At Large

Understanding the Situation in Syria

Minority numbers aren't adding up for Bashar Assad's defenses.

By and 7.19.12

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It's become an article of faith among policy makers and analysts in the West that Syria is a nation of minorities. Various sources put the share of non-Sunni Muslim minorities at around one quarter of the population. These minorities are believed to constitute the bulk of the support base of the Syrian regime. Some ventured as far as to suggest that the regime was deliberately stoking sectarian tensions with the massacres in Houla and Qubeir in order to consolidate its minority support base.

The commonly accepted percentages of Syrian minorities are: Alawites and Shia -- 13%, Christians -- 10%, and Druze -- 3%. Syria, however, does not collect or publish data related to the sectarian composition of its population and trying to track the origin of common estimates usually leads nowhere.

For example, all observers commenting on Syria believe that Syrian Druze live primarily in Jabal al Druze and constitute 3% of the Syrian population. This claim, however, does not square with the results of Syria's last population census. According to the census, in 2004 the population of the province of Sweida, where Jabal al Druze is located, had only 313,231 inhabitants against 17,920,844 of the total population of Syria. This makes for 1.7% and not 3% of the population. On top of this, in 2004 the birth rate of Sweida stood at 1.7% against the national average of 2.5%. At this rate, discounting migration flows between Syrian provinces, by 2012 Sweida should have already shrunk to 1.6%, including not only the Druze but also a sizeable Christian community in the city of Sweida and some Muslim population.

Activists in Sweida often explain the low level of Druze participation in the Syrian uprising by widespread emigration of young Druze. Many young Druze have left the unemployment-stricken province for greener pastures. If they left for Damascus and other bigger cities, this could compensate for the decline of Sweida's share in the general population. The contention that Syrian Druze remain concentrated in Jabal al Druze would be still wrong, though. Yet, according to the same sources, many of these young people have emigrated out of the country altogether. If true, it leaves almost a half of the estimated Druze population unconfirmed.

Another case in point are Syrian Christians who are generally believed to have declined from 14% in 1943 to 10% today. Syria Comment is one of the most comprehensive blogs and link aggregators on Syria. One of its contributors Ehsani recently estimated that Christians make up only between 4% to 5% of Syria's population. Ehsani attributed this dramatic decline, again, to emigration and anemic birth rates.

Ehsani's research into the subject was triggered by a conversation with a priest in Aleppo who remarked on his futile attempts to dissuade young Christians from emigrating. It turned out that Christians priests and bishops in Aleppo keep track of the families under their respective churches as well as the births and marriages of their members. After the examination of available data, Ehsani's conclusion was that the share of Christians in the population of Aleppo is not 12% as claimed by Wikipedia and other sources, but can be as low as 3.5%.

The difference in birth rates between Syrian provinces, by the way, can be rather dramatic. In Sweida, Latakia, and Tartous, the three provinces with a Druze or Alawite majority, the birth rate ranged in 2004 from 1.7% to 1.9%. In the heavily Sunni provinces of Idlib, Deraa, and Deir ez Zor, it was 3.1%.

The census of 1943 put the share of the Sunni population at 69%. Almost 70 years later, it's estimated to have grown only to 74%. Yet, considering the emigration and paltry birth rates of the non-Sunni minorities, it seriously beggars belief that they can be still retaining a share of as much as 26% of the population .

As far as Syria's most important minority is concerned, the consensus goes, the Alawites dominate Syria's armed forces. At the very least they dominate that part of the army that remains loyal to Bashar Assad, while the rest of the army is locked in barracks.

Yet, this estimation of the sectarian composition of the Syrian army conflicts with numerous interviews with army defectors published during the last year. According to their presentation of the situation in their units, the rank and file soldiers appear to be mostly Sunni. True, many officers seem to be Alawites, but other officers don't. David Enders who traveled to Idlib with a convoy of UN monitors, used that opportunity to interview government soldiers unobstructed by the presence of minders. The soldiers told him that four months ago the commander of their unit defected himself and started a rebel brigade. It's highly unlikely that that officer was an Alawite.

According to the census of 2004, the combined population of Latakia and Tartous does not reach even 9% of the population. It's true that there is a significant Alawite presence outside the Alawite heartland. But it's also true that the numbers for Tartus and Latakia also include a significant Sunni minority. Cities like Banyas in Tartous and even the capital of Latakia itself are majority Sunni. In fact, parts of Latakia are now infested with insurgents. So it's not that Syria is teeming with Alawites, either.

Besides, the notion of an Alawite-dominated Syrian army simply does not square with the daily death tolls published by the Syrian official agency which list both the names and home provinces of fallen soldiers. For example, on June 9, one of the bloodiest days for the Syrian army until now, 57 army and law-enforcement martyrs were laid to rest according to the official SANA. To these Tartous and Latakia had contributed ten martyrs. While it's more than their share in the population, they are hardly dominating the list. "We all know that most of the security forces shooting at us and killing us are Sunnis, not Alawites, " a Sunni activist from the Damascus suburb of Douma was quoted by Phil Sands on Jun 21, 2012.

As the civil war in Syria has escalated and taken on an increasingly sectarian dimension, many observers took to predicting a prolonged and drawn out conflict. With the minorities rallying behind the regime of Bashar Assad, these people reason, the regime can mobilize enough support in the population and armed forces to delay the inevitable. They are wrong. Wikipedia notwithstanding, Syria is not such a nation of minorities as it used to be in 1943. Neither these minorities are present in Syria's armed forces in such overwhelming numbers. Their loyalty alone is not enough to prolong the agony.

It remains a very underappreciated fact, but at the beginning of the uprising the regime in Syria was commanding loyalty of a significant section of its Sunni Arab population.

Since the beginning of the uprising and until quite recently, reporters in Damascus have repeatedly noted that the regime appeared to enjoy widespread support among urban classes in the capital that transcended sectarian affiliations.

A rebel leader in Aleppo, quoted by Anthony Loyd on June 19, 2012, has confirmed that many Sunnis in the province joined the pro-government shabiha militias and identified two clans, the Bari and Baqqarah, as supporters of the regime in Aleppo. With more than one million members, the Baqqara is also a major tribe in Deir ez Zor.

Even the notion of the Syrian uprising as a poor Sunni man revolt does not do full justice to this reality. According to Phil Sands, as late as January of this year, a senior tribal figure in the impoverished Deir ez Zor estimated that the Sunni tribesmen in the province were still almost evenly split between supporters and opponents of the regime.

It's this hidden minority of Sunni supporters that was keeping the regime on its feet until now. Losing this support to the sectarian polarization would set the regime on fast track to oblivion.

Meanwhile, according to the latest reports from Deir ez Zor, the alliance between the Sunni tribes in the province and the regime finally unraveled at last. But, once it happened, large chunks of the province and the city of Deir ez Zor quickly fell under opposition control. This is not the first time that the opposition has taken over center of the city of Deir ez Zor. But this was the first time a government-assault to recapture the city was repelled, leaving the streets of Deir ez Zor strewn with destroyed tanks and other military equipment.

At stake have been most of Syria's oil and control over the border with Iraq which is known to be used to smuggle weapons and foreign fighters into the country. In fact, Deir ez Zor has well-armed and battle-hardened tribal allies on the Iraqi side of the border. Bashar Assad had been having it bad enough in Homs. But "Benghazi" turned out to be an even tougher nut, with the Free Syrian Army claiming to control 70% of Deir ez-Zor.

Deir ez-Zor - June 28, 2012

Now, as fighting reaches Damascus itself, with the Defense Minister reportedly killed in a suicide bombing, things look ever more bleak for the regime. The end appears to be at hand, with chaos set to rule the day. Where is this supposed Syrian army of more than 600,000 now?

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.
About the Author

Oskar Svadkovsky is a computer networking professional based in Tel Aviv, and the owner of the Happy Arab News Service blog. He graduated in Indian and Chinese Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.