Syria: Communitarianism as a Combat Strategy

After nine years of war, the conflict in Syria has considerably modified the country’s demographics. Sunni Arabs, who used to be in the majority, now constitute only 49 to 52% of the population. This is due to the large numbers of refugees and displaced persons generated by the fighting, but it is also the consequence of strategies involving a communitarian approach to the conflict.

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch visits the heavily damaged Syriac Orthodox church of St. Mary in Deir Ezzor on February 3, 2018
Ayham Al-Mohammad/AFP

In 2011, street protests in the town of Daraa were brutally repressed by Bachar Al-Assad’s regime, with dozens of casualties including children. This tragedy sparked the inferno which has raged in Syria for nine years now. As is often the case in wartime, insecurity prompts a communitarian retrenchment. However, this was going to be exacerbated and instrumentalised by the belligerents. The regionalisation of the conflict and the implication of outside actors, especially from Turkey and Iran, intensified the phenomenon.

Ankara has applied a policy of ethnic cleansing in the Kurdish zone under its control. The Turkish state is putting into practice its plan to establish a security corridor peopled with pro-Turkish Arabs by expelling the Kurds and replacing them with jihadist militias that have become its allies.

Tehran is using proxies as well. Shia fighters from nearby countries but also from Afghanistan and Pakistan have not only strengthened the troops in the field but also modified the demographics of certain areas so that they may remain part of Syria. In so doing, the regime is refiguring the distribution of population and making sure that people loyal to Damascus or beholden to it stay in key parts of Syria.

The clientelist policies of the Al-Assad family

Communitarianism is an integral part of the state system put together by Hafez Al-Assad. No sooner had he risen to power than he made hostages of his own community, the Alawites, involving them in his power structure and his security apparatus. He also placated the Sunni majority with clientelist policies that ensured him the support of a certain number of followers within their community. He did the same with the country’s other minorities, by stressing their demographic weakness compared with the Sunni majority.

Carrying on with his father’s strategies, Bachar Al-Assad was to rely on the support of a part of the Sunni bourgeoisie while being taking care not to neglect his community of origin. There are some 2 to 2.5 million Alawites in Syria, i.e., 9 to 11% of the population. Even if there have always been among them opponents of the regime, the rise of jihadism and especially the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS) has forced them to support the official power structure. Many of them are involved in the State apparatus and in the Shabiha militias.

As was demonstrated by Fabrice Balanche in his article ‟Géographie de la révolte syrienne” published in 2011 in Outre-Terre, the Syrian leader and his entourage have used clientelist policies and adjusted their modes of repression in order to fragment the Sunni community and favour the emergence of Jihadists (supported from abroad, especially from Turkey and the Gulf countries) which have overwhelmed the more moderate activists. Thus, Damascus was able to point to Sunni extremism as a dire threat to the various minorities.

An ad hoc approach

Vis-à-vis the Kurds, who were less active than in 2004, the regime was to seek a modus vivendi. There are about 2 million of them and they represent between 9 and 10% of the total population1. Neither of the two main Kurdish forces in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a branch of The Kurdistan Workers’ Party of (PKK) nor the Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS), connected with the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK), one of the two parties that administer Iraqi Kurdistan, has managed to reach an agreement with the Syrian opposition, the National Syrian Council (CNS) dominated by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And yet these two Kurdish forces do not have the same take on present events. The PDK’s followers are placing their hopes on Bachar Al-Assad’s stepping down, while the Kurds of the PYD have opted for a third way: “neither the regime nor the opposition”. This has made room for negotiations with Damascus. An agreement was found. The withdrawal of the regime’s troops has allowed the PYD to take over the areas populated by Kurds as well as a large segment of the Turkish-Syrian border. The deal has made it possible for Damascus to reassemble its troops and focus on “useful Syria”.2 It has also allowed it to be sure the Kurds wouldn’t change sides and has prevented the opposition from gaining access to the Turkish border.

The majority of the Druze live in the governorate of As-Suweyda and represent approximately 3% of the Syrian population. At the start of the uprising, a part of this community joined the demonstrators demanding more freedom. On that occasion, the grand-daughter of Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash (1888–1982), a Druze leader who was active in the opposition to the Assad regime, was gaoled. But wishing to avoid offending the community, Damascus released her a few days later. As time went by the strategies of the Syrian government and the growing threat of Sunni extremism have put a damper on the demands which the Druze had directed at the regime.

Thus in 2012 and 2013, the Druze and Christian inhabitants of two Damascus neighbourhoods, Jaraman and Sanya joined forces with Assad to fight the insurgent groups. The Druze are very active in the State apparatus and have formed self-defence militias to protect their community. “This said, there is one exception, concerning the Druze who live in the North of Idlib, in the mountains of the Jebel Sumak. These people claim to support the revolution but not to the point of taking up arms. For them it is merely a matter of self-protection in an area held by the opposition, they are making use of taqiya (dissimulation)” (Fabrice Balanche).

Syrian Christians belong to several different ethnicities and denominations. They are thought to number some two million. The main Christian groups are Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean and Arab. The Armenians, estimated at some 100,000, have been in close proximity with the power structure since the time of Hafez Al-Assad. In exchange for their support, they have the benefit of a relative autonomy.

As for the Assyro-Cladeans or Syriacs, they number about half a million or 2% of the total population. Most of them live in Damascus and the former province of Al-Jazira. They were very active in the former Baath party, and are still close to the Assad family. Today the Syriacs are split between the Damascus regime and the Syrian Democratic Forcers (FDS) under Kurdish domination but have formed their own self-defence militias. While some have allied themselves with the Kurds, most remain loyal to Damascus. There are a bit less than one million Christian Arabs, including all denominations. They are, for the most part favourable to the central government, as His Grace Jeanbart, Melkite archbishop of Aleppo, reminds us. He is ‟very worried about the fate of Syria’s Christians should the regime be overthrown. Many of the faithful would emigrate, as has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.” (Nora Benkorich). Like other minorities, a part of the Christian population was involved in the 2011 protests, but the confessional turn taken by the rebellion and the events in Iraq prompted a majority to support the regime again.

The Ismailis (Shiism of the Seven Pillars) and the Twelver Shiites taken together represent some 2 to 3% of the population. Some Ismailis, especially in Salamyeh, took part in the demonstrations against the regime. In the hope of drawing them into the opposite camp, they were not brutally repressed. Their increasing fear of the Islamists ultimately led them to adopt a neutral stance or even to sympathise with the central government.

The other Shiites had generally kept clear of politics until 1990 with the arrival of Iranian missionaries. In 2008, the latter’s proselytism had become so intense that the Sunni religious cadres asked the governmental authorities to intervene. As they were among the first victims of the jihadists, they soon sided with the regime. As early as the autumn of 2011, Shia villages around Al-Qusayr were targeted by rebel raids ‟which was one of the reasons that prompted Hezbollah to intervene in Syria, even before the order came from Tehran, because there are trans-border clan ties between Shiites which involve an automatic duty of solidarity” (Fabrice Balanche).

Two more small communities, the Turkmen (around 150,000) and the Cherkes of Caucasian origin (between 65,000 and 150,000) also live in Syria. The former are Turkish-speaking and for this reason have kept their ties with Ankara. The Turks use them to justify in part their interventions in Syria and the extension of their influence there. Today the Cherkes fall into two categories. One consists of those who have chosen to support the regime—some are members of the security apparatus—while others wish to go back to their homeland (the Caucasus) and have applied to Russia for a right of return.

A law to redraw the map of the country’s demographics

Already the regime is looking to the post-war future. On 2 April 2018, the government promulgated Law No. 10 dealing with ‟urban renewal.” This text, passed by Parliament, allowed local authorities to expropriate private land and decide which areas should be renovated. According to the central government, this is meant to counter informal and illegal housing and promote slum clearance, especially in the suburbs of large municipal areas which have suffered most from the war.

Under international pressure the law was amended but certain aspects remain unclear. It might allow the regime to redraw as it sees fit the ethnic and denominational map of the country. Indeed, according to the UN, the conflict has generated 5.6 million refugees and some 6.6 million displaced persons within the country, most of them Sunni Arabs, Syria’s largest community and the one which has been hardest hit by the war and by government repression. No serious census has been taken for a long time in Syria and for this reason the figures used here are merely estimates provided by specialists and by NGOs. However, all agree that the communities most affected by exile are the Sunni Arabs and the Christians. In its June 2017 report, Open Doors International estimated that 300,000 Christians had fled from Syria. As for geographer Fabrice Balanche, his estimation in the study commissioned by the Washington Institute, was between 600,000 and 700,000, i.e., 10% of all refugees from the war.

These demographic shifts are to the advantage of the regime. The shrunken numbers of Sunni Arabs increase the share of the various minorities, with the exception of the Christians and Cherkes, which in a certain manner strengthens the regime.

1The figures used in this article are taken from two articles: “Les minorités dans le printemps syrien” by Nora Benkorich, published in 2012 in Le Débat, and “Communautarisme en Syrie: lorsque le mythe devient réalité" by Fabrice Balanche, published in 2014 in Confluences Méditerranée.

2EDITOR’S NOTE: Western Syria, where the largest share of its population and economic activity are concentrated. This is in fact a corridor linking Damascus with the South-West and Aleppo and which includes the Mediterranean seaboard and its harbours.