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The Problem With Syria’s Demographics

DAMASCUS, SYRIA – JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. (Getty)

How Population Change Stymies Peace

by Tarek Osman

Over the years, there have been several attempts to broker peace in Syria. The most recent one took place on the sidelines of the G–20 summit in Hamburg, where U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin discussed a possible agreement between their two countries. The hope was that a bilateral deal could inject some life into the stalled Geneva and Astana peace talks that have been going on for over two years. But this discussion, and all recent efforts to end the now six-year conflict have been premised on the erroneous assumption that returning Syria to its pre-war political structure will bring peace.

For starters, the war has fundamentally altered Syria’s demographics, and for this alone, a return to pre-war Syria will be impossible. Over the past three years, the Assad regime and its allies have successfully reduced the presence of Sunnis in the areas closest to the big urban centers, primarily Damascus and the coast. These are areas where Christians and Alawites (the sect to which the Assads belong) have a strong presence and where the bulk of the country’s trade takes place. The operations of the regime and its allies here were not aimed at killing Sunnis, but rather at incentivizing them to leave. It was no coincidence that the routes out of Syria to Jordan and Lebanon remained quite safe over the past few years. Assad’s goal was to create a geographically contiguous area with a significantly lower Sunni share of the population compared to pre-2011 levels. The underlying logic is that many minorities support the Assad regime because they believe that only it can protect them. But it is exactly this new demographic make-up that makes it impossible to return to Syria’s pre-war political structure.

Modern Syria, which emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, was carved out of Greater Syria and the eastern Levant, from which the Lebanese Republic and modern-day Jordan were also born. Greater Syria’s large Sunni communities dominated the big urban centers (especially Damascus). Some Sunni communities, whose geographic location made them “Lebanese,” wanted a union with the Damascus-based republic. For them, Syria was the center of Arab Sunnism in the Levant, in the same way that Mount Lebanon was seen as a haven for the region’s Christian Maronites and Druze. But such a union never came about. A political compromise in Lebanon and the Hashemites’ failure to secure a kingdom in Syria cemented the new states’ social composition.

The newly created Syrian republic quickly descended into a long period of political turbulence. Among the several military coups in Syria, from the late 1940s to 1970, only the one led by Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, managed to bring about stability. The price of peace, however, was the death of opposition politics. Under his one-man rule, Hafez Assad eliminated any group that would contest his power, and later, as his regime evolved into a family affair, he cultivated support by forming a cadre of confidantes mostly from the Alawite sect and garnered legitimacy by projecting a façade of secular Arab nationalism.  

The war of the past six years has crumbled that mirage. Iran’s military support to Damascus and political influence in Syria, renders it impossible for the Assad regime to invoke Arabness to anchor its legitimacy and to hide the stark sectarian domination of a minority over a majority. The civil war has now exposed all of this, leaving Syria’s Sunnis without any illusions about the nature of the regime. Carrots, sticks, violence, and acute repression could make it work for some time. But it is unsustainable.

A return to the pre-2011 regime will also be costly. Minority rule will, by default, concentrate economic power at the top, result in poor economic decision making, and breed corruption. This would inevitably drain a country’s economy unless it is endowed with a massive amount of natural resources, which Syria is not. This means that Damascus will always depend on the support of outside powers such as Iran and Russia, which face their own internal challenges and economic problems, primarily because of declining oil revenues.

Seen in this light, the Assad regime’s strategy becomes more clear. Artificially changing the country’s demographics by reducing the size of the Sunni majority looks as if it is the regime’s best shot at creating the conditions to make minority rule more sustainable. In reality, however, this is short-sighted because it will not last. After all, a significant percentage of Syrians from across various socio-economic backgrounds blame the regime for hundreds of thousands of deaths, in addition to the dislocation of millions. These feelings run deep and will fuel widespread anger for years to come.

SANLIURFA, TURKEY – September 26: Newly arrived Syrian Kurdish refugees walk with their belongings after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian border town of Kobani on September 26, 2014 near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. . (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)

Syria’s historic Sunni identity will also hinder Assad’s strategy. The remaining Sunni majority will never accept overhauling the key characteristic that has defined their country’s positioning in the region. And if some of the millions of Syrian refugees now in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey return to Syria (a likely scenario, given the difficult economic conditions they endure in these countries, and that waves of refugees from Lebanon have already begun returning to areas where a ceasefire has been established), they, too, will not accept the ahistorical identity the regime has been trying to create. 

That is why, for the peace talks to be effective, all parties must seriously consider the demographic engineering that is taking place in Syria and look to stop it. There are two incentives for Russia, which has the most leverage over the Assad regime, to do so. First, halting Assad’s demographic changes will not actually threaten his hold on power. Russia’s military intervention in Syria has essentially ensured the Syrian regime’s survival in the short and medium term. Secondly, Russia wants a political solution. For this to happen, the Assad regime needs to feel some pressure and have an incentive to seriously engage in a political process. That could come from a social situation that’s not acutely skewed in its favor.  

Other international players, primarily the United States and Europe, must link their support to peace with putting an end to Assad’s demographic engineering. Their leverage comes from the fact that they would be the main financiers of most reconstruction and development efforts, which are expected to follow any permanent ceasefire. And here, Washington and Brussels should make it clear that their support—financial and advisory—is conditional.

Of course, if Assad’s moves to fundamentally alter Syria are not countered, the war might still come to a stop in the short term. But it will not be a permanent fix. Sooner or later, the return from abroad of displaced Syrians, the strong desire for revenge against the Assad regime, or internal pressures from groups that rightfully feel they have been robbed of their heritage—or any combination of these factors—will only renew the cycle of conflict and send Syria spiraling into another devastating war.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

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