- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2015

The number of Syrian refugees is actually some 20 percent higher than the 4.2 million cited by the United Nations and is expected to “increase sharply” during the months ahead, according to a new analysis published this week.

The analysis by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy also says “ethnic cleansing” is rampant among various different factions fighting in the nation’s multi-front civil war.

The U.N.’s refugee numbers are inaccurate because more than a million fleeing Syrians have refused to “register for fear of being arrested and taken back to Syria … while many wealthy refugees do not see the point of registering,” according to the analysis, which says a “more realistic estimate of total refugees is 5.3 million.”

The prospect that the figure will soon grow higher is likely to further roil international debates over how to respond to the situation, which already finds European nations under political and humanitarian strain from the current in-flow of refugees.

There are also biting political divisions in Washington, where President Obama has announced his determination to allow U.S. resettlement for at least 10,000 displaced Syrians, despite angry push back from many Republicans, who claim the move is tantamount to allowing in potential terrorists.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) analysis published Thursday claimed that Syria has some 16 million residents currently, and that “more than half” the nation’s people have left their homes since the war began in 2011.

“Large-scale population movements,” the analysis asserted, “represent conscious strategies of ethnic cleansing by each faction” fighting on the ground — from Syrian military forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, to Kurdish militias, to the Islamic State, to various opposition rebel outfits.

“The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war, and ethnic cleansing is an integral part of the strategy used by various actors, even if they claim otherwise,” the analysis said, asserting that a host of upcoming developments will likely worsen the refugee crisis.

The potential push by Kurdish fighters to drive out the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — from a key area along the Syria-Turkey border “could spur hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs to flee,” wrote Fabrice Balanche, a French geographer and visiting fellow at WINEP who authored the analysis.

The Islamic State’s own efforts to ethnically cleanse areas in neighboring Iraq has made headlines over the past year. On Friday, the U.N.’s human rights office announced that it had received reports of 16 mass graves discovered near Sinjar, the northwestern and predominantly Yazidi Iraqi town that was liberated from the the extremist group last month.

Expanded international efforts to eliminate ISIS, meanwhile, are likely to add complexity to the situation by producing an internal Sunni war between certain tribes in Syria that support the terrorist group and other factions, creating further refugee flows, according to the WINEP analysis.

“In Aleppo province alone, escalating hostilities have spurred another 200,000 people to leave their homes in the past two months,” wrote Mr. Balanche, who added that the Assad government is also bent on expelling millions of Sunni Arabs from areas controlled by the Syrian military in order “to make the balance of power more favorable to minorities who support him.”

“[Assad] needs to divide the Sunnis by redistributing land and housing that belonged to refugees, making loyalist Sunnis who remain behind even more beholden to him and pitting them against any who decide to return,” Mr. Balanche wrote.

At the same time, the recent Russian military offense along with the short-term hope for peace have convinced many Syrians living in relatively calm areas to leave as well, he wrote, adding that a new refugee intake plan taking shape in Germany at the moment is likely to inspire more refugees to head toward Europe.

The challenge of resettling displaced people, Mr. Balanche wrote, will be a core strategic problem underpinning any serious international attempt to broker a lasting peaceful resolution to the war.

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