Syria’s green buses: Symbol of a seismic shift

Less dramatic than the barrel bombs and less celebrated than the White Helmets but Syria’s green buses are still iconic.

A girl rides a bus to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo
A girl rides a bus to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, December 18, 2016 [Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters]

Both in Astana or Geneva, the Syrian regime and the opposition who’ve attended the talks have failed to talk effectively face-to-face.

This is in contrast to the front lines across the split country, where deals are regularly being brokered. Indeed, some 12,000 opposition fighters and their families started moving out of Al Waer and into rebel-held parts of Aleppo under an arrangement made with the regime in March.

They left in a convoy of nondescript, but now ubiquitous, green buses that have become the final component of a strategy of “starve or surrender” that has characterised much of the conflict to date.

These green buses have played a critical role in the complex population swaps that have been taking place across the country. Six years into the conflict, the contours of the Syria of the future are beginning to emerge with ethnic-sectarian and urban-rural divides ushering in the birth of a very different country.

This will have huge implications for how the conflict ends and what prospect of returning to their homes there is for the 6.5 million internally displaced and the five million or so Syrian refugees.

Put simply, the Syria of the past has gone and the green buses are ushering in the future of a new, fractured entity. While the regime is on the front foot, it is worth remembering that they still only hold some 34 percent of the country’s territory and less than half of its prewar population.

A seismic shift

The significance of the green buses is that they are symbolic of a seismic shift in Syria’s internal population and a strategy of the regime and its allies to consolidate a “loyal” population.

This shift hasn’t happened in one moment, but has rather been a process that has happened steadily over the past six years. Hence, it has neither been fully recognised nor understood in its implications.

Speaking to the Chinese media in March President Bashar al-Assad urged opposition fighters to accept his offer of “reconciliation”.

So, the choice for those living under siege is between surrender – which could see them potentially land in prison or be conscripted into the Syrian army – starvation, a fight to the death, or a green bus transfer to another part of the country and a whole new set of uncertainties and threats

In recent months, Syrians living in a series of towns – including Darayya, Al Hamah, Qudssaya and Moadamiyah – have chosen the latter and left their homes in green buses for the north of the country.

During the final offensive for eastern Aleppo, regime forces dropped leaflets onto opposition-controlled areas that proposed a choice between death or a green bus.

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The Chinese-made buses were reportedly a symbol of modernisation and advancement when they arrived in Syria in 2009, but have now encapsulated the transition of Syrians to a grim present, away from the country of their past and into an uncertain future.

The anger at what they represent, as well as the fragile nature of the population swap deals, saw a convoy of the buses set on fire in Idlib in December, before the dramatic final evacuation of Aleppo itself.

‘Controlling every inch of Syria’

The next major area in the sight of the regime would appear to be East Ghouta where a resident told Syria Direct that “if things keep going as they’ve been going, soon enough those green buses are going to be pulling up to take us to Idlib or Deraa.”

This steady population movement, particularly the concentration in Idlib, has led to real concerns as to the dangers to civilians being boxed in with nowhere to go. A leaked report from the British foreign office expressed fears for some two million civilians being “kettled” in Idlib.

The infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 is rightly referenced as bequeathing a legacy of inappropriate and unstable borders to the region, yet the maps that they produced preferred to imagine territory, not as a singular homogeneous entity, but rather split between areas of direct control and areas of influence.

The regime is remaking the country in a way that allows it to maintain control, despite the war, and, as the Guardian’s Martin Chulov reported earlier in the year, “population swaps are central to a plan to make demographic changes to parts of Syria, realigning the country into zones of influence”.

This realigned country is increasingly taking shape and behind the rhetoric that Assad has repeatedly stated around his ambition to regain control over “every inch” of the country is the reality of how Syria’s green buses are dramatically changing facts on the ground today. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.