Analysts and followers of the Syrian tragedy unanimously agree that the Syria we knew at the onset of the uprisings one and a half years ago has undergone a radical transformation. The current regime headed by Bashar Al-Assad has monopolized all power in Syria. At their starkest, the divisions that once characterized Syrian society were of an urban–rural nature, and this dichotomy was just one aspect of the rich diversity that has typified Syria throughout its long history. In principle, never has a political entity been formed in Syria along purely sectarian or ethnic lines.
In light of the Syrian opposition’s most recent conference regarding how to best rebuild the country in the post-Assad era, it is important to map Syria’s emerging sectarian and tribal/ethnic schisms onto the backdrop of the country’s possible fragmentation. This reassessment of the demographic reality in Syria has been made all the more necessary following recent reports that a staggering 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced or become refugees, while another 3 million Syrians have fled abroad.
Muslims are the majority population within Syria, with the most reliable estimates stating that Sunnis amount to more than 74 percent of the total population. Within the Muslim community the next largest subgroups are the Shi’a Alawites at 11 percent, the Druze at 3 percent, the Twelver Shi’ites at 1 percent, the Ismaili Shi’ites at 0.5 percent, and other subsets, including the Zaydis, who amount to 0.5 percent of the population. The country is also home to a small Christian minority and an even smaller Jewish community, with the latter having all but disappeared over the past decades. When all of the non-Sunni Muslim minority groups are combined together, they comprise 16 percent of the Syrian population.
Sunni Muslims are widely distributed throughout Syria’s countryside and cities and include Bedouin, urban-dwelling and peasant Arabs, as well as non-Arabs. Kurds, Turkmen, Circassians, Chechens, Bosnians and Albanians are the main groups in the non-Arab Sunni population.
Statistics reveal that growth rates among the Alawites, Christians, and Druze are relatively low, and that there are high rates of emigration among Druze and Christians, factors which both contribute to solidifying the Sunnis hold on majority status. Demographic surveys conducted in 2004 revealed that the rate of population growth stood at about 1.8 percent in the three provinces with non-Sunni majorities, while provinces that host an overwhelming Sunni majority—such as Deir Ezzor, Idlib and Dara’a—have an average population growth rate of around 3 percent.
The Sunni Muslims: The overwhelming economic and demographic power
It may be said that the Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in all the provinces of Syria. There are two exceptions: As-Suwayda, in the country’s far south, where the Druze are in the majority and are complemented by Christian and Sunni minorities, and the two coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus in the country’s northwest, where the Alawites are estimated to comprise more than 80 percent of the rural population. Sunni Muslims did form the overwhelming majority in the four coastal cities of Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas and Jableh in the past, but these cities’ rapid growth and the increasing pace of urbanization—especially among rural Alawites—has significantly decreased their majority presence as the Alawite community continues to expand.
Traditionally, Syrian Sunni Muslims have enjoyed an elevated political and economic standing, particularly in the historic cities of Damascus and Aleppo. These two cities host ancient marketplaces rife with merchants and craftsmen, and caravan routes that played a monumental role in the development of commerce and industry have passed through the gates of these two cities since the dawn of history. Homs and Hama were also prominent stops on the caravan routes and were centers of agricultural production; the port cities of Latakia and Tartus have also been important historically. These centuries-old economic centers of Syria host large Sunni communities to this day. Until World War II, the feudal lords of these cities and the surrounding environs were Sunni Muslims. Sunnis from Damascus owned vast stretches of fertile lands in the Golan Heights, Homs, Hama, Idlib, and the coastal region. The Sunnis of Aleppo likewise held vast territory in the large rural areas surrounding Aleppo, which were divided into two provinces, Aleppo and Idlib, a few decades ago.
However, the ongoing fighting in Syria has greatly impacted the demographics of a number of Sunni areas, especially in the city of Homs, most of which was destroyed, and in several neighborhoods in Aleppo, which has lost many of its factories and commercial facilities. The outskirts of Damascus and the rural provinces of Hama, Idlib and Dera’a have suffered large demographic losses. The fighting has also forced residents many smaller cities to flee their homes. In addition, massacres targeting Sunni villages have terrorized the coastal region, in tragedies including the Bayda Massacre.
From an ethno-linguistic viewpoint, it can be said that the non-Arab Sunnis have invariably integrated into Syria’s social fabric and are widely dispersed geographically. Many of these ethnic minority peoples, including Kurds and Turkmen, have adopted entirely “Arab” lifestyles, especially in the major cities. Other groups have retained more of their ethnic and linguistic heritage, but they too identify with their Arab environment and consider themselves part and parcel of a unified Syria. However, there are a number of separatist Sunnis from non-Arab backgrounds who are agitating for independence, the most prominent of which are perhaps some Kurdish groups living in the northern areas of the provinces of Al-Hasakah, Raqqa and Aleppo. Some of these groups even maintain militias in hopes of carving out an independent state for themselves, and occasionally enter into confrontations with militant Islamist groups.
The Alawites, also referred to as Nusayris, are the largest non-Sunni sect in Syria and are estimated to number approximately 600,000 people. Historical sources indicate that Shi’a Islam took root in several places in Syria, in particular in the country’s north, where the ancient Hamdani and Mirdasi states established Aleppo as their capital. Generally, relations between the various Shi’a communities in the Levant have not been harmonious, contrary to claims of some contemporary figures who call for a united bloc of Shi’a Islam that will stand against the Sunnis, and in which the main branch, the Twelvers, and the esoteric branches reconcile their differences.
While a sizeable percentage of Syria’s many assimilated non-Arab residents are Sunni Muslims, the vast majority of Alawites and Druze are of Arab descent.
Alawite populations stretch along the Mediterranean coast from northern Lebanon into southern Turkey. To the east of the coastal mountains that run through Latakia and Tartus in Syria, the Alawites live in western Hama as well as in several areas in Homs. They lived historically in mostly rural settings; however, the second half of the 20th century witnessed a steady increase in the presence of Alawites in major cities, especially in the coastal cities of Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas, and Jableh. They have also a strong presence in the Syrian capital, Damascus, where all of the institutional power is based, and in Aleppo, which is the economic capital of Syria, and as well as in Homs. Over time, certain neighborhoods in these cities have been transformed into Alawite neighborhoods, like the Damascus neighborhoods of Woroud and “Area 86.”
During the current uprising, the Alawite neighborhoods in big cities like Homs were spared the wrath of the regime’s forces; however, the prolonged confrontations and escalating violence have made this community a target for sectarian score-settling among some revolutionary groups. As a result, reports show that large portions of the Alawite community are leaving the suburbs of Damascus for the coastal regions.
The Druze, also referred to as Muwahhidun, belong to an esoteric branch of Shi’a Islam that splintered from the Ismaili movement in Egypt during the Fatimid period in the 11th century. Today, Druze live mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. Syria houses the largest Druze community, with a population of between 500,000 and 700,000.
Most of Syria’s Druze reside in As-Suwayda province in the country’s south. They settled this region during the 17th century, thus it is a relatively young Druze stronghold considering that they settled northern Syria, the environs of Damascus, and the slopes of Mount Hermon more than a thousand years ago.
Before the current uprising, large proportions of the Druze community were increasingly gravitating towards Damascus and its suburbs. Druze towns on the outskirts of Damascus grew into veritable cities. The Druze also inhabited neighborhoods within Damascus such as Bab Musalla. On the slopes of Mount Hermon and in the Golan and Bulan there are no less than 20 towns and villages inhabited by the Druze, including four towns in the occupied Golan. In northern Syria, there are 17 predominately Druze towns and villages in the province of Idlib.
The uprising has exacted a heavy toll on the Druze community residing in the suburbs of Damascus. Tens of thousands of Druze have fled their homes, with the largest portion of them leaving Jaramana for the province of As-Suwayda. In western As-Suwayda, major damage has been done to Druze villages near rebel strongholds based in the east of Dera’a province.
The Twelver Shi’ites
The Shi’a community is woven into the Syrian social fabric with all its cultural richness and religious history. Like other Syrians, the Shi’a had no connection to any form of extremism or fanaticism. The Shi’a religious authorities were autonomous and did not take orders from outsiders. Sunni and Shi’a holidays and religious occasions were one and the same. But despite the fact that Syria has known Shi’a Islam for many, many years, the Twelver Shi’ite presence in Syria has been dwindling since the mid-20th century. Some statistics show that the Shi’a population stood at 0.4 percent of total Syrian population in 1953.
Geographically, the Shi’a of Syria are based in several location, the most important of which is Damascus. Other prominent Shi’a areas include towns and villages in the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Homs—including areas in the city itself—plus four villages in eastern Hama province. There is also a limited Twelver population in the Euphrates tribes, in the town of Hatlah in the province of Deir Ezzor, in Dera’a, and in the city of Raqqa and its environs.
The repercussions of the Iranian revolution were not limited to Iraq and Lebanon. Under Hafez Al-Assad, Syria sided with Iran against Iraq during the Iraq–Iran War. Like Iraq and Lebanon, Tehran actively colluded with Syrian state authorities in the hope of establishing Shi’a hegemony in the country through bribery and other incentives.
As a result, Tehran was able, particularly after 1999, to impose its political will. However it was unable to completely monopolize loyalty with a significant percentage of Shi’ite groups—as is the case with Lebanon and Iraq. Yet Iranian meddling today has taken on a new and dangerous dimension in the form of direct militant involvement through the likes of Hezbollah and the Iraqi Brigade of Abu Al-Fadhal Al-Abbas. Their involvement is based upon the pretext of protecting Shi’a shrines, including the shrine of Sayeda Zaynab, the Prophet’s granddaughter, near Damascus.
During the recent fighting, the Syrian Shi’ites also protected the shrine of Sayeda Zaynab and then gradually began defending Shi’a enclaves Al-Qusayr in Homs province, which has been used as a pretext for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to intervene in the fighting. After the destruction of Al-Qusayr they expanded their involvement further, with the ripples of their involvement being felt as far afield as Aleppo and Idlib.
Worldwide, the Ismailis (Seveners) are the second-largest Shi’a sect after the Twelvers. An esoteric branch of Shi’a Islam, the Ismailis have played prominent roles in the political, social and cultural life of various countries in the Islamic world, including Egypt, Yemen, Persia and Bahrain, throughout history.
The Ismaili population of Syria can be found mainly in the city of Salamiya and its environs in Hama province. In the town of Masyaf in western Hama province, they constitute 50 percent of the population. (That area also has a high concentration of Alawites.) Ismailis also live in the city of Hama itself and in the mountains of the province of Tartus. However, the Ismaili presence was more pronounced in the past, stretching into the coastal valleys and down into the Golan.
Excluding the large car bomb that exploded in the city of Salamiya at the beginning of the year, the Ismailis so far have not been party to any direct confrontations.
According to their own sources, Kurds are the largest Muslim ethnic minority in Syria, making up slightly less than 10 percent of the country’s population. Within the Kurdish community is a minority Yazidi population, in addition to very small groups of Christian and Alawite Kurds. Most Kurds live in Syria’s northeast, in As-Hasakah province; the city of Qamishli in that province hosts the single largest Kurdish population in Syria. There are also two large Kurdish enclaves in Aleppo province, Ain Al-Arab (Kobanê in Kurdish) and Afrin, where they make up the majority of the population. In addition, a small minority live in Jebel Al-Akrad (Mount of the Kurds) in Latakia province.
Historically, the Turkmen population arrived in Damascus during the eighth century. Today, the Turkmen both populate the cities and countryside and also vary in terms of their extent of assimilation into Arab society. According to Turkmen sources, there are about 145 villages inhabited by Turkmen in Aleppo province, 50 in Homs, 30 in Hama, 20 in the Golan Heights, amd 10 in Dera’a, with very small minorities in Idlib and Tartus. There is also a Turkmen enclave in the northern reaches of Latakia called Jebel Al-Turkman, the Mount of the Turkmen.
The Syrian Revolution has to some extent unveiled the active role played by Syrian Turkmen, especially as regards Islamist organizations. Many of these groups were based in the southern outskirts of Damascus, where many clashes broke out between these groups and regime forces in close proximity to the latter’s operational headquarters.
The Circassians & the Chechens
The Circassians and Chechens, both of which trace their heritage back to the Caucasus, settled in Syria during the Ottoman period. They can be found mainly in the Golan and in the major cities, as well as along the main railway lines that once linked Istanbul, Medina and Baghdad.
The main Circassian settlement in Syria, Quneitra, was founded in 1863. Other Circassian settlements soon followed, mainly based in southern Syria in the Quneitra region and the Golan, which were also home to Kabarday, Chechen and Dagestani groups.
The Circassians and Chechens were forced to flee the Golan Heights during the war of 1967. Most of their settlements were wiped off the map and their people resettled in the suburbs of Damascus and other major cities. Today, these areas are facing their own period of displacement and destruction.
The Christians’ Crisis
Christians have lived in the Levant since the dawn of Christianity. Some sources estimate that during the Islamic conquest, Christians made up more than 78 percent of the total Syrian population.
Today, Christianity is the second-largest religion in Syria. Some estimates put the number of the indigenous Syriac (predominantly Jacobite) Christians alone at approximately 4 million people. However, Syria is home to various different Christian sects, the largest being Syrian (Syriac/Jacobite) Orthodox, Roman Orthodox, and Catholic. There are also smaller pockets of Protestants, Maronites, Nestorian Catholics (Chaldeans), Nestorian Orthodox (Assyrians), Nestorian Syriac Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and lastly Copts. All these communities combined account for about 16 percent of the total population, but a large proportion have emigrated, mostly to the Americas, and only visit Syria during the summer.
Syria’s Christians are dispersed throughout the country and have a presence in all of the country’s provinces. The largest numbers exist in major cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Qamishli, Hasakah, and Tartus. More traditional Christian settlements stretch from Aleppo province across the border into the Antioch region of Turkey. There is also a strong Christian presence in some in the western areas of the province of Rif Damashq, as well as along the border with Lebanon in the Syrian provinces of Homs and Tartus—the area known as the “Valley of the Christians.” Finally, As-Hasakah province, Christians, especially Syriac Christians, are well represented in the cities of As-Hasakah and Qamishli.
Throughout Syria’s history, the Christians have played an important role in the country’s political, economic and cultural life. In the mid-20th century, 75 percent of foreign companies and agencies worked with the Christians, and they owned vast stretches of land prior to its nationalization.
The Syrian Christians today find themselves in a precarious situation. Although prominent Christian figures like George Sabra, Michel Kilo and May Skaf can be found at the forefront of the revolution, some Christian religious leaders from Syria and Lebanon have expressed their support for the regime and their reservations about the revolution. The Christian villages in the Valley of the Christians—where many support the pro-Bashar Al-Assad Syrian Social Nationalist Party—have seen few battles. But Christians in major cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, As-Hasakah, and Qamishli have all seen their fair share of violence and have had their livelihoods damaged by the fighting. Many of them have fled the country. Perhaps most worryingly, two Christian bishops have been kidnapped, one of them the brother of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.
The Virtual end of the Jewish presence
It was in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli that the largest concentrations of Jewish populations could once be found in Syria, but they constitute only a tiny minority today. A reminder of their past prominence can be found in Damascus’s Jobar Synagogue, Syria’s oldest and most beautiful temple. Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River in the province of Deir Ezour is said to have the remnants of the world’s oldest synagogue, and is where the Jews of Babylon once resided. According to historical studies, Jews have also historically lived in Latakia, Raqqa and Antioch.
According to official statistics of Syrian voters in 1957, the number of Jewish voters reached about 32,000 people, or 0.8 percent of the total Syrian electorate, and they were represented in parliament. The most famous Jewish MP was Yusuf (Joseph) Leniado, from Damascus. Today, however, fewer than 100 Jews remain in Syria; it is often said that only 22 Jews remained in Syria after the Jewish community was allowed to emigrate in 1992.
It is interesting to note that the largest community of expatriate Syrian Jews can be found in Brooklyn in New York City. There is also a community of Syrian Jews in the Japanese city of Kobe, one of the oldest and largest Jewish populations in Japan.