Maps show how divided Syria is and how dangerous a breakdown in public authority is likely to be.
The country’s 19 million people are divided into Sunni Arabs (65 percent), Alawis (12 percent), Christians (10 percent), Kurds (9 percent), Druze (3 percent), Bedouin, Ismailis, Turcomans, Circassians, and Assyrians. This demographic mosaic is further complicated by divisions within many of these groups. The Christians, for example, are divided into eleven main sects, including the Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Syrian, Maronite, Chaldean, Armenian, and Catholic denominations. The Sunni Arabs range from the highly pious to the very secular and are divided between an urban elite and the rural masses that traditionally have had diverging political loyalties. Like many countries in the Middle East, the sharpest divide may not so much be religious or ethnic as it is ideological and existential, pitting Muslims who want to align politics with religion against those who wish to keep them apart. Of all the groups, the Kurds and the Sunni Islamists are the greatest threats to the Syrian state because their political movements have the cohesion, established agendas, outside support, and sense of grievance to drive them to challenge central authority.
Although it was long an island of stability in a sea of states riven by religious, ethnic, and even ideological divisions, Syria’s complex sociopolitical makeup makes it highly characteristic of its neighborhood—and equally susceptible to the bloody sectarianism that places such as Lebanon and Iraq have suffered. Syria’s past stability is thus no guarantee of its future stability. Indeed, the intercommunal harmony and political coherence that the country enjoyed for forty years have little to do with its people’s sense of a common identity and a lot to do with the ability of former president Hafez al-Asad to orchestrate financial incentives and repressive tactics so as to co-opt key groups while suppressing dissent.
As a result, any transition to a new system will be fraught with dangers for the Syrian people, large numbers of whom depend on the state for their incomes, and all of whom stand to suffer if the process of institutional change spurs the dissolution of the country into competing communal factions. Although some Western governments and analysts and some opposition figures argue for a rapid transition to a Western-style capitalist and democratic system, Syria’s sectarian cleavages underscore the importance of moving gradually to a system more suited to Syria’s challenges.
Divided polities such as Syria and most other Arab countries face fundamentally different challenges in modernizing than did the nation-states of the West—and therefore need different standards and models to guide their evolution. Preserving security and the unity of the state, rather than promoting Western-style personal freedoms, should be paramount when formulating policies that move them towards pluralism.