The locality of al-Zabadani, which is in Damascus countryside province and right on the border with Lebanon, came to global media attention in previous years when reports emerged of a 'Four Towns' deal. As part of this deal, evacuations of insurgents, their families and others from al-Zabadani and Madaya (then under siege) would be carried out in exchange for evacuations of civilians from the Idlib Shi'i villages of al-Fu'a and Kafariya, which were besieged by the insurgents. The deal was widely framed as part of a 'demographic re-engineering' of Syria, in which the Syria-Lebanon border areas would be cleared of Sunnis as per the supposed wishes of the Syrian government and Iran. It was thus speculated that places like al-Zabadani would be resettled with Shi'a.
Such claims though are far removed from the reality. In truth, the issue regarding al-Zabadani is not sect identity but rather whether a person from the locality (i) wishes to live under the Syrian government and (ii) deems it viable to live there. In this regard, issues such as infrastructure damage and damage to homes might prevent people from returning for the time being. Others in exile and associated with support for the opposition and insurgency may not wish to return and live under the Syrian government. However, there is no evidence of a sectarian recolouring of al-Zabadani.
In fact, any sectarian recolouring that has occurred is on the opposition/insurgent side, for once the final evacuations of al-Fu'a and Kafariya were completed in summer 2018, the villages were resettled primarily by Syrian Sunni IDPs (a small minority of the people in those villages are foreign muhajireen), while traces of the villages' original Shi'i identity were removed by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
In the Syrian government areas, people evacuated from al-Fu'a and Kafariya are scattered in a variety of places, including Homs, Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia.
To learn more about the current situation in al-Zabadani, I interviewed a friend from the al-Zabadani. This interview was conducted on 13 August 2019. It is slightly condensed and edited for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: Have most of the original inhabitants returned?
A: Yes and every day the number of people from its original inhabitants is increasing.
Q: How are the electricity and water services?
A: The electricity and water are available in a very good sense and praise be to God.
Q: What are the biggest accomplishments and projects of the municipal office recently?
A: Improving the roads and the government foundations and lighting the streets within the town. And the markets and shops have begun operating in a very good sense and reconstruction is very good.
View of al-Zabadani in the distance by night. Photo from my friend. August 2019.
Q: And have the people of the locality aided the municipal office in implementing these projects? For example financial aid?
A: Yes, all of them according to their capabilities.
Q: What are the main challenges the locality is facing from the realm of services and the humanitarian situation currently?
A: Regarding the locality's situation, the services are improving and there are no difficulties. But some time is needed for the people to mend their houses. And praise be to God, the people have willpower. For example I until now am not able to fix my house because the material capabilities are weak.
The entrance to al-Zabadani by day. Photo from my friend. August 2019.
Q: So the main problem is the damage to houses?
A: Yes the problem is in the damage to houses.
Q: But you are living in your house in al-Zabadani?
A: No not my house. I am living in a house that does not belong to me. My house is in al-Zabadani and I live in al-Ma'moura opposite al-Zabadani.
Q: I see. Most of the IDPs from al-Zabadani are in al-Sham [Damascus] and Lebanon right now?
A: Yes, most of the people are returning from Lebanon and al-Sham. Even if there is just one room in their home, they try to fix it as far as they can. Currently more than half of the people of al-Zabadani have returned to their homes.
Q: We ask God for all of them to return.
A: If God wills, the people will return and al-Zabadani and Syria will return as they were and better by the permission of God.
Q: For the people to return to al-Zabadani, there is no need for special security agreements?
A: There are no agreements. The people have returned as they wish. Even the one who comes from Lebanon comes to his house directly and no one obstructs him.
Q: The security situation is very good under the protection of the National Defence?
A: Praise be to God there is no security disturbance and only the people are present in the town. There are not even any security checkpoints or the like.