead of holding it accountable.

The scale, scope, and nature of forced displacements from places like Homs city present a formidable challenge to future stability in Syria. National reconciliation will be unable to move forward without addressing complex issues of repatriation and property rights. Premature rebuilding efforts in places like Homs city that fail to account for the displaced may reinforce injustices, deepen sectarian schisms, and create new grievances that will undermine progress towards a solution and lay the groundwork for future conflict.

“No Return to Homs” was a joint effort of The Syria Institute and PAX, a Dutch peace building NGO.

Download the PDF here.