War grudges hinder the return of Busra al-Sham Shiites to hometown
Enab Baladi – Daraa
The realities that emerged from the armed conflict during the last decade indicate the emergence of social variables that affected the Syrian demographic identity.
The issue affected the societal fabric, including several ethnic and national components and groups with multiple religious and sectarian beliefs whose demographic features began to take shape before the 2011 revolution.
The Syrian demographic identity is changing within dangerous contexts that threaten the lives and rights of multiple social groups due to population movements as a result of displacement due to complex problems and challenges.
Among the most prominent challenges was the uprooting of certain groups of societal components to which they belonged and the exposure of their properties to confiscation, which leads to the destabilization of the system of social values and family and tribal relations.
In March 2015, the Shabab al-Sunna faction, with the help of the al-Muthanna Movement and al-Nusra Front (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), took control of the entire Busra al-Sham town in southern Daraa governorate after expelling all other armed factions.
During this control, hundreds of families from the Shiite community were displaced from Busra al-Sham, whose opinions loyal to the Syrian regime were clear to the people of the town, which led to the sparking of societal strife of a sectarian nature that resulted in several crimes among the same community component.
The main destination of these displaced families was the regime-controlled areas in Daraa city, As-Suwayda governorate, and the Jaramana suburb near Damascus.
In July 2018, Ahmed al-Awda, the leader of the Shabab al-Sunna, handed out the heavy weapons of his faction due to the Russian-brokered reconciliation settlement with the Syrian regime, while he retained his faction’s medium and light weapons and began to operate under the banner of Eighth Brigade affiliated with the Russian-backed Fifth Corps.
Following the reconciliation deal in 2018, the displaced Shiite families tried to return to Busra al-Sham, after the regime regained control of Daraa in order to restore their real estate properties located mainly in the town and other scattered properties throughout the governorate.
However, the security reality, contrary to what Shiite families expected, did not lead to the regime forces taking full control of the area, and the town of Busra was under full control by the Eighth Brigade, which prevented the recovery of their real property.
After failing in their bid, they resorted to the civil judiciary and filed personal lawsuits, demanding the recovery of their real estate rights.
At the beginning of the 2011 Syrian revolution, the majority of Shiites in Busra al-Sham sided with the Syrian regime and participated in the raids and arrests of demonstrators, and along with the development of security events in Syria, some of them quickly turned to armed militias, which took Busra Castle as their headquarters.
According to what lawyer Assem al-Zoubi said in an interview with Enab Baladi, “The Shiites of Busra, in particular, have stood against the Syrian revolution since the first day, and they have confronted the demonstrators by handing over many of the people of Busra to the security services.
After that, they became involved militarily alongside the regime forces through the formation of a sectarian militia (Brigade 313) in 2013, led by Majed al-Fayyad.”
This formation is still operating in Daraa until now under the name of al-Areen Forces, which is backed by the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
A former leader of the opposition forces based in Daraa said that “Shiite militias began in the early days of the revolution by arresting protesters and handing them over to the security branches” and caused the deaths of hundreds of Busra residents.
These facts, reinforced by the proliferation of indiscriminate weapons, and the absence of legal institutions that are supposed to protect the population, exacerbated crime rates due to the various political trends.
In turn, this led to the disintegration of the single-family at various levels, disturbing the relations that in the past took a pattern of kinship and intermarriage, and the loss of a group of families of the place and the community environment in which they lived, as a result of the experience of displacement they lived through and their sense of geographical dispersal and instability, as is the case with most Syrian societies in various Syrian regions.
Social crises prevented the Shiite residents from returning to their homes inside Busra al-Sham, and accurate information is not available about their percentage among the population at the time. However, some residents are talking about 3,500 Shiites out of about 30,000 people who are Busra al-Sham’s entire population.
Members of the Shiite sect spread in all the regions of Houran, and most of them adopted the principle of neutrality during the last decade, but the involvement of some of them in the southern region’s battles sparked societal sensitivities in Busra al-Sham.
Those social crises associated with the return to real estate ownership, which took on a sectarian character not limited to the city of Daraa, as the Alawites in central Homs city were drawn to the sectarian narrative of the regime, which prompted them to gather around it after it fabricated several sectarian assassinations, which led to the burning of shops belonging to families of the Sunni sect, and dangerous sectarian connotations were present throughout the period of the military escalation in Homs in 2011.
According to the “No Return to Homs” report issued by the Syria Institute with the support of the Pax team in 2013, the Syrian regime has adopted a displacement strategy as a kind of demographic engineering that seeks to permanently manipulate the population census on sectarian grounds in order to empower the authority base.
The scale and nature of forced displacement from places such as Homs or Busra al-Sham in Daraa poses a formidable challenge to future stability in Syria linked to the return of the displaced to their real estate properties.
The Shiite families of Busra al-Sham tried to pressure the Eighth Brigade through their relationship with state security agencies to allow their return, but it was rejected by the local people, according to lawyer al-Zoubi, who warned against resorting to revenge if the families returned.
“After several meetings in the Baath Party branch in Daraa, attended by leaders from the Eighth Brigade, which did not result in the return of any of the families, this matter exacerbated the tensions between the Shiites of Busra and the residents in the area,” the lawyer said.
“The issue is thorny” for the displaced families, according to a member of the Shiite community in Daraa, with whom Enab Baladi spoke, to understand the situation of the families.
“The blame is placed on one party only, which is the most affected party, without looking at the reasons that led to any of these results,” he added.
The man, who spoke to Enab Baladi on condition of anonymity, says that the role of the Syrian regime in fueling any sectarian conflict between the two parties must be taken into consideration if this problem is to be resolved.
“The authority is the first and last responsible for any crimes committed at the time, and the issue of murder is rejected by the vast majority of families. Everyone loses at the end of the problem, and there is no doubt that the loss, unfortunately, afflicted everyone without exception,” he added.
Appeal to the judiciary
Shiite families, whose main concern at the present time is to return to their homes, resorted to courts after the failure of meetings between state agencies and the Eighth Brigade for the families’ return, demanding access to their property.
“The Shiites of Busra certainly possess real estate title deeds where no one can dispute them legally, and if they are able to prove their case before the court, the judgment will be on their side,” the lawyer said.
But their return remains dependent on security factors as “they must make concessions before the residents of Busra al-Sham, the first of which is to stay away from the regime and militias and to ensure that no security breach is made in the city,” according to what the lawyer recommended as part of a tribal settlement that leads to reconciliation between the two parties.
Tribal communities engage in imposing a prevailing custom of resolving disputes between individuals in the absence of legal or state institutions that enforce their legitimate sovereignty for the population’s compliance with established principles.
It often takes a violent character between one community component when the tribe and customs intervene, which can create a gap between the two parties that will be difficult to bridge in the future.
But a poll by Enab Baladi on the Busra al-Sham’s case showed that the matters seem more complicated than this scenario, as some residents believe that “the best solution lies in selling real estate by Shiites to the residents of Busra at the current price at which real estate in the town is sold.”
Contrary to the controversy surrounding the return of the Shiites of Busra al-Sham, the residents of the village of Kharba in the eastern countryside of Daraa, which is administratively affiliated to As-Suwayda governorate, reached an agreement with the Fifth Corps in May 2020, allowing the return of Christian residents to their homes after long years.
The difficulties and challenges of returning the displaced to their hometowns are represented in the lack of a safe and neutral environment, and it applies to all the displaced of different social, sectarian, or political backgrounds.
The challenge of returning to the areas of origin for the displaced becomes more difficult, especially since the entitlement to justice cannot meet its requirements with the presence of an authority in Damascus that does not care to build solid and unified national legal references.
All is accompanied by the absence of effective and integrated mechanisms that defend the interests and rights of all social components in Syria or encourage this option amid the continuing state of waiting, anxiety, and loss that ravages the present and future of the displaced people.
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