An existential battle for the demographic future of Syria
By Dr. Harold Rhode
The Syrian government, Russia, and Iran (SRI) are trying to change the demographic makeup of Syria. They aim to depopulate Syria of the Arab Sunnis, which, before the Arab Spring was the largest religio-ethnic group in Syria. They mostly inhabited a very fertile strip of land between Aleppo in the north, down to Damascus, and then southward to the Jordanian border. Those Arab Sunnis who did not leave are being forced to move to Idlib and Raqqa, near the Turkish border.
Examining SRI’s military campaign and its policy towards the refugees they have created suggests this SRI strategy. The groups and places which the Russians have been attacking are the traditional strongholds of the Sunni Arab population – as of late Aleppo – the largest city in Syria.
What is SRI’s goal and why are they doing this?
Bashar Assad’s regime is Alawite, a sect that was recognized by the Lebanese Shiite religious establishment as a branch of Shi’ism. But Syria’s Arab Sunnis never recognized the Alawite rulers as Muslims. By Islamic law, only a Muslim can rule a Muslim country. The Sunnis acquiesced to Alawite rule because of their inability to forcefully remove the Assad family from power. Nevertheless, until today, the upper class Arab Sunnis families who employed Alawites as servants in their households refer disparagingly to their Alawite servants as abid (“slaves” in Arabic).
Prior to the Arab Spring, the Alawites constituted roughly 12 percent of Syria’s population. Alawite rule over Syria was always tenuous at best – because Syria’s Alawite military leadership kept order in the country through coercion, not consent.
When the Arab Spring took hold in Syria, it was the Arab Sunnis, first and foremost, who revolted against the Alawite regime. They were aided in their efforts by fellow Sunnis in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni powers, which provided arms and funding.
From the perspective of the Alawites and other non-Sunni Arabs, the Sunni revolt constituted a clear and present danger to the non-Sunni regime. After all, the Middle East is a rough neighborhood, and people nurse grudges and perceived insults to their honor until they have the opportunity to avenge perceived “wrongs.” Nothing is ever forgotten; nothing is ever forgiven. For these Sunnis, it is an offense against Allah that these non-Muslim Alawites were ruling Syria.
The Iranians, Russians, and Syrian governments joined together to fight against the Sunni fundamentalists because all three see themselves in an existential battle against the radical Sunnis. They joined together to “rectify” this problem by ridding Syria of its Sunni Arabs and thereby change the demographic make-up of Syria forever.
They are forcing the Arab Sunnis to leave the country through bombing, terror, and other methods. It is therefore not surprising that the overwhelming numbers of Syrian refugees are Arab Sunnis from the Damascus-Aleppo corridor which has been the traditional heartland of the Arab Sunni community. Indeed, the majority of migrants currently living in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey are largely Arab Sunni, as are the refugees who made it to Europe.
The Iranians are Shiites, and they harbor a huge fear that the Sunnis will destroy them, as the Sunnis have done over the centuries since the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Ditto Russia: The Russians too have an existential problem with the Sunnis, as about 98 percent of the former Soviet Muslims are Sunni. Today, Moscow’s Muslim population is estimated at over one-quarter (and higher), including legal residents and illegal workers, according to some analysts. Almost all – except most Moscow-resident Azeris – are Sunni. Russia too feels an existential threat from these Sunnis like their Iranian and Syrian Alawite allies. Therefore, the Russian government has undertaken a program – with some success – to entice Russian Sunnis to convert to Shiism.
The Syrian Sunnis abandoned their town and villages in droves, even leaving behind unplowed fields. That is why last summer, the topsoil of this very fertile corridor between Damascus and Aleppo blew away, mostly southward towards Jordan and Israel.
After dislocating Syria’s Arab Sunnis, the Russians, Iranians, and Syrian government moved on to phase two: re-populating this now relatively empty Arab Sunni areas with Shiites – mostly from Iraq.
That is why Russia, Syria government, and Iran refrained from attacking the Christians, Sunni Kurds, and Druze throughout the country. And that is why the fundamentalist Sunni Turkish government opposes SRI. Turkey is clearly on the side of the Sunnis and opposes the Iranians, Russians, and Syrian Alawite government.
In contrast, the United States failed to understand what was happening in Syria. Though America naively spent large sums trying to train and even arm some of these Sunnis, many of America’s “friends” in Syria turned around and joined or turned over their weaponry to the myriad of Sunni fundamentalist groups fighting in Syria. For example, American-supplied TOW missiles to these Sunnis later ended up in the hands of al-Qa’ida.
Sadly, the U.S. Government failed to understand that this is not a battle between good and bad, or moderates and extremists. It is an existential battle for the demographic future of that country, and whether or not the non-Arab Sunnis finally have the chance to rid themselves of the Arab Sunni yoke that has plagued them since Syria was conquered by the Sunni Muslims in the mid-seventh century.
How and when this battle will end is anybody’s guess. The Russians understand the game, which explains why they have chosen to support the Syrian government at all costs. They have common interests. Now is their chance to change the demographic situation forever and deal a serious blow to the Sunnis.
Russian soldiers in Syria
Assuming things remain as they are, Syria will not have many Arab Sunni Muslims living there in the future.
As long as the present Shiite fundamentalist government remains in power in Iran, what is happening in Syria is an existential threat to the Arab Sunni regimes, Israel, and others. But if there is a change in regime in Iran, all bets are off. Under the Shah, Iran was a respected member of the international community and concerned first and foremost about internal Iranian affairs. If a new leadership with similar concerns like those of pre-Islamic revolutionary Iran took over, the Shiite-Sunni eternal battle would most likely become less of an issue in inter-Muslim and international affairs.
Even so, we would still expect Russia to remain allied with a non-Islamic Republican Iran, Syria with its new demographic reality, and others such as China and India who also fear Sunni fundamentalism.
But as things stand now in Syria, without a convincing show of American force or even the force of will in Syria or elsewhere in the region, it is reasonable to assume that Russia and Iran will continue to carry out their campaign in Syria, culminating with a nearly complete population exchange, from Sunni to Shiite. In such a scenario, a future government in Syria can be expected to deepen its alliance with Russia and Iran, and act increasingly to oppose the United States and its Western democratic allies.
Whatever the case, if the war in Syria continues – and there are no signs to suggest the contrary – we can expect that in the future, Syria will most likely look demographically completely different from what it did before the Arab Spring.
Dr. Harold Rhode, served for 28 years as an advisor on the Islamic world in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. He is a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at the Gatestone Institute in New York.