GENEVA — War is reshaping Syria, causing massive displacements of populations that, even more than the rising casualty numbers, have shifted the roles played by the country's principal ethnic and religious communities.
Some groups have emerged strengthened, others weakened, now and perhaps forever. These demographic gains and losses will carry more weight in the long term in the region than any military victory or defeat.
The demographic dimension of the conflict is even more central as it falls within a long history of tensions among ethnic and religious groups, particularly between the overwhelming Arab Sunni majority and the smaller Arab Alawite minority, which was long oppressed before achieving power in the 1960s.
The imbalance between the demographic reality and the political situation had worsened since the 1980s, with a growing gap between the fertility rates of the two communities, notes Youssef Courbage, research director of the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED), in Paris.
Better treated by the regime, the Alawite now have a fertility rate of slightly more than two children per woman, which is close to European averages. The less favored Sunni have kept a much higher rate of five children per woman, which is typical of precarious socioeconomic conditions, especially in terms of access to health care and education.
Things, however, are not so clear-cut. The Sunni are by no means a homogenous majority: Its representatives in the urban upper classes, for example, have had a fertility rate that is similar to the Alawite elites. Still, the overall demographic weight of the Sunni in Syrian society has made the Alawite stranglehold on power more and more incongruous, and a challenge to the political status quo more and more inevitable.
"The Arab Spring was not the same in Syria as it was in Tunisia or Egypt," says Courbage. "From the start it was an attempt to restore balance between the different communities."
This explains why the Sunni rose up and the Alawite were so destabilized by their demands. Five years of war later, the problem remains unsolved. The context, however, has changed due to a shift in the balance of power between the communities.
The Alawite camp is weakened. Before the war, it was already suffering from its falling fertility rate. This prevented it from having as many soldiers as would it have liked and reinforced the proportion of Sunni in the army. The conflict has complicated matters even more, killing some 250,000 overall, including including 90,000 regime soldiers and 80,000 rebels. The Alawite camp, which ruled over 21.5 million Syrians five years ago, now controls just 10 million, or 63% of the 16 million people still in the country.
At the same time, Sunni Arabs have also been strongly affected. "They are the ones the regime has bombed the most," says Fabrice Balance, a geography professor at the University of Lyon 2 and a guest researcher at the Washington Institute. "They also form the crushing majority of refugees fleeing the country."
The regular army is even said to have reduced its presence on the Jordan border in order to facilitate the departure of these "undesirables" and reduce their influence in the Syrian equation.
Millions on the move
Migration abroad represents a massive phenomenon, as one-fourth of Syria's population — 5.3 million people out of 21.5 million — fled between 2011 and 2015. With this, the proportion of Alawite increased from 10% to 13% and the Arab Sunni decreased, 64% to 61%. The changes are significant, though not enough to shift the power balance between the two groups. The only group whose fate has been completely transformed by exile is the Christian community, whose proportion fell from 5% to 3% in the same period.
The conflict has also caused significant internal displacement. Out of the 16 million Syrians who are still in the country, some 6.5 million have been uprooted. The result has been a redrawing of the "community map."
Many are guided simply by the logic of survival. They leave war zones in search of safer areas, ideally places that will remain peaceful for a long time. "This has benefitted the most stable region of the country, that is to say government territory," Balanche explains. "About three quarters of the displaced went there, including, paradoxically, Sunni Arabs who were bombed by the regime."
Others seek out places where they know people, which favors the regrouping of people inside their own communities. This contributes to the creation of more ethnically or religiously homogenous areas. Then there are those who seek to escape a specific oppression: civilian populations fleeing efforts by certain parties of the conflict, such as ISIS or other jihadist groups, to exert ethnic or religious domination.
A reorganizing is underway. Religious minorities (Alawite, Christians and Druse) that represent just 22% of Syria's total population are now 41% of the population in the territory controlled by the regime in Damascus. The area controlled by Kurdish militias, in the north of the country, attracts a lot more displaced Kurds than displaced Arabs. And regions that have fallen under the control of jihadist groups are becoming essentially Sunni areas.
Does this mean the country is being divided into three ethnically or religiously homogenous regions? Fabrice Balanche doubts it, noting that the country — especially the area dominated by the Damascus government — is too diverse for that to be true. Balanche thinks the regime is less concerned about creating a purely Alawite stronghold than it is about benefitting from the divisions to prevail: a goal it intends to fulfill by setting the Sunni against each other.
The exile of several million Syrians, in the meantime, has not only has a profound affect on Syria, but also on two neighboring countries: Jordan and Lebanon.
In Jordan, the influx of some 600,000 Syrians after the arrival of 1 million Iraqis has distinctly reduced the proportion of Palestinians in the population. The impact on Lebanon, where some 1.5 million Syrians have fled, doubling the side of the Sunni community there, is even more profound. Syrians now represents one-quarter of Lebanon's entire population. The local Shia, outnumbered, are already regretting the role inadvertently played in this influx by backing the Alawite regime.
"The arrival of 100,000 Palestinians in 1948 caused lots of problems for Lebanon, including the start of a 15-year war," Youssef Courbage recalls. "The arrival of two million Syrians threatens to set alight a country that is still a powder keg."