The Syrian Civil War and the Demographic Changes to Expect

The early stages of the Syrian civil war claimed few lives on a daily basis. Later, the average daily rate of casualties climbed to tens and in the last few days the rate alarmingly accelerated to hundreds a day. We shall soon witness the terrible reality of thousands a day, and this is going to happen even before the final downfall of the regime.

It is frightening to think what may happen afterwards. The numbers could be gigantic, beyond and above anything that has ever occurred in the Middle East. Alongside the fatalities, there is a dramatically growing number of refugees, and while it is difficult to come up with exact figures, it is highly likely that the number is well in excess of half a million and counting. The main concentrations are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and a new phenomenon is the flight back to Iraq of many refugees that left to Syria because of the horrors of the Iraqi sectarian conflict. Even the traditional enemy of Syria, Israel, is bracing itself for a possible flood of refugees, though the chances of that happening are really slim.

On top of all that, there is another development which is inevitable under the current circumstances in Syria, and this is the internal refugee problem caused by the sectarian cleansing which is already taking place and which does not get much attention. I refer to the fact that neighborhoods which used to be mixed with Sunnis, Alawites, Christians and others, living side-by-side in some kind of tensed, suspicious co-existence, are becoming now single sect areas, as a result of massacres which have already taken place, and the fear that more -- much more -- is In store.

All this is not uniquely Syrian, and similar situations took place in other Middle Eastern countries, which were tormented by internal sectarian-oriented conflicts. One such country is Iraq, and another, closer to Syria's main population centers, is Lebanon. There, the two-years war of 1975-6, stretching all the way to the early 1990s, claimed the lives of well over 100,000 people, with hundreds of thousands forced to become refugees in their own country, and many other hundreds of thousands leaving Lebanon for good, joining the millions of their brethren who were forced out of their homeland as of the late 19th century. with all that happening, the entire demographic profile of Lebanon changed irreversibly, and we are going to witness a similar situation in Syria.

In the case of Lebanon, the civil war and its aftermath brought about two very distinct changes, the first was the dramatic weakening of the Christian population of the country, mostly the Maronites, but also other Christian sects, and the second, was the brain drain, as many who left belonged to the more educated and skilled elements of the population. Also in the case of Iraq, many Chaldean-Assyrian Christians left, alongside many Sunni and Shi'ite professionals. The fate of Syria will not be much different. Many Christians are likely to leave, as the new, Sunni-oriented regime is likely to become ever more Islamist. Bashar Assad has still some advocates even in the West, who claim that his downfall will lead to the rise of radical Sunni elements, such as Al-Qa'eda. While that is not in the offing, clearly it is that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliates will play a major role in the new Syria. This is not good news to non-Sunni minorities, and many Christians will draw the only possible conclusion and leave.

In fairness to the Syrian opposition, it is the case that they are making it a central theme of their appeal to the West, that they will establish a non-sectarian regime, and they may very well mean it, but on the ground the picture emerging is different. One indication of it is the names used by local Sunni militias, whether those which profess loyalty to the Free Syria Army, or those which are independent, names such as "descendants of the Prophet," "the Army of Muhammad," and similar ones are very popular. Another indication is the repeated reports about the forcible dislocation of Christians from areas controlled by the rebels.

We can expect also a mass immigration of professionals and skilled people, and inside Syria itself, neighborhoods will transform and cities like Homs and Hammah, which traditionally were centers of conservative Sunni elements with non-Sunni minorities, will become entirely Sunni. It can also be expected that Damascus' and Aleppo's demographic profile will change dramatically. For hundreds and thousands, if not more, the current way of life will thus come to an end.

The new Syria will not just have new rulers, it will also be significantly different demographically than the current one. All people of good will should hope and pray that the changes will not be achieved with rivers of blood in the streets of towns and villages. The signs though are not at all encouraging.