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Demographic upheaval: How the Syrian war is reshaping the region

By Pinhas Inbari
web posted June 23, 2014

The regime of Bashar Assad in Syria held general elections on June 3, 2014. Apart from the regime's "victory" after three years of a bitter war, a key aim behind the elections was to entrench the demographic changes that have occurred in Syria during the war, making it more of a country of Alawites, Shiites, and minorities and less of a Sunni country. That was achieved by denying the right of participation in the elections to the refugees who have fled – the overwhelming majority of whom are Sunnis.

The refugee movements will not only alter the composition of Syria, but also of its neighbors Lebanon and Jordan, to which most of the refugees have fled. The recognized leadership of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, announced that if Assad himself ran in the elections, it would boycott them. At some point, the SNC leadership considered participating in the elections – if a formula could have emerged for a new transition government in Damascus without Assad and that would have allowed the refugees to return. Assad refused to consider the proposals at the two failed Geneva conferences on Syria.

As for Syria itself, about three million of its pre-war population of 22 million have fled the country, most of them Sunnis. Five million have abandoned their homes for other places within Syria, meaning that more than one-third of the citizens of Syria have left their homes. Even though the Alawite-Shiite elements are still minorities, they are increasingly powerful ones and have been depleted less by the refugee crisis.

The war has not only precipitated the large-scale flight of refugees. After the Syrian army returned to the outskirts of Damascus and took over rebel areas, it announced a "rehabilitation program." This was, in fact, aimed at destroying densely populated Sunni neighborhoods that supported the rebels and fracturing these neighborhoods' social composition, all under the guise of "rehabilitation."

The Assad regime has no intention to allow the refugees to return, evident in its plan to issue new identity cards to Syrian citizens and thereby invalidate the refugees' citizenship.

The aims of Assad and his Shiite allies in the war emerge clearly from their actions. They not only expel the Sunnis but also destroy the Syrian mosques of historical importance to them, while reinforcing the religious edifices of the Shiites so that the Sunnis cannot damage them. In other words, Syria is being transformed from a Sunni to a Shiite country not only demographically but also in religious terms. The ethnic cleansing that Assad and his Shiite allies are performing is also a "religious" cleansing, aimed at permanently changing the nature of the country and consolidating the "Shiite crescent."

Iran's Religious Aggression

Syrian opposition sources have privately explained that Saudi Arabia is extremely concerned about the tashayyu phenomenon in Syria, that is, Iran's aggressive mission to convert Sunnis into Shiites. According to these sources, the Saudis have budgeted enormous sums to fight this phenomenon, and it is one of the reasons they are supporting the violent Salafi groups in their savage assault on the Shiites.

A senior figure in the Syrian opposition, Haitham al-Maleh, told Al Rai of Kuwait that there is an agreement between the Assad regime and Iran on transforming Syria into a Shiite country; that in Sunni areas that Assad's army has reconquered, Iran is setting up Shiite religious centers (hawzat) of the Iranian kind; and that Assad's intelligence service is taking part in this missionary effort by exerting pressure on the Sunni population and its religious leaders.

Backing the Iranian efforts in Syria may be a new Shiite expeditionary army of 150,000 soldiers recruited predominantly in Iran and Iraq, according to a recent report.

The latest elections will also re-shift the demographic composition of the population within Syria. As noted, refugees have not only fled from Syria but from place to place within it. The displaced persons from religious and ethnically mixed areas are now crowding into the original locations of their communities, where they sense more security.

Demographic Changes among the Palestinians

The Syrian ethnic-cleansing policy also includes the Palestinians in Syria. Al-Quds al-Arabi, a pan-Arab daily, reported from Syria that the Assad regime told the PLO that the Palestinian refugees who fled the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus will not be allowed to return, and that the regime is systematically destroying the refugee camps in Syria as one way to "cause (Sunni) emigration." One of the reasons the Assad regime decided to demolish the camps was that 400,000 Syrian Sunni refugees had taken shelter in the Yarmouk camp.

In contrast to Syria, Lebanon is becoming more Sunni and less Shiite – and dramatically so. The Lebanese website Lebanon Debate reported that, while official UN statistics state that 20 percent of Lebanon's four million residents are Syrian refugees, the actual number reaches 40-50 percent. Worse yet, these are embittered people who seek revenge. The site quotes the Lebanese president saying behind closed doors that the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are an existential threat to the country. The radical Sunni influence in Lebanon has indeed been strengthened by the infiltration of al-Qaida members among the Palestinian refugees from the destroyed camps in Syria, especially the Yarmouk camp.

Meanwhile the Palestinian refugees are settling into Lebanese refugee camps. There they fall under the sway of Salafi terrorist elements, while transferring the internal conflicts of the Syrian camps to the Lebanese ones.

The influx of refugees from Syria to Jordan, which is ongoing, comes in addition to the previous influx of refugees from Iraq. That means the Palestinian percentage of the Jordanian population is declining, and indeed it is now doubtful whether it can still be asserted that Jordan has a Palestinian majority.

Hizbullah fights in Syria, Grows Weaker in Lebanon

The growth of the Sunni population in Lebanon has also spelled trouble for Hizbullah, exposing it to Sunni terror on one hand and undermining its status in the Lebanese Shiite community on the other. The more Assad cleanses Syria of Sunnis, the weaker Hizbullah's hold on the Lebanese population. There are reports that Hizbullah is aware of the problem and trying to recruit Iraqi Shiites into its ranks.

Before the revolt against Assad erupted, there was already a large influx of Iraqi Shiites into Syria. Their number can be roughly estimated at 500,000, and some reports say the Assad regime is giving them Syrian identity cards and settling them alongside the Druze in Hauran.

The process of emptying Syria of its Sunnis, then, comes at the expense of the Shiite community of Lebanon. A million Sunni refugees from Syria have already settled in Sunni areas of Lebanon and put an end to the parity with the Shiites that stood at 27 percent each, with the remaining population consisting of Druze and Christian denominations. Furthermore, the growing infiltration of Salafi Islamist Sunni elements into Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps threatens to disrupt the camps – and Lebanon -- further.

The PLO is now under Salafi assault within the camps. Senior Palestinian figures have been assassinated, and attacks on PLO offices occur routinely. This has forced the predominately Sunni PLO to coordinate the securing of its facilities with Hizbullah, now that the Shiite organization views al-Qaida's presence in the camps as a common threat to itself and the PLO.

With the Salafis attacking both the PLO and Hizbullah, the coordination between the two is a tactical necessity. The organization absorbing the demographic shockwaves is Hizbullah, which finds itself under a terror offensive in its own power center in Beirut. One result is that Shiites who moved to Beirut from southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley are returning home, and Hizbullah's rivals within the Shiite community are stepping up their criticism of the organization.

Particularly worth paying attention to is Sheikh Subhi Tufayli, who was one of the founders of Hizbullah and its first secretary-general. Immediately after the Syrian revolt broke out, he predicted that the Shiite community – and even Hizbullah itself – would seek to ally with Israel against the Sunni danger. He began to voice opposition to Iran, including the fundamental vilayet-faqih ideology of the ayatollah in Tehran, that is, the supremacy of Iran's Islamic jurists. The Facebook page of his supporters gives the impression that an inclination exists, not yet ripe, to organize the Arab Shiites against the Persian Shiites – or, thought of differently, the holy city of Karbala in Iraq against the holy city Qom in Persia.

In Jordan the demographic equation is not related to the Sunni-Shiite balance since Jordan is an overwhelmingly Sunni country. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan noted that Iraqi refugees in Jordan number about a million. Although the number of Shiites can be estimated at about half a million, there is no way the internal demography among the Iraqi refugees in Jordan can be determined with any precision.

The most politically significant balancing act within Jordan is the one between the Palestinians and the original Transjordanians. Some Palestinians settled in Jordan in the wake of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, and others went there from the West Bank in the wake of the Six Day War. Because of the sensitivity of the issue, there are no official statistics on the proportion of Palestinians in the overall population. Jordan is very sensitive to the notion of the "alternative homeland," whereby Israel would supposedly try to subvert the Transjordanians' dominant status and solve its own problems with the Palestinians by giving them a state on the other side of the Jordan River.

The current refugee influx from Syria is causing the Jordanian government many security, economic, and social problems. But amid the difficulties of the Iraqi and Syrian refugee waves, at least on the Palestinian issue their concern has diminished since, as noted, Palestinians may no longer constitute a majority in the country.

Jordan's concern about demographic dangers from the Syrian direction, however, definitely has not diminished. Well-respected Jordanian journalist Bassam al-Badarin wrote in Al-Quds al-Arabi that Jordan is demanding that the Assad regime take control of the border in the Daraa area. Damascus, however, is intentionally neglecting that border so that Syrian refugees can stream into Jordan. Recently the Jordanian air force attacked vehicles moving from Syria into Jordan – which turned out to be an al-Qaida force on its way to perpetrating a multidimensional terror attack in Jordan. Meanwhile Syrian refugees have abandoned the camps built for them in Jordan and are now dispersed throughout the country, becoming part of its societal fabric.

There are also demographic pressures within the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Amid the deteriorating economic conditions, many Palestinian young people are seeking to emigrate.29If the PLO were to try and revive the intifada, it would have trouble recruiting masses of Palestinian young people to the cause, one senior Palestinian official claimed.

Egypt, a country with an ancient history and Sunni demographic stability, is spared the problems that are plaguing the Levant. Libya, however, gives indications of what Israel can expect from the communal demographic trends in the Middle Eastern countries that border it.

Libya is mired in anarchy as the Bedouin tribes and Salafi groups prevent the state from organizing itself.

Recognition of Israel as an Ally?

Amid the tribal chaos, however, Libya's Berber minority – the Amazigh – is attempting to consolidate separately. The Amazigh Berbers are estimated to constitute about 30 percent of the Libyan population. Their leaders make statements with notably pro-Israeli overtones, repudiating the Arab agenda of support for the Palestinians and war against Israel. In October 2011, at the first world conference of the Amazigh in Tunis, Amazigh president Fathi Ben Khalifa said, "The interest of the world Amazigh movement lies with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, and the Palestinian problem is the problem of the Palestinians alone."

The minorities in the Levant are likely to adopt similar positions, and Lebanon's Subhi Tufayli, as noted, has already made statements in this vein.

The websites of the Kurds also lean in the pro-Israeli direction. For example, the RUDAW site posted an article defending Israel's position on the "blockade of Gaza." The Kurds in Syria are estimated at 20-30 percent of the population. They, too, are undergoing a refugee problem stemming from al-Qaida's pressures, but less so than in other parts of Syria.

The current Middle Eastern upheavals are producing new demographic realities. The communities in Syria are consolidating as the Alawite-Shiite components gain strength; the Sunnis are leaving for Lebanon and undermining Hizbullah's status; in Jordan the relative weight of the Palestinians has declined and the "Jordan is Palestine" threat has diminished; and the West Bank is undergoing emigration pressures which will certainly be copied in Gaza if emigration is allowed.

All this is occurring as minority communities in the Levant and in Libya are developing a positive attitude toward Israel and repudiating pan-Arabism. ESR

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.






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