Friday, September 6, 2013

Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Christians - What are the Demographics of Syria?

As I've discussed previously in my post entitled Syria: Sunnis Versus Alawites, the situation in Syria can increasingly be seen through the lens of a sectarian conflict between the minority Alawites - who are considered an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam - who control the Assad regime, and the majority Sunni population that spearheads the revolt. Of course, that it is a bit simplified, but the general framework is correct.

I recently came across a map of Syria that wonderfully demonstrates the true demographic complexity of that country. If you look at the map, you can see that Syria has 17 different ethnic and religious groups, ranging from Sunnis, Alawites and Christians, to tiny minorities of Armenians, Aramaeans and others (and in an interesting surprise, the country evidently includes some Jews who live near the town of Palmyra). Another point worth highlighting in this picture is that you can see the Alawite population concentrated in a grey green cluster on the Mediterranean coast near the ports of Lakatia and Tartus, which as discussed in an earlier post, is where Assad might as a fallback option look to establish an Alawite mini-state apart from Syria.

Another interesting point to consider is that this shows how the maps of new countries in the Middle East - which were drawn primarily be the colonial powers Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century - had artificial borders which created an almost built in recipe for conflict. As the Sunnis Arabs are clearly the largest demographic group in Syria by far, it was probably not realistic that a small minority Alawite population of only 12% could be expected to rule (by authoritarian means) the country indefinitely without raising the ire of the Sunnis. In that sense, what could be argued here is that Syria is essentially re-balancing among more natural ethnic and religious lines. While some countries have managed to achieve this rebalancing peacefully - think the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the two countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic - in Syria this rebalancing has tragically turned into a brutal killing field of inter-ethic and religious conflict.

Ronn Torossian on Algemeiner


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