Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Arabic (official), Kurdish (Kirmanji dialect), Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian, Turkish
Main religions: Sunni Islam (75 per cent), Alawite Islam (12 per cent), other Muslim (including Isma’ili and Ithna’ashari or Twelver Shi’a) (2 per cent), Christianity (including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic) (10 per cent), Druze (3-4 per cent), Yezidis (1 per cent)
Specific demographic data for Syria is unreliable. Some minority groups are defined primarily by religion, others by ethnicity, and some are relatively recent immigrants. Many of them can also be found in neighbouring countries. Physical and human geography have been major determining factors in Syria’s social fabric: city, desert, mountain and sea. Until the present century, social divides between town dwellers, peasants and Bedouin, and the conflict between the latter two, were almost as important as religious differences.
In the mountain ranges stretching along the littoral, and across to Mount Hermon and the Jabal Druze in south Syria, religiously ‘dissident’ communities were able to hold their own against Muslim or Christian orthodoxy. On the coastline a more cosmopolitan Mediterranean trading culture existed which had as much in common with other seafaring cultures of the Mediterranean as it had with its hinterland.
Alawi Muslims are Syria’s largest religious minority. They live mainly in the Nusayri Mountain range in the coastal part of north-west Syria, but also on the inland plains of Homs and Hama. Smaller numbers of Isma’ili Muslims live for the most part in the coastal mountain range, south of the main Alawi areas. Twelver Shi’as live in a handful of communities near Homs and to the west and north of Aleppo.
Greek Orthodox Christians and Greek Catholics are concentrated in and around Damascus, Latakiya and the neighbouring coastal region. Syriac Orthodox Christians are located mainly in the Jazira, Homs, Aleppo and Damascus and Syrian Catholics in small communities mainly in Aleppo, Hasaka and Damascus. There is a small community of Maronite Christians mainly in the Aleppo region. The Maronite community is a surviving remnant from before the majority sought safety in Mount Lebanon in the sixth century. It has maintained ties to Rome since the twelfth century, and the liturgy is in Syriac.
Druze are located primarily in Jabal Druze on the southern border abutting Jordan.
There are a small number of Yezidis in Syria, ethnic Kurds who practice a 4,000 year old religion (see Iraq). Their numbers have declined over the years largely due to assimilation into Islam. One community was in Jabal Sim’an and the Afrin valley in north-west Syria, dating back at least to the twelfth century. A slightly larger group, composed of refugees mainly from southern Turkey but later also some from Iraq during the 1920s and 1930s, was located mainly around Hasaka in the Jazira, north-east Syria as well as Aleppo. Following ISIS’s brutal attacks on the Yezidi community in neighboring Iraq, the majority of Syrian Yezidis fled their homes.
Of a Jewish population that numbered around 40,000 before Israel’s establishment in 1948, nearly all have emigrated. In 2007, there were estimated to be only around 100 to 200 Jews remaining in Syria. They are concentrated in Damascus and Aleppo. Jewish settlers moved into the Golan Heights after 1967, and Israel annexed it in 1981, but the United Nations refused to recognize the new status.
Around 2-2.5 million Kurds form Syria’s largest ethnic minority. About a third of them live in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains north of Aleppo, and an equal number along the Turkish border in the Jazirah. A further 10 per cent can be found in the vicinity of Jarabulus northeast of Aleppo, and from 10-15 per cent in the Hayy al-Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) on the outskirts of Damascus.
Armenians, Circassians and Turkomans are smaller ethnic minorities. Armenians of various Christian denominations live mainly in Aleppo, but also in Damascus and the Jazira. Several thousand Circassians live mostly in Damascus. They are descended from refugees who fled Russian invasion of the North Caucasus in the latter half of the nineteenth century and settled mainly in the Jawlan (Golan). Here they came into conflict with the Druze. They were mobilized as auxiliary forces against the Druze in 1896 and 1910 and by the French in 1925. In 1967 over half the Circassian community lost their homes when Israel captured the area. About half the Circassians are concentrated in the southwestern Hawran Province. Al-Qunaytirah was viewed as their provincial capital that was destroyed during the October 1973 war between Israel and Syria, and they later moved to Damascus. Little information is available on ethnic Turkomans in Syria, who for the most part are Sunni Muslims, and many of whom have assimilated into Arab culture.
Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, there were over 526,000 Palestinians living in Syria, refugees driven off their land with the establishment of Israel in 1948 and their descendants. By 2017, the UN agency UNRWA estimated that 450,000 Palestinian refugees remain in the country with 280,000 internally displaced and 43,000 trapped in inaccessible locations.
After the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Syria took in around 1.5 million Iraqis and by one Syrian NGO estimate in August 2007, as many as two million. The refugees swelled Syria’s population by 8-10 per cent and the government estimated that the burden cost it one billion USD each year. Since the beginning of unrest in Syria in March 2011, many Iraqi refugees living in Syria have returned to Iraq.
Updated May 2018.
As signs of President Bashar al-Assad’s military ‘victory’ grow ever clearer, Syria’s largest cities are now under government control, although significant territory remains in the hands of predominantly Islamist opposition fighters as well as an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, the Syrian Democratic Forces. In March 2019, Kurdish forces captured the eastern village of Baghouz, the last populated area in Syria controlled by ISIS. Backed by Russia, Iran and numerous Shi’a militias, government forces are closing in on Idlib province, the final opposition holdout. While all sides have committed widespread atrocities, the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria have come at the hands of the regime, which along with Russia continues to bomb hospitals and other civilian infrastructure. While figures are impossible to verify, more than 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed and 12 million more displaced inside Syria or abroad, with Alawites, Christians (including Armenians and Assyrians), Druze, Isma’ilis, Kurds, Turkmen, Twelver Shi’a, Yezidis and others among those displaced.
Assad’s cynical mobilization of communal anxieties amid the growing influence of extremist elements within the Syrian opposition forces has resulted in an increasingly sectarian landscape – accelerated, too, by the displacement of minorities by militant groups in areas under their control. As a result, the country’s demographics have been redrawn, with its religious minorities concentrated in the government-held areas of central and southern Syria, while in the north the population is now largely Sunni. These developments point to the urgent need to consider, alongside the pressing humanitarian needs of the millions of Syrians displaced internally or living as refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere, the future of the country and the challenges of creating a sustainable post-conflict settlement for the diverse population.
Through the conflict, beginning in 2011, civilians have paid the highest price in the ongoing fighting, with all sides of the conflict guilty of violating human rights standards and international humanitarian law. In particular, the Assad regime has launched destructive attacks on residential areas and targeted civilian objects such as hospitals, schools and markets. The conflict has also been characterized by the widespread use of indiscriminate weapons, such as barrel bombs, and the use of prohibited chemical weapons. The most notorious attack occurred in April 2018 when chlorine and sarin gas chemical attack took place in the city of Douma, leaving 70 dead and injuring more than 500 others. The Assad-led government has also detained thousands of opponents, many of whom have been kept in inhumane conditions, subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and executed or forcibly disappeared. Both government and anti-government forces have besieged civilian areas, obstructing the supply of food, water, electricity, medical supplies and other humanitarian necessities. Furthermore, airstrikes launched by the US-led international coalition have led to hundreds of civilian deaths, with scant efforts to investigate such incidents and provide redress to victims.
Women have been affected by the conflict in particular ways. With large numbers of men killed or engaged in fighting, women have been forced to bear the burden of supporting and protecting their families in conflict zones. Displaced women without a male protector are at risk of sexual assault and other types of abuse, especially when passing through checkpoints controlled by armed groups. Women attempting to leave the country with the aid of smugglers are also vulnerable to exploitation, including in some cases sexual trafficking. Within Syria, there are also indications that sexual violence has been used deliberately in government detention facilities as a method of intimidating and punishing women perceived to be associated with the opposition, whether directly or indirectly. Women raped or presumed to have been raped in government detention facilities face the risk of rejection by their family members or even ‘honour’ killing upon their release due to the cultural stigma surrounding sexual and gender-based violence.
While religious minorities within Syria have themselves been caught up in the violence, Assad’s opportunistic exploitation of communal fears and the deep demographic shifts wrought by the conflict has seen the share of Alawites, Christians and other minorities rise significantly within government-held territory, even though many have decried the government’s attempts to use minorities to bolster its own legitimacy. At the same time, in addition to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of the Sunni majority to the north, millions have been forced out of the country. Their prospects of return to a country controlled by a regime that has disproportionately targeted Sunni civilians during the conflict are far from certain.
Syria’s Druze community, most of whom live in the southern governorate of Suweida, have tried as far as possible to remain neutral in the conflict, wary of coming into direct confrontation with either the government or their Sunni neighbours. However, the community’s relationship with the government has grown tense at times due to disagreement over issues of conscription and self-protection. Druze were also targeted by ISIS in July 2018 in a brutal attack that left more than 200 dead.
Christians have been less able to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict, due to their presence in urban centres where heavy fighting has taken place, and in northeastern regions that have been overrun by ISIS. In opposition-controlled areas, Christians have reportedly concealed their religious identity and dress as Muslims to avoid suspicion. Fears of extremist groups are one of the push factors leading Christians to consider leaving Syria. The majority of Christians still in Syria are located in government-held areas. While some have returned since the retreat of ISIS from many areas, the legacy of human rights abuses and destruction has meant that many communities have yet to return.
Yezidis have been subjected to genocidal acts at the hands of the extremist ISIS, as recognized by the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria in its June 2016 report. Many Syrian Yezidis fled their homes after learning of the group’s advance into Sinjar in August 2014, home to most of Iraq’s Yezidi population, fearing they would be subjected to similar treatment. Thousands of Iraqi Yezidis were held in ISIS captivity, many in Syrian territory, and subjected to a wide range of systematic violations including forced conversion, rape, sexual slavery, forced labour, torture and military conscription. Large numbers of Syrian Yezidis left their villages in the north to seek refuge outside of Syria and have yet to return.
Alawites are also highly vulnerable to attacks by opposition armed groups due to their perceived association with the Assad-led government. In 2015, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (now called Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham) called on fighters to directly target Alawite towns and villages in revenge for indiscriminate Russian attacks on Sunni civilians. Moreover, since many Alawites have fought in the government armed forces, the minority has suffered a very high rate of casualties. However, members of the Alawaite community are less than unified in their support of Assad. In a document released in April 2016, for example, Alawite leaders purportedly distanced themselves from the actions of the Assad-led government and emphasized points of commonality between the Alawite faith and other Islamic sects in Syria.
In the north, Syrian Kurds, supported by other minorities, have successfully defended their autonomous enclave, known as Rojava in Kurdish, which was established in 2012. The autonomous administration has introduced positive practices of respect for the rights of linguistic and religious minorities and uses three official languages (Kurdish, Arabic and Aramaic). However, there have also been previous reports of Kurdish armed groups demolishing Arab and Turkmen homes in the region and displacing their residents.
Women from the Kurdish minority have played a dynamic role in the political and military affairs of the autonomous region, making inroads in terms of gender equality unheard of in the rest of the region. According to the region’s laws, all civil society and governing bodies must have at least 40 per cent female membership, and administrative organs, economic projects, and civil society organizations must be headed by male and female co-chairs. Through the Kongreya-Star, the umbrella organization for the women’s movement in Rojava, education, women are playing coordinating roles in the management of education, public health, the economy, community dispute resolution, and citizens’ defence. The region has also agreed on laws stipulating strict penalties for polygamy and underage marriage. Many Kurdish women see women’s empowerment as inseparable from the larger struggle for liberation from the repressive policies of ISIS and other extremist groups, on the one hand, and the Syrian government, on the other.
The impact of the eight-year long Syrian conflict has been felt by millions of civilians forced into exile from their country. The Syrian crisis has produced the largest number of refugees in the world today. Its effects on other countries in the region have also been profound, particularly in Lebanon, Syria’s smallest neighbour, now hosting the highest per capita number of refugees with some 1.5 million Syrians in the country. For them, life has largely continued in a state of limbo, with some longing to return home while others wishing to remain out of fear of persecution back in Syria. In either case, the majority are still caught in a precarious existence and in desperate need of stability, security and basic services. The widespread destruction in many parts of the country, deep-seated social trauma and the government’s hold over the majority of Syrian territory, with extremist organizations still active in the areas outside Assad’s control, mean that for many refugees in Lebanon repatriation is not currently an option.
Nevertheless, despite this inhospitable environment, it is likely that in the near future the number of returns to Syria may rise, with UNHCR suggesting that some 250,000 refugees could return in 2019. While the conflict continues to take a heavy toll on civilians in many parts of the country, the ‘stabilization’ of areas by the government has been paralleled with a growing discourse internationally, including in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, of the situation being conducive to returns, with governments encouraging and even pressuring some Syrian refugees to return to Syria.
Updated June 2019
Syria lies on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey lies to its north, Iraq to its east and south-east, Jordan to its south, and Israel to its south-west. Lebanon juts into Syria’s south-west, along the Mediterranean coast. The country consists largely of a high arid plateau, but the greener north-west and the Euphrates River valley allow extensive farming. Syria has oil and gas reserves in the north-east, but these are in decline.
Syria owes its configuration to the Allied partition of the Arab Near East after 1918, and in particular to French administration from 1920 to 1946. Under the Ottomans the geographical, economic and cultural concept of Syria was known as Bilad al-Sham and embraced all of modern Israel/Palestine and Lebanon as well as modern Syria.
With the defeat of the Ottomans, a congress of representatives from Greater Syria met in Damascus in 1919 and affirmed its intention to found ‘a constitutional monarchy based upon principles of democratic and broadly decentralized rule which shall safeguard the rights of minorities’. French military intervention in 1920 thwarted this intention, and Feisal, King of Syria, was driven into exile. Within a month France allocated the ports of Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre, and their respective hinterlands, and the Biqa’a valley, to its creation of Greater Lebanon, and in 1939 surrendered the Sanjaq of Alexandretta (subsequently, the Hatay) to Turkey (in violation of its obligations under the League of Nations mandate).
France played upon minority differences and ignored a more fundamental underlying common identity. It fragmented the rest of Syria into four territories: the north-western Nusayri mountains for the Alawis, Jabal Druze for the Druze, and the cities of Damascus and Aleppo as two separate entities. As a result of Arab nationalist pressure, France reunited these territories in 1936. Among the minorities, notably the Alawis and Druze, there was division between those who wished to foster minority separatism, frequently the dominant chiefs for whom this guaranteed and enhanced their authority, and newly educated people of lowlier birth, who saw their future in a wider nationalist context.
France recruited minority groups – Alawis, Druze, Isma’ilis, Christians, Kurds and Circassians – into its local force, Les Troupes Spéciales du Levant, a policy that not only caused tension with the Sunni Arab majority but also paved the way for later minority control of Syria. Military service offered an opportunity for betterment for low-born but ambitious, often nationalist, recruits. Syria became independent in 1946 and three years later a coup installed the first in a succession of Kurdo-Arab officers in power, each of whom relied on minority or local pools of support.
In the meantime the Ba’ath (Renaissance) Party, founded in 1940 with a socialist Arab nationalist ideology, made progress in the poorer parts of Syria, particularly the Alawi and Druze areas, and within the military. Part of its appeal to confessional minorities was its secular emphasis on the equality of all Arabs, irrespective of religion, and its view of Islam as a cultural rather than religious component of Arab national identity.
In 1963 the Ba’ath seized power, purging the army of ‘disloyal elements’ and replacing them with officers drawn disproportionately from the Alawi and Druze communities. By 1966 many Sunnis had been removed from positions of responsibility. A Druze attempt to displace Alawi ascendancy in the Ba’ath Party failed in 1966, and many Druze were purged from the security forces. Although power was already concentrated in the hands of a largely Alawi leadership, Isma’ilis were the next to be purged from the armed forces.
Syria plotted with other Arab countries to attack Israel in 1967, but Israel launched a pre-emptive strike. At the end of the Six Day War, Israel occupied a part of Syria, namely the Golan Heights.
In 1970 Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad came to power in a coup against a fellow Alawi, and formally became president in 1971. Although many posts in the armed forces and security apparatus were held by Sunnis, Alawis from al-Assad’s own family, tribe or village neighbourhood held the essential keys to control of the state.
A Syrian and Egyptian attempt to regain lost territory through a surprise attack on Israel in 1973 was defeated. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 and began settling Jews there in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The United Nations refused to recognize the Israeli annexation.
From 1979 the regime began to face a serious Sunni revivalist challenge, as civil disobedience spread from one city to another. In 1982 the Syrian military suppressed an uprising organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama, reportedly killing up to 20,000 and causing mass destruction. Much of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership fled the country.
Hafez al-Assad ruled until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by his son, Bashar. After initial hopes of political liberalization, Bashar al-Assad continued his father’s heavy-handed tactics. Tension between Syria and western countries grew following the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which prompted waves of Iraqi refugees to enter Syria.
Considered as one of the most repressive regimes in the Arab world, the Syrian regime brutally suppressed a Kurdish uprising in 2004, which began as a reaction to the abuses waged against the population of Kurds living in Syria’s Kurdish areas. It is widely believed that the uprising was sparked by an incident at Qamishli stadium before a football game, when Arab Baathists supported by Syrian security forces clashed with Kurdish fans.
Following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, protests against Syrian forces in Lebanon caused the government to withdraw them. Events in Lebanon appeared to provide a boost to opposition groups in Syria itself. Syrian government foreign policy – which has focused on supporting armed groups in Iraq, and fuelling unrest in Lebanon and other neighbouring countries especially after 2005 – intensified the international isolation of Syria.
In March 2011, inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, anti-government protests broke out in the city of Deraa in the south. Security forces opened fire onto unarmed crowds, killing several people. Unrest quickly spread across the country. Towns such as Deraa, Homs and Douma were besieged for days as President Bashar al-Assad sent troops and tanks to quell protests, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians. Men were rounded up in night-time raids and electricity and communication lines were cut. What began as a peaceful uprising devolved into civil war as military defectors joined the opposition to Assad, forming the Free Syrian Army.
Over time, the conflict has evolved to include an increasing number of parties and has taken on greater sectarian dimensions, fuelled by government rhetoric about fighting religious extremism, the composition of armed forces on both sides, and international influence. The regime is backed by Iran, Russia and the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon, while the opposition is supported by several countries, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. A number of other armed groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (previously called Jabhat al-Nusra), are also fighting against the government. The conflict has been marked by grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including the widespread commission of torture, rape and enforced disappearances, the shelling of entire neighborhoods, the targeting of civilian infrastructure, and the use of chemical weapons. As of the end of 2016, more than 4.8 million Syrians had been made refugees and 6.3 million were internally displaced.
The regime of Hafez al-Assad maintained its position by tight security control, which led to widespread human rights abuses. Generally speaking, these were applied at an individual level, and no minority was the specific target of persecution. In fact, minorities were sometimes thought of as allies of the regime against the majority population, and this led at times to privileges. Technically it was an offence to ‘incite strife among the various sects or elements of the nation’ (Press Code of 1948) or to carry out ‘sectarian activities’ (Law of Associations and Private Societies, 1958).
Assad’s government continued the policy of its predecessors in using one group against another or applying pressure to any minority which demonstrated political cohesion, ensuring that no community in Syria had the ability to displace the Alawis. Crudely, the heart of the regime lay in the overlap among four ‘circles of power’: the army, the Ba’ath Party, the Alawi community and the Assad family. Under this system, Syria fell into deepening poverty despite its oil exports.
Upon Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar became president. Initial moves to ease the stifling controls of his father, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and an expansion of civil liberties, became known as the ‘Damascus Spring’. However, the new policy of liberalization suddenly reversed in February 2001, as civil society leaders and reformist politicians were arrested and promised economic reforms were jettisoned. A state of emergency declared in 1963 allowed security services to operate nearly unchecked against regime opponents. On 27 May 2007, Bashar al-Assad was re-elected to a second seven-year term as president, winning 97 per cent of votes in a nationwide referendum. In reality there was no democratic element involved and the entire exercise was controlled by the regime.
Women enjoyed a measure of emancipation under Ba’athist rule, with some elected to parliament and others appointed to senior professional positions. However, laws remained in place providing that rapists be acquitted if they marry their victims, and women could not travel without authorization of their husbands. Social attitudes toward women remained extremely varied, especially in the countryside.
At the start of the uprising in 2011, the government undertook some limited governance reforms to placate its opponents, including lifting the almost 50-year-old state of emergency. Regardless, security forces escalated the use of violent and repressive measures against unarmed civilian protesters. In 2012, a new Constitution came into force after being approved through referendum. Whereas the 1973 Constitution named the Ba’ath party as the leading party in society and the state, the new Constitution provided for a multi-party system and allowed candidates to run for elections without the approval of the Ba’ath party. The president serves for a term of seven years and is permitted to run for re-election once. Like the previous Constitution, the head of state is required to be Muslim, but Islam is not enshrined as the religion of the state itself.
A presidential election was held on 3 June 2014 in government-controlled areas, which translated into roughly 40 per cent of Syrian territory. The election was the first in the history of the country in which multiple candidates stood for election. Bashar Al-Assad won 88.7 per cent of the votes in the election, which was dismissed as illegitimate by international observers. The opposition continues to call for democracy and freedom and an end to the current regime. But despite economic sanctions and pressure from the international community to step down, Assad has shown no signs of relinquishing power voluntarily.
Parallel governance structures have emerged as a result of the Syrian conflict and the Assad government’s loss of legitimacy. The Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group representing the opposition, was formed in late 2012 and has established the Syrian Interim Government. It is recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people by a large number of states, and has been given Syria’s seat in the Arab League. In opposition-controlled areas of Syria, Local Councils function as effective governing structures in the absence of the Assad government. Local Councils play leading roles in service delivery, have established formalized structures and procedures, and have attempted to encourage more participatory and inclusive governance. However, resource constraints have prevented them from developing systematic, long-term plans.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party has established autonomous rule in the self-declared Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria (also known as Rojava). In 2016, a constitutional blueprint was approved for the region, which portrays itself as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, democratic society. The region has introduced positive practices in terms of women’s empowerment. According to the region’s laws, all civil society and governing bodies must have at least 40 per cent female membership, and administrative organs, economic projects, and civil society organizations must be headed by male and female co-chairs. Through the Kongreya-Star, the umbrella organization for the women’s movement in Rojava, women play coordinating roles in the management of education, public health, the economy, community dispute resolution, and citizens’ defense. Neither the Syrian government nor the Syrian National Coalition recognize the legitimacy of the northern federal region.
Updated March 2018.
Action Group for Palestinians of Syria
Centre for Armenian Information and Advice
Institute of Isma’ili Studies
Kurdish Human Rights Project
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
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