Lies from dodgy sources peddled by Western msm stenographers, aka Middle East correspondents, are an integral part of selling the US-led regime-change operation in Syria. One of the worst offenders is the Guardian's Martin Chulov (formerly of Murdoch's Australian).
Chulov's signature contribution to these lies is the allegation that Damascus and Tehran are involved in a deliberate process of sectarian cleansing in Syria.* In his latest piece, Iran repopulates Syria with Shia Muslims to help tighten regime's control (13/1/17), Chulov asserts that the Iranians are repopulating areas from which Sunni Syrians have fled with Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites.
Were this true, it would indeed be a disturbing development. The Angry Arab News Service provides us with the following corrective "from a journalist working in Syria":
"Chulov's article is very problematic. Its allegations are false and its methodology is flawed. You cannot write an article making such allegations from Lebanon without collecting evidence empirically, without field visits etc, and you cannot write such an article by relying purely on pro-insurgent sources, or even sources who are insurgent officials.
"There are no population swaps in Syria. Iran has no project to alter the social landscape in Syria. That's not why it's in Syria. Iran seeks to support the Assad government for a variety of reasons, but not out of a sectarian project. It would say that Assad is their only reliable partner and is part of the resistance axis; that if he fell, then the whole system would collapse; that if they tried to replace him, then his replacement would sell them out to the Saudis or the Americans; that there is a salafi/wahhabi/takfiri threat coming from Syria which threatens the region, and that they want to stop it in Syria.
"Shias are 1% of Syria's population. Iran works with Sunni militias in Aleppo. These are things you don't know if you report on Syria remotely.
"Chulov says that: 'Russia, in an alliance with Turkey, is using a nominal ceasefire to push for a political consensus between the Assad regime and the exiled opposition.' No. In fact, the exiled opposition seems not to be invited to the talks, only insurgent groups, and it's not so much to reach a political consensus as to impose a new order. Chulov makes a string of baseless assertions and then quotes 'one senior Lebanese leader ' [as saying that 'Iran and the regime don't want any Sunnis between Damascus and Homs and the Lebanese border... Key for Iran are the rebel-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya.']
"Hizballah actually works with Sunni militias in the area between Damascus and Homs. There are senior security officials in Damascus who are Sunnis from the region between Damascus and Homs. Zabadani and Madaya are not key for Iran for the reasons Chulov alleges. First, those two towns are key to Hizballah more than Iran, and this is because Hizballah saw itself as pursuing a Lebanese homeland security strategy which required protecting Lebanon from the car bombs entering it from Western Syria and securing the towns on the border. But once Zabadani and Madaya were surrounded and neutralized as threats (there was a Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham presence there as well as a small ISIS presence) they realized they had a bargaining chip.
"Two Shia towns in Idlib (Fua and Kfarya) have been surrounded and tightly besieged since 2015, with supplies occasionally dropped by air while they were shelled and sniped at by insurgents in adjacent towns. Many of Syria's 230,000 Shia have joined the local branch of Hizballah, and they were furious that their brethren were besieged. This was an issue for Iran, and Iranian officials mentioned the potential 'genocide' in Fua and Kfarya every chance they got. They were obsessed with it. They therefore negotiated a deal in Turkey with Ahrar al-Sham that did NOT involve population exchanges but was still an ugly precedent. On one side, largely Shia forces held two Sunni towns hostage. On the other, Sunni forces held two Shia towns hostage. In Idlib, local factions were also profiting from selling supplies to Fua and Kfarya at very high rates. Anyway, the deal was not an exchange of people, but if a loaf of bread goes into Zabadani, then a loaf has to go into Fua, and if ten bandages go into Madaya, then ten have to go into the two Shia towns in Idlib [province]. And if a sick or wounded person is evacuated from one of the two Sunni towns, then the same thing must take place in the two Shia towns.
"The Syrian government was unhappy about the sectarian nature of this arrangement, and it has not been repeated. But the government would not accept sectarian population exchanges, and no Shias want to go and live in Zabadani and Madaya anyway. When Shias are displaced in Syria, they move into other Shia towns or neighborhoods, or with friends or relatives. The deals that have involved the evacuation of insurgents and their families have been mischaracterized in the media. They are not forced to go to insurgent-held areas in the north such as Idlib. They are given an option by the government forces, either stay and renounce the insurgency or leave to insurgent-held areas in the north, and in most towns where such deals have taken place we actually see an increase in the population because conditions improve and displaced people return. The UN in Syria has not recorded any population exchanges taking place and no outsiders have been imported to live in other peoples' homes. Chulov accepts without any skepticism the statements of an Ahrar al-Sham official based in Turkey who represents a salafi, jihadist, overtly sectarian group. He does not ask for evidence, he just repeats the claims.
"Chulov refers to Wadi Barada and the ongoing fighting there. Hizballah barely has a presence there and acts like special forces supporting the Syrian army's Republican Guard, which is fighting to regain control of the water supply to Damascus which was held by insurgents. In fact, quite a few senior government officials are from Wadi Barada, including the head of the Baath Party and security committee for the rif dimashq province, which reminds me that the governor of Aleppo, a former security officer himself, is from Zabadani.
"Chulov also repeats the lie that Iraqi Shia families have moved into Daraya. They have not. They would not be allowed to anyway, and nobody is moving in because the government is rehabilitating it and has asked international NGOs for help in doing so in order to return the displaced from Daraya. Chulov did not visit Daraya. He did not speak with people in Damascus. He did not ask UN or other NGO officials, he merely repeated opposition claims. Syrian state media did not announce that the Iraqis had arrived at all. There was a destroyed Shia shrine there and some Shia visited it, and from that opposition media sources crafted a story. I'd love to know why an Iraqi Shia would want to move into a bombed-out, abandoned neighborhood with no services, even if the Syrian government would allow such a thing - which they wouldn't. Reporting on Syria requires no standards at all it seems.
"Likewise, the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus] is not a security zone controlled by Iranian proxies. Chulov, who has not been there, is relying on an insurgent, who also has not been there, to repeat an absurd claim. I was there a week ago. The Umayyad Mosque is in the same situation it was before the conflict, and in the hands of the same forces responsible for securing it before the conflict, the normal Syrian security forces, and anyone can visit it just as before, and there is no Shia plan for it. In fact, if Damascenes even thought there was such a plan they would go crazy and demand that Assad halt such a plan. The Syrian regime has always been very sensitive to the concerns of the Damascene conservative class, and that's why this class has remained loyal.
"There has not been a 'systematic torching of Land Registry offices in areas recaptured on behalf of the regime.' This is without evidence, and in a system as obsessed with paperwork and security as the Syrian one, it would be unthinkable, and most senior officials are Sunni as are most state employees, and they often come from insurgent-held areas - the idea doesn't make any sense. Likewise it is not true that most residents of Zabadani have gone to Idlib. Only a fraction went there because they did not accept the deal. The rest are displaced in the area around it, in Damascus or outside of Syria.
"It often seems like all standards have been abandoned when it comes to writing on Syria." (On Martin Chulov of the Guardian (he is competing with Liz Sly for being the worst correspondent in Beirut), 26/1/17)
[*See also Martin Chulov & The Guardian: at the forefront of Balkanising Syria, Phil Greaves, northernmsmdotcom.wordpress.com, 23/7/13.]