The Battle of Aleppo: The History of the Ongoing Siege at the Center of the Syrian Civil War (2016)

Chapter 3: Syrian Demographics

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) World Factbook on Syria, Sunni Muslims comprise approximately 74 percent of the country’s population.[10] This number alone, along with the explanations noted above, explains why Sunni Muslims also comprise a majority of the Syrian opposition. This is not to say that there were (and are) no Sunnis in the pro-Assad camp. Given, inter alia, the aforementioned efforts to coopt this sector via participation in the country’s armed forces and core membership of the merchant class, it would be entirely inaccurate to claim that he retained (and retains) no Sunni backing. Aaron Lund, editor of the Syria in Crisis blog[11] at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was quoted in Foreign Policy as stating that “the regime was really bleeding Sunni support in 2011 to 2013, but then it seemed to stabilize to some degree”. Lund went on to explain that the Assad regime “always carefully cultivated support across sects, […] filling the security services with loyalists of every religion and from major tribes”.[12] Kheder Khaddour, also of Carnegie, argued further that the benefits system established for soldiers, including housing allowances, helped maintain backing for Assad among Sunnis in the military.[13]

              Importantly, this reality helps dispute allegations that the initial protests and subsequent armed conflict should be seen through the lens of sectarianism rather than a civil war fueled by political and economic discontent. Although the conflict has certainly displayed elements of sectarianism, particularly as it continued, it is not at its core a sectarian war.

In addition, other minority groups in Syria, as is the case with the Middle East more generally, can be divided into religious and ethnic minorities, with the former largely placing their weight behind Assad and the latter either joining the opposition or pursuing their own interests. Religious minorities like the Alawi, Shia, Druze, and Christian communities have largely backed (and continue to back) the regime. The first two, which comprised about 13 percent of the population[14], can clearly be explained in terms of Assad’s own religious affiliation and, particularly with regard to the Alawi, their outsized influence in the country’s political, security, and economic sectors. In other words, their interests were closely linked with the survival of the Assad regime. Religious minorities in Syria also likely perceived their survival as dependent upon the continuation of secular governance, particularly given the perception among Sunni Islamists that Alawis, Shia, and Druze are heretics. Christians see the situation similarly, despite their status as protected “People of the Book” under Islamic law[15], given the violent and destructive actions taken by militant jihadist groups toward Christian religious sites and populations elsewhere in the religion.

Ethnic minorities, on the other hand, saw neither their interests nor their survival as linked to that of the Assad regime. In a country with a 90.3% Arab population, ethnic minorities, including the Turkmen and Kurdish communities, persistently accused the government of state-sanctioned discrimination. This included polities of Arabization, bans on learning in their respective languages, and disenfranchisement. In a 1962 census, for example, approximately 150,000 Kurds were stripped of citizenship, creating an ever-increasing stateless population deprived of rights granted to citizens. Assad also regarded the Turkmen population, which is focused in northwestern Syria, as a potential “fifth-column” with loyalty to Turkey rather than Damascus.[16] Ankara, meanwhile, viewed the Syrian Kurds as threatening given links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was established during the Cold War (in 1978) in Lebanon and supported by the then-Soviet Union and Syria as a means of destabilizing Turkey, an ally of the West.[17] In 1998, however, after Turkey threatened to invade if Syria didn’t cease its support for the PKK and turn over its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the Adana Protocol was signed, under which Damascus vowed to end its support to the group.[18]

Abdullah Öcalan

Halil Uysal’s picture of Abdullah Ocalan

              Therefore, when it comes to the Turkmen population in Syria, they have largely opposed the Assad regime, formed armed groups and maintained ties to Turkey, from where they receive support. The Kurds, however, in pursuit of a long-standing goal of autonomy (if not necessarily independence)[19], as opposed to either the removal or preservation of the Assad regime, ultimately found themselves at different times throughout the course of the conflict on the de facto same side and at odds with both Assad and the armed opposition.