What is the demographics of Assad's Syria like


Salam Said

To person

Dr. rer. pol., born 1975; Researcher in the research project "Economic Interests and Actors in Arab Countries and their Role during and after the Arab Spring" of the Volkswagen Foundation; economic expert in the Secretariat of the Friends of Syria; Lecturer at the Free University of Berlin. [email protected]

Syrian society is characterized by a complex religious, ethnic and cultural composition. Characterized by a very diverse cultural spatial structure of the country between wooded mountain ranges on the Mediterranean Sea and arid steppes of northern Mesopotamia and a long shared historical experience, various Muslim, Christian and Jewish denominations and groups have lived relatively peacefully side by side over the centuries. The social heterogeneity of Syria made itself felt not only through religious or ethnic identities, but also through a strong difference between urban, agrarian-rural and Bedouin ways of life. The socio-economic changes in recent decades have also led to the fact that the cultural lifestyles of high-income groups in the large cities of Aleppo and Damascus are increasingly different from the urban and rural peripheries. In order to understand the social dynamics of the country, in addition to the historical development of the population structure, the major upheavals of the second half of the 20th century must also be considered.

Historical legacy

The kaleidoscopic diversity of the country is rooted in its rich and significant historical heritage. Today's Syria is part of the "Syrian" cultural area (Bilad al-Sham) cradle of numerous civilizations since prehistoric times. Not only was it an important part of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Phoenician civilizations of the ancient Orient, but it also played a notable role in Hellenistic and Roman antiquity. In addition to dozens of sunken cities such as Ebla, Ugarit, Apameia, Palmyra or Bosra, the four large cities in the corridor between the coastal mountains and the steppe, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus, contain impressive testimonies to these historical epochs of antiquity. The country's religious plurality emerged primarily in late antiquity, when it was an important province of the Byzantine Empire, and in early Islamic times. In the course of the Arab conquests in the 7th century, Damascus became the capital of the first Islamic dynasty of the Ommayyads between 661 and 750 and thus the center of a world empire that stretched from Spain to Central Asia. The beginning of Arabization, but also religious tolerance towards the rival and so further ramifying Christian groups characterized this epoch. After the political fragmentation of the Arab Empire from the 9th / 10th. In the 19th century, Turkish and Kurdish elites became more and more important. The time of the Crusades primarily burdened Eastern Christians, while the Mongol storms depopulated entire regions. As part of the Ottoman Empire from 1516, Syrian cities - especially Aleppo - flourished culturally and economically and, as in the centuries before, were characterized by a high level of social mobility. Much of the urban elite of the early 20th century had immigrated during the four Ottoman centuries (including from Iraq and Kurdish areas). After a considerable cultural change in the 19th century and a partly forced settlement of Circassian and Armenian refugees, the Middle East and thus also Syria in its current political borders emerged with the end of the Ottoman Empire in the course of the colonial demarcation. As a "mandate area", the young country was under direct French control from 1920 and thus also under European influence. On April 17, 1946, Syria achieved its independence through a revolution and celebrated the establishment of the Syrian Arab Republic.

Social structure

Society is divided into more than 15 religious and ethnic groups. In addition to the Arab majority, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmens, Circassians, Arameans and Assyrians live in Syria. [1] Among the almost 21 million inhabitants, the Kurds form the largest ethnic minority with a share of ten to twelve percent. [2] Most of them live in the north and northeast of the country, as well as in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Well-known Kurdish cities and villages are al-Hasakah, al-Qamishli, Amuda, Afrin and Kurd Dagh (mountain of the Kurds). The number of Turkmens was estimated at around two million (nine percent of the population) in 2012. [3] Circassians are the smallest ethnic minority of the Islamic faith. More than a million Arameans and Assyrians (around 4.5 percent) live mostly in al-Hasakah (northeast region of Syria) and in the city and region of Maalula northeast of Damascus. Most of the Armenians came from Turkey as refugees in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They make up less than one percent of the Syrian population and live mainly in Aleppo, but also in Damascus and northern cities of the country. The country's official language is Arabic. However, the ethnic minorities also speak Kurdish, Aramaic, Armenian, Turkmen, Circassian or other minority languages ​​in everyday life.

In addition to the different ethnic groups, the Syrian population is divided into different religions and denominations. Even the Muslim majority (between 85 and 90 percent of the population) consists of heterogeneous religious groups, including Sunnis (around 73 percent of the population), Alawis (10 to 11 percent), Druze (around 3 percent), Ismailis and Shiites. Syrians of Christian faith are estimated at 10 to 12 percent [4] and are also highly fragmented. The "Christian minority" is made up of almost a dozen denominations: the Greek Orthodox, the Maronite, the Syrian Orthodox and the Syrian Catholic, the Chaldean, the Assyrian, the Armenian Catholic and the Armenian Orthodox as well as the Protestant churches are recognized by the state. The two largest congregations are the Greek Orthodox Church and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. In addition to the Muslims and Christians, there is a small community of Yezidi and about a hundred Jews in Aleppo and Damascus in the northeast. In 1948, 15,000 to 30,000 Arab and Sephardic Jews who were traditionally an integral part of the population still lived in Syria.

Although some districts and villages are predominantly inhabited by a certain religious or ethnic group, there is no strict religious or ethnic demarcation between the places of residence. Nevertheless, religious or ethnic affiliation largely determines the map of Syria. The majority of the inhabitants of villages in the so-called Valley of the Christians (Wadi al-Nasara) or in the Qalamun Mountains, for example, are Christians. Some districts in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs are historically known as Christian quarters. Druze traditionally come mainly from Suwaida or the Druze Mountains (Jabal al-Druze or Jabal al-Arab) in southern Syria and settled in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana in the 20th century. Alawitic residential areas are originally in the coastal mountains in the northwest, especially around Latakia, Tartus, Jable and Baniyas. Ismailis are concentrated in the small town of Salamiya southeast of Hama. Today's demographic distribution is increasingly differentiated according to social, political and economic factors. The boundaries have blurred, especially in new urban development areas for middle and high income groups. In contrast to the villages, which are mostly characterized by a manageable social structure and which have largely retained their original population composition, the cities have become a reflection of the country's complicated ethnic, religious and social pluralism in the course of increasing urbanization.

Not only Syrians live in Syria, but also Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Since the middle of the 20th century, with the establishment of Israel, refugees from Palestine came in several waves; around half a million Palestinians are at home in Syria today. Iraqi refugees came to the country after the 2003 Iraq war, thousands stayed. Both Palestinians and Iraqis enjoy numerous civil rights in Syria. They are allowed to work and can send their children to state schools. The "new" residents have left their cultural and social traces in some outskirts of Damascus, such as in the Yarmouk district, where originally only Palestinians lived, and Jaramana, where most of the Iraqi refugees have settled.

Religious and ethnic diversity has always been a particular asset of Syrian society. Although socially motivated violence has emerged along the religious dividing lines at various points in the course of history (as in Aleppo in 1850 or Damascus in 1860), one can speak of a long-standing and relatively peaceful religious and ethnic pluralism, especially in comparison with European history. People's everyday life was mostly shaped by shared socio-cultural values ​​and respect. Research on the many magnificent residential buildings in the old towns of Aleppo and Damascus from the Ottoman period show that Syrians of all denominations maintained an almost identical living culture in the cities, which was primarily differentiated according to region and income group. The famous Aleppo room of a Christian family or the Damascus niche of a Jewish house owner in Berlin's Pergamon Museum are impressive examples of this.

However, this social and cultural wealth also harbors the risk of being instrumentalized in times of conflict - with religious and ethnic affiliation not providing any information about political convictions. With a view to the current conflict, pro and contra Assad lines of conflict run right through many Christian and Druze families, as well as conservative-bourgeois Sunnis of middle and higher income groups strictly reject radical Islamist activists - although the latter often refer to Sunni Islam. Social developments follow socio-economic dynamics and personal experiences and convictions and are not to be understood solely in terms of culture or as a result of religious determinism. It is therefore important to understand the social currents of the 20th century that led to great changes in Syria.