Beyond Ethno-sectarian ‘Cleansing’: The Assortative Logic of Forced Displacement in Syria

By Adam G. Lichtenheld, University of California, Berkeley

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017.

The Syrian war serves as a stark reminder that population displacement is not simply a consequence of armed conflict; it is integral to the strategies, tactics, and practices of combatants. According to the United Nations and other observers,[1] the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies have embarked on a deliberate campaign to uproot civilians through punishing airstrikes, the targeted shelling of civilian infrastructure, besiegement, and forced evacuations. Yet as in other cases where forced displacement has been used as a weapon, in Syria such measures have been largely characterized as ethno-sectarian “cleansing” and attributed to sectarian motivations.[2] This does not adequately capture how civilian flight fits into the logic of violence in the conflict. Unraveling these dynamics is key to better understanding the mechanisms linking wartime violence and displacement, which are often assumed rather than interrogated.

In this memo, I outline a working theory of how armed groups use displacement as a mechanism for sorting and capturing the civilian population. Triggering displacement makes people “vote with their feet”[3] and send costly and highly visible signals of allegiance or obedience based on whether – and to where – they flee. Moreover, it renders those who relocate within an armed group’s purview “legible,” enabling political and military actors to extract intelligence, economic rents, and recruits from a larger segment of the populace, while signaling legitimacy to domestic and international audiences. I provide empirical examples from Syria, drawing from media reports, human rights records, and interviews with activists, journalists, and combatants. While the conflict has unleashed a massive number of refugees, as is typical of civil wars, far more civilians have been uprooted within Syria as internally displaced persons (IDPs).[4] This is important for understanding displacement’s strategic and tactical benefits. I conclude by discussing the implications of this research, which point to the risk of “moral hazard” and the strategic imperatives of IDP protection and asylum.

Existing Explanations

The literature on ethnic cleansing suggests that political actors displace civilians to remove “undesirable” social groups and create homogenous territories.[5] I build on recent research in counterinsurgency, which argues that orchestrating forced displacement is a strategic response to information problems.[6] Winning civil wars hinges on the support of the local population. Armed groups therefore seek to reward collaboration and deter defection, which requires distinguishing combatants from noncombatants and gathering information about civilian loyalties – a particular challenge for counterinsurgents, since rebels tend to adopt guerilla tactics.[7]

Previous studies have therefore argued that when counterinsurgents are unable to resolve information problems, they resort to depopulation to remove potential insurgent supporters.[8] Yet, like theories of ethnic cleansing, this fails to account for the specificity of displacement: why not kill civilians, instead of uprooting them, to “drain the sea”[9] or cleanse a territory? Moreover, these theories imply that armed actors have determined ex ante who is an combatant and who is a civilian, or who is “desirable” and “undesirable.” I argue that displacement is attractive because it offers a way to make these distinctions ex post. In other words, combatants uproot civilians not only to expel “undesirable” populations, but also to identify the undesirables in the first place. This improves the accessibility and “legibility”[10] of the local population, offering both extractive and propaganda benefits. I explain each component of my theory below.

‘Sorting’ and the Signaling Effects of Wartime Displacement

Various studies indicate that people’s decisions to flee in the midst of violence are a function of both incentives – such as security or livelihoods[11] – and preferences.[12] By creating overwhelming incentives to flee, armed groups can use displacement patterns to draw inferences about civilian identities and preferences. Whether people flee, and where they go, can provide costly (and thus credible) and easily observable signals of affiliation and allegiance.[13] Once uprooted, civilians are forced in essence to “pick a side” by settling in one group’s territory or physically “defecting” to its opponent. This is where being an IDP and remaining in the country (and thus, the battlefield) versus exiting as a refugee becomes particularly consequential.

To be clear: I am not claiming that people’s movements actually reflect their preferences. I am focusing instead on how these movements are interpreted by others. For combatants and authorities looking for informational shortcuts, these processes provide an efficient and highly visible, if crude, means of sorting the population. This logic can explain why in many 20th century conflicts, “civilians who did not flee combat areas were considered suspect and often killed by warring parties.”[14] When the Islamic State seized parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, many IDPs who fled immediately were accepted by authorities in areas where they sought sanctuary. But those who remained in Islamic State territory and fled later have been denied access to both regime- and rebel-held Syria,[15] and to government and Kurdish parts of Iraq,[16] on suspicion of being potential collaborators. After Falluja was liberated from the Islamic State last year, the first civilians allowed to return were those who fled the city immediately in 2014.[17]

‘Capturing’ the Population

Displacement therefore enables political actors to sort the population based on loyalty, through both the process of displacement itself and by allowing for population capture. The relocation of IDPs within an armed group’s purview provides propaganda fodder (by cultivating images of sanctuary) while rendering new arrivals more accessible and “legible.” This offers an opportunity to further screen IDPs for opposition ties, persuade them to join the cause, and gather intelligence from them on the capabilities and operations of rival factions. Moreover, the idleness and uncertainty that displacement engenders facilitates civilian recruitment into a group’s military ranks and labor pool, serving its extractive needs. Under this logic, displacement is therefore a response to information and resource problems. By acting as a force multiplier, it can serve not only to demobilize civilians – as is commonly assumed – but also to mobilize them.

Ethnic cleansing theories have empirical implications regarding the target of displacement (specific identity groups), the form it should take (expulsion) and the results (ethno-sectarian homogenization). My theory suggests that targeting should be more indiscriminate, civilians should be treated differently based on their movements, not just their identities; and a level of social heterogeneity should be maintained. Finally, perpetrators should not only create push factors to drive people out; they should also use pull factors to bring people to their territories.

Evidence from Syria

In Syria, some displacement caused by direct or “face-to-face” violence[18] appears consistent with ethno-sectarian cleansing. This includes the depopulation of Sunni coastal enclaves in 2011 and 2012 and the razing of non-Alawite neighborhoods in Damascus.[19] Syrian Kurdish forces have evicted Arabs from territories seized from the Islamic State,[20] which has itself systematically expelled minorities. But broader dynamics challenge the notion that displacement has been intended solely, or even primarily, to achieve demographic change.

The bulk of displacement during the conflict has been triggered by the regime’s use of indirect violence, such as barrel bombs and airstrikes, which has been widespread and often indiscriminate. Syrian and Russian air forces have hit a range of rebel-held locations beyond the most contested or vital strongholds, including many “where there were no reported clashes that day, suggesting that the airstrikes were not in tactical support of Syrian Army units fighting rebels.”[21] Even places considered less strategic for the regime – such as the Hama countryside or eastern provinces like Deir ez-Zor – have not been immune from attack.

The fact that rebel-held areas are overwhelmingly Sunni is often used as evidence that forcing the population to flee through these tactics amounts to sectarian cleansing by Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. But most IDPs from opposition territories have fled to government zones.[22] Early in the conflict, many were welcomed and even “considered regime supporters.”[23] These included Sunnis, who remain the majority in areas controlled by the regime[24] and fixtures of the country’s economy and security apparatus. According to one regime defector, “the government views all IDPs who choose to live in opposition areas as anti-regime, and those who choose to live in its territory as loyal.”[25] Assad himself voiced this sentiment in a BBC interview: “In most areas where the rebels took over, the civilians fled and came to our areas, so in most of the areas that we encircle and attack [there] are only militants.”[26]

As the war has worn on, IDPs who spent longer living under the opposition have been viewed with greater suspicion and investigated when they “defect” to regime territory. Some have even been turned away. But as part of evacuations that followed brutal government sieges in Daraya, Moadamiya, Zabadani, Homs and most recently, Aleppo City, most residents were still given a choice of destination: rebel-held Idlib Province, or regime-controlled areas nearby. According to reports and interviews with activists and fighters, people who elected regime areas have been held in government shelters, where they are screened for rebel ties and provided aid by humanitarian agencies or the Russian military.[27] Some are arrested and others forcibly recruited into the armed forces.[28] Those who pass background checks and sign loyalty oaths are permitted to go home. Thus far in Homs, for example, the only IDPs reportedly allowed to return have been those who fled to regime areas.[29] Evacuating to Idlib, meanwhile, amounts to an act of defiance or, for those wanted by the regime, an admission of guilt. It also concentrates disloyalists in a specific area where they can be easily targeted: as explained by the defector, “think of a dumpster where you gather garbage to finally burn it.”[30]

The strategic benefits of uprooting civilians therefore goes beyond draining restive towns of its residents. Were expulsion the ultimate objective of the Syrian government, its approach to IDPs would look similar to the Syrian Kurds: it would refuse to accept them. But the regime has employed several methods to entice people to its territories, where many residents have benefitted from its patronage. The Syrian army has inundated civilians in Homs, Aleppo, and other contested areas with text messages announcing relief distributions and leaflets providing detailed instructions and “passes” for entry into regime territory.[31] The Syrian state has operated collective relief centers and ensured that a disproportionate amount of international aid goes to areas it controls, since food availability has been a key attraction for IDPs.[32] Civil servants living under the opposition have continued to receive government paychecks, which often requires traveling to regime areas. IDPs also provide the regime with propaganda fodder. Visits to IDP shelters by state officials, including Assad, have been used to showcase the number of people seeking sanctuary from “terrorism” and receiving assistance from the government, an attempt to legitimize the regime to both domestic and international audiences.[33]

Some of these dynamics are not surprising, but luring people back to the state stems from extractive needs, not just punitive ones. Subjecting IDPs to background checks and interrogation helps the regime gather intelligence on the locations, tactics, and capabilities of the opposition. Its forces have conscripted male IDPs to serve as fighters or spies.[34] Civilians displaced to the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia have offered capital and labor to the local economy, leading the government to facilitate the entry of IDPs from Aleppo into the labor market.[35] The Peace Research Institute in Oslo further describes how the regime benefits from IDPs:

“In areas under its control, the regime’s administrative apparatus – while weakened – retains its capacity to register the displaced…Assad’s regime clearly sees those displaced to areas under its control as part of the pool of people from which it can recruit. The displaced…are more dependent on humanitarian aid than anybody, and clearly, receiving aid is followed by an expectation to support the cause….”[36]

Fleeing to government areas may be motivated by expediency and survival more than political preference. But it still amounts to a symbolic act of obedience to a regime that built its authority on outward signs of passive compliance from citizens instead of by cultivating “true believers”; what Lisa Wedeen calls the politics of “as if.”[37]


Since coverage of the Syrian conflict is limited and not without bias, the evidence presented above should be met with skepticism. But it suggests that the regime’s displacement tactics (1) are motivated more by political concerns over loyalty than demographic concerns regarding sect, and (2) are consistent with a campaign to sort, capture, and convert the civilian population into compliant, useful assets – not just to expel it. This is not intended to overlook the war’s sectarian dynamics or how foreign militias have exploited displacement by moving their families into depopulated neighborhood.[38] But displacement has served a broader function in Syria than demographic change.

The assortative logic of uprooting civilians can enhance our understanding of how population displacement is instrumentalized in civil wars, and offers a plausible mechanism for explaining the use of indiscriminate violence more broadly. But two questions linger. First, while I have sketched out ways to identify when these logics are at play, they are not inevitable and do not explain every case. So under what conditions do they emerge? Likely when state actors – which tend to face informational disadvantages and countrywide force commitments – become overstretched and unable to detect civilian loyalties through other means. In Syria, it appears that only when the regime began to confront multiple battlefronts, a lack of manpower, and the deterioration of a once-robust intelligence network (the mukhabarat), did it begin to orchestrate civilian flight as a way to overcome information and resource problems without having to occupy opposition areas.

The second question pertains to intentionality: whether the benefits of displacement that I have described are fully anticipated by combatants, and at what level of command. The principle-agent problem is particularly acute in Syria, where the regime is not a unitary actor but a loose coalition of army units, locally hired thugs, Iranian-backed foreign militias, and members of the Russian military. I suspect that my theory applies to displacement caused by indirect violence inflicted by Syrian and Russian forces, but not to the practices of allied Shiite militias, which have narrower objectives and are more overtly sectarian in character. At the tactical level, even arbitrary airstrikes can be part of a larger strategy to dislodge and disaggregate the population, particularly if the arbitrariness is part of what incentivizes people to flee or influences where they go.

These questions underscore the need to better document and compare different strategies and tactics of forced displacement, their distinct motivations, the conditions that give rise to them, and their consequences. This is important for holding perpetrators accountable and has implications for policy efforts to manage and mitigate wartime displacement. A consequence of international actors’ willingness to intervene on behalf of displaced populations is that aid agencies could provide perverse incentives for combatants to uproot civilians. The Syrian regime is incapable of providing relief to IDPs without external assistance, and internal UN documents suggest that food aid, by attracting civilians to government areas, has played into its strategy.[39] This would not be the first case of humanitarian actors enabling military policies of civilian displacement.[40]

Such measures also highlight the strategic imperative for humanitarian corridors and more generous asylum policies. Efforts by Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to tighten their borders have forced uprooted Syrians to choose between regime areas, territories ruled by the Islamic State, and vulnerable IDP camps in Idlib and Aleppo, which factions like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have targeted for recruitment. This makes improving exit options of political, and not just humanitarian, import because it would deprive armed groups of vulnerable recruits while undercutting the regime’s efforts to use IDPs as a propaganda tool. During the Cold War, refugees from the Soviet bloc were prized political assets whose “very presence exposed the faults of communist systems and the comparative merits of the West.[41] Something similar could be said today of Syrians fleeing ruthless authoritarianism or violent extremism. Yet the international response to Syria’s displaced seems predicated on humanitarian impulses – with scant discussion of the strategic benefits of asylum and refugee resettlement.

Adam G. Lichtenheld is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).   


[1] United Nations General Assembly, “Protection and assistance to internally displaced persons: situation of internally displaced persons in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Geneva, Switzerland: A/67/931, 15 July 2013; Hosam Al-Jablawi, “Increasing Tactics of Forced Displacement in Syria,” The Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.: 6 October 2016:

[2] See, for example, Fabrice Balanche, “Ethnic Cleansing Threatens Syria’s Unity,” Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy (3 December 2015),; “‘Ethnic Cleansing on an unprecedented scale’: Rebels, UN criticize Assad tactics,” Middle East Eye, 3 September 2016,, Naame Shaam, Silent Sectarian Cleansing, May 2015,

[3] Charles M. Tiebout, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,” Journal of Political Economy (1956); Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1970).

[4] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), “Syria IDP Figures Analysis,” available online:

[5] See Carrie B. Walling, “The History and Politics of Ethnic Cleansing,” International Journal of Human Rights, 4, 3-4 (2000): 47-66; Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge (2005).

[6] Steele, Abbey. 2011. “Electing Displacement: Political Cleansing in Apartadó, Colombia.” Journal of Conflict Resolution. 55, 3: 423-445; Yuri Zhukov, “Population Resettlement in War: Theory and Evidence from Soviet Archives,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (2014): 1-31.

[7] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Cambridge University Press (2006).

[8] To use Mao’s famous dictum, the objective is to “drain the sea to kill the fish.” See Steele (2011); Yuri Zhukov, “Population Resettlement in War: Theory and Evidence from Soviet Archives,” Journal of Conflict Resolution (2014): 1-31; Laia Balcells and Abbey Steele. “Warfare, Political Identities, and Displacement in Spain and Colombia,” Political Geography, 51 (2016): 15-29.

[9] Indeed, this same logic has been used to explain mass killing. See Benjamin Valentino, Paul Huth, and Dylan Balch-Lindsay, “Draining the Sea”: Mass Killing and Guerrilla Warfare,” International Organization, 58, 2 (2004): 375-407).

[10] James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press (1998).

[11] See Ana María Ibáñez and Carlos Eduardo Vélez, “Civil Conflict and Forced Migration: The Micro Determinants and Welfare Losses of Displacement in Columbia, World Development 36, 4 (2008): 659–76; Mathias Czaika and Krisztina Kis-Katos, “Civil Conflict and Displacement: Village-Level Determinants of Forced Migration in Aceh,” Journal of Peace Research 46, 3 (2009): 399–418; Ana María Ibáñez, Pratikshya Bohra-Mishra, and Douglas S. Massey, “Individual Decisions to Migrate during Civil Conflict,” Demography, 48, 2 (2011): 401-424; Nathalie E. Williams, Mixed and Complex Mixed Migration during Armed Conflict: Multidimensional Empirical Evidence from Nepal,” International Journal of Sociology 45, 1 (2015): 44-63.

[12] Steele (2009) and Steele & Balcells (2016) find that IDPs in Colombia and Spain fled to places with a greater density of people who share their political identity.

[13] James D. Fearon, “Domestic political audiences and the escalation of international disputes,” American Political Science Review 88, 3 (1994): 577-92; “Rationalist explanations for war,” International Organization, 49, 3 (1995): 379-414; James D. Morrow, “The strategic setting of choices: signaling, commitment, and negotiation in international politics,” Strategic Choice and International Relations (1999): 77-114.

[14] Jennifer Leaning, “Enforced displacement of civilian populations in war: a potential new element in crimes against humanity,” International Criminal Law Review 11, 3 (2011): 447.

[15] Haid Haid, “Internally displaced Syrians facing new challenges,” 14 June 2016,

[16] Christian Science Monitor, “Aid to Sunni Arabs in Kurdistan comes with a side of suspicion,” 14 August 2014,; Cyrus Malik, “Washington’s Sunni Myth and the Civil Wars in Iraq and Syria,” War on the Rocks, 16 August 2016,

[17] The Washington Post, “Iraq allows families back to Fallujah for the first time, but just a handful make it,” 17 September 2016,

[18] Laia Balcells, “Continuation of politics by two means: Direct and indirect violence in civil war,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 55, 3 (2011): 397-422. For examples from Syria, see Human Rights Watch, In Cold Blood: Summary Executions by Syrian Security Forces and Pro-Government Militias, Washington, D.C.: 6 April 2012,

[19] See Human Rights Watch, “Syria: Mass Executions by Government Forces,” 13 September 2013,; Joseph Holliday, The Assad Regime: From Counterinsurgency to Civil War, Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Middle East Security Report 8, March 2013, and The Struggle for Syria in 2011, ISW Middle East Security Report 2, December 2011: Ghaith Al-Ahmad, Demographic Change: Assad’s Guarantee for an Alawite Quasi-state,” Washington, D.C.: The Atlantic Council, 6 April 2016,

[20] Amnesty International, We had nowhere else to go’: Forced displacement and demolitions in northern Syria, London: 13 October 2015, available online:

[21] Holliday 2013: 23.

[22] Stars and Stripes, “Vast majority of internally displaced Syrians chose government side, officials say,” 10 June 2016,

[23] Al Monitor, “Syrian coast attracts Aleppans displaced by war,” 14 June 2014,

[24] See Balanche 2015.

[25] Author interview, Istanbul, Turkey, 20 December 2016.

[26] “President al-Assad to BBC news: We are defending civilians, and making dialogue,” SANA, transcript of BBC interview, 10 February 2016,

[27] Benedetta Argentieri, “After the Syrian Regime Recaptures a Neighborhood, the Reconciliation Begins,” 3 January 2017,; Author interview with Syrian activist, Istanbul, Turkey, 4 January 2017.

[28] Most are not arrested. For example, between November and December 2016, between 50,000 to 100,000 IDPs reportedly fled from rebel-held Eastern Aleppo to government-run Western Aleppo. Around 2,000 people were reportedly arrested. See Atlantic Council, Breaking Aleppo, Washington, D.C.: February 2017,;

[29] Author interview with Syrian journalist, Istanbul, Turkey, 11 January 2017.

[30] Author interview, Istanbul, Turkey, 20 December 2016.

[31] Syria HR, “Regime Drops Leaflets in Idlib,” 12 October 2015,; [31] Al Jazeera, “Warning notes raining over Eastern Ghouta,” 10 January 2016,

[32] Jose Ciro Martinez and Brent Eng, “Assad’s Bread Problem,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 3 February 2015,

[33] Voice of America, “Assad Visits Displaced Syrians Outside Damascus,” 12 March 2014, available online:

[34] Amnesty International, Death Everywhere, 14 May 2015,; UNOHCHR, “Briefing Notes: Syria,” 9 December 2016,

[35] Al Monitor, “Syrian coast attracts Aleppans displaced by war” (2014).

[36] Kristian Berg Harpviken and Benjamin Onne Yogev, “Syria’s Internally Displaced and the Risk of Militarization,” Oslo: Peace Research Institute (PRIO) Policy Brief, 6/2016.

[37] Lisa Wedeen, “Acting “as if”: symbolic politics and social control in Syria,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 40, 3 (1998): 503-23.

[38] Guardian (U.K.), “Iran repopulates Syria with Shia Muslims to help tighten regime’s control,” 13 January 2017,

[39] John Hudson, “Exclusive: U.N. Docs Expose Assad’s Starvation Campaign in Syria,” Foreign Policy, 17 April 2014,

[40] Adam Branch, “Against humanitarian impunity: rethinking responsibility for displacement and disaster in Northern Uganda,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 2, 2 (2008): 151-173.

[41] Adam Roberts, “Refugees and Military Intervention,” in Alexander Betts & Gil Loescher (eds.), Refugees in International Relations, Oxford University Press (2011): 215.