The Problem With Syria’s Demographics

How Population Change Stymies Peace

A general view shows a damaged street with sandbags used as barriers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, March 6, 2015. Hosam Katan / Reuters

Over the years, there have been several attempts to broker peace in Syria. The most recent one took place on the sidelines of the G–20 summit in Hamburg, where U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin discussed a possible agreement between their two countries. The hope was that a bilateral deal could inject some life into the stalled Geneva and Astana peace talks that have been going on for over two years. But this discussion, and all recent efforts to end the now six-year conflict have been premised on the erroneous assumption that returning Syria to its pre-war political structure will bring peace.

For starters, the war has fundamentally altered Syria’s demographics, and for this alone, a return to pre-war Syria will be impossible. Over the past three years, the Assad regime and its allies have successfully reduced the presence of Sunnis in the areas closest to the big urban centers, primarily Damascus and the coast. These are areas where Christians and Alawites (the sect to which the Assads belong) have a strong presence and where the bulk of the country’s trade takes place. The operations of the regime and its allies here were not aimed at killing Sunnis, but rather at incentivizing them to leave. It was no coincidence that the routes out of Syria to Jordan and Lebanon remained quite safe over the past few years. Assad’s goal was to create a geographically contiguous area with a significantly lower Sunni share of the population compared to pre-2011 levels. The underlying logic is that many minorities support the Assad regime because they believe that only it can protect them. But it is exactly this new demographic make-up that makes it impossible to return to Syria’s pre-war political structure.

Modern Syria, which emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, was carved out of Greater Syria and the eastern Levant, from which the Lebanese Republic and modern-day Jordan were also born.

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