Who are the Syrians?


By a Newsnet reporter

Although often presented in the media as a black and white issue of a “good” opposition fighting against an “evil regime”, the reality on the ground in Syria is considerably more complex.  With a total pre-war population of over 21 million, Syria is made up of a patchwork of different religious and ethnic groups, the current civil war has its roots in the tensions and disputes which have arisen between these groups.

By a Newsnet reporter

Although often presented in the media as a black and white issue of a “good” opposition fighting against an “evil regime”, the reality on the ground in Syria is considerably more complex.  With a total pre-war population of over 21 million, Syria is made up of a patchwork of different religious and ethnic groups, the current civil war has its roots in the tensions and disputes which have arisen between these groups.

Population patterns have been badly disrupted by the civil war, it is estimated that over 2.5 million Syrians are now refugees in neighbouring countries.  The accompanying map shows the areas of the country where different communities predominated prior to the outbreak of war.


Making up around 59% of the population, Arabic speaking Sunni Muslims are by far the largest community in Syria and historically dominated the country.  Under Ottoman Turkish rule, which lasted until the end of WW1, the Arab Sunnis enjoyed a privileged position in Syria. 

After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was broken up and Syria was placed under French administration by the League of Nations.  The French adopted a policy of favouring Syrian minorities at the expense of the Sunni majority, which suffered in terms of employment and educational opportunities.  It was during this period that modern Lebanon was excised from Syria and set up as a separate state by the French.  At the time Lebanon had a majority Christian population. 

Syria became independent from France in 1946, but the country was politically unstable and plagued by frequent coups.  The Ba’athist party, which was favoured by the country’s religious minorities, seized power in 1963. 

After this date Sunnis began to complain of increasing discrimination against them by the state.  The Alawites and Christians enjoyed official favour, and Sunnis were largely excluded from power.  Rising tensions led to an armed uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s, which resulted in a clampdown on the Sunni population.  This was followed by an uprising in the city of Hamma in 1982, which was brutally put down by the dictator Hafez al Assad, father of the current president.  It is estimated that between 10,000 and 40,000 Sunni civilians lost their lives in the aftermath of the uprising.

The largest Sunni political group is the Free Syrian Army, a non-sectarian grouping seeking national unity.  Growing out of the initial peaceful protests against the Syrian government, which were ruthlessly put down, this is the organisation which Western intervention claims to support.  The Free Syrian Army also enjoys the support of many of Syria’s Druze, Turks, and Palestinians.

However a significant number of Syria’s Sunnis give their support to the Al Nusra Front, a coalition of Islamicist / Jihadist groups which has been accused of being allied to Al Qaeda.  The Al Nusra Front seeks an Islamic state and wishes to impose a strict form of Sharia law.


Making up some 11% of the population, Arabic speaking Alawites are the largest minority group in Syria and form the bedrock of support for the Syrian government.  President Bashir al-Assad is of Alawite origin.  The traditional homeland of the Alawites is the Latakia region on Syria’s Mediterranean coast where they form a large majority of the population, but important communities are also found in other parts of the country, particularly around the capital Damascus.

The Alawite religion is an offshoot of Shia Islam and incorporates a number of pre-Islamic beliefs and customs.  The community was traditionally subject to severe discrimination at the hands of Sunni Muslim Arabs and Turks, who did not consider the Alawites to be Muslims and treated them as a heretical group which did not enjoy the legal protections afforded to Christians or Jews. Considerable sectarian tensions developed between Sunnis and Alawites as a result. 

Alawites enjoyed prominent positions in the Ba’athist party, and after the Alawite Hafez al Assad took power in 1970, the community became increasingly favoured by the state.  Assad engineered a ruling from the country’s Shia religious leaders which declared the Alawites to be a branch of Shia, and hence of Islam.  This was rejected by many Sunni, who continue to maintain that Alawites are not Muslims. 

Alawite villages enjoyed the greatest government investment in Assad’s Syria, and community members had preferential access to plum government positions.  This has caused deep resentment amongst Syria’s other communities. 

The Alawites are deeply afraid of a return to Sunni control, as they fear that they will again be classified as “non-Muslims” as they were in Ottoman times, and will lose legal protection.  The Al Nusra Front in particular makes no secret of its anitpathy towards the Alawites (and Shia Muslims in general).

Alawite militia groups are funded and resourced by the Syrian state.  Alawite militias have been accused of some of the worst atrocities against civilians in the current civil war.


Although they form a majority in Iraq and Iran, and make up as much as 30% of the Lebanese population, at just 2% the Shias are only a small minority in Syria.  The Shias are closely allied with the Alawites.  It is the support of the Syrian government for the Shia minority which has led to the Syrian government being given the backing of Iran.


The largest Christian community, the Assyrians, belong to a number of different Christian denominations.  Descended from the pre-Arab population of the country, the Assyrians are now predominantly Arabic speaking, although a small minority retains use of their traditional Assyrian tongue – which remains the language used in the liturgy of the Assyrian churches.

In the 1920s Christians made up over 25% of the Syrian population.  Due to a lower birth-rate and higher rates of emigration, they have declined in relative numbers and now comprise around 10% of the total.

Syria’s Christians predominantly live in cities, forming important communities in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah and Latakia.  Traditionally they were better educated and even today there are relatively more Christians in professional occupations. 

Christians largely support the Syrian government, although they are less united in their backing of the Assad regime than the Alawites or Shias.  As a predominatly urban and educated population, many Syrian Christians lend their support to the secularist and liberal wing of the Syrian opposition.


Numbering around 190,000, Syria’s Armenians form an important minority within the Christian community.  Traditionally shopkeepers and small businesspeople, the Armenians enjoyed a privileged position under French rule.  The community has sought to remain neutral in the civil war.  A number of Syrian Armenians have emigrated to Armenia in order to escape the violence.


The largest non-Arabic speaking community in Syria, Kurds make up around 9% of the country’s population – or around 2 million people.  A member of the same language family as Persian and the Pashtun language of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Kurdish language dominates in the far north the country along the borders with Turkey and Iraq. 

The Syrian Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims, but a minority follow the Yazidi religion, a syncretic faith comprising elements of Islam, Christianity and ancient pagan traditions.  There are reportedly few sectarian tensions within Syria’s Kurdish population, but ethnic tensions reportedly exist between Kurds on one hand, and Turks and Arabs on the other.

Last year it was reported that Syrian government forces had largely withdrawn from the Kurdish regions, leaving them under the control of Kurdish militia groups.  These groups seek greater autonomy for the Syrian Kurds, and recognition of their language and distinct ethnic identity.  In general, the Kurdish groups try to maintain their distance from both the Syrian government and the main opposition forces, playing one off against the other.


Around 400,000 Palestinians live in Syria, descended from refugees who arrived in the country after the war in 1948 which followed the foundation of the state of Israel.  The community settled in refugee camps on the outskirts of Syria’s cities, the camps have now become established towns.

A sizeable majority of Syrian Palestians are Sunni, most of the remainder are Christian.  At least one battalion of the opposition Free Syrian Army is composed of Palestinians, however a significant number of Syrian Palestinians support the Assad regime.


Known as Turkmen locally, although they speak Turkish and not the Turkmen language of Turkmenistan, Syria’s Turks are concentrated in the north west, mainly around the city of Aleppo and the Latakia region on the Mediterranean coast.  There are an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Turkish speakers in Syria.  The community is mostly Sunni Muslim, but contains an important Alawite minority. 

The Sunni Turks seem to support the opposition.  The Turkish government has been vocal in its support for the Syrian opposition, and has led the calls for Western intervention in the civil war.  However many of the Turkish speaking Alawites support the Syrian Resistance militia, a pro-Syrian government militia which has been accused of commiting sectarian attacks on Sunni villages.


Making up some 400,000 people, the Druze are an Arabic speaking religious minority.  The Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam, but orthodox Muslims regard the Druze as non-Muslims.  Syria’s Druze are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Jabal al Druze region in the far south of the country where they form up to 90% of the population.  Most of the remainder are Syrian Christians who follow the Greek Orthodox faith.

The Druze appear to be largely opposed to the Syrian regime, with many supporting the Free Syrian Army.


Numbering around 100,000, the Circassian community in Syria descends from refugees from the North Caucasus who fled to territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire in the mid 19th century, after Tsarist Russia conquered their homelands in what is now Russia’s Pontic Steppe region.  Speaking dialects of the Circassian language, they are largely Sunni by religion.  A number of Syrian Circassians have escaped the war by migrating to the Russian autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus, which has a majority Circassian population.

Iraqi refugees

It is estimated that over 1 million Iraqis sought refuge in Syria during the American invasion of their country, and the subsequent civil war.  Mainly Shia, they were reportedly targeted by opposition fighters in 2012.  Most have now returned to Iraq, but as many as 200,000 may remain in Syria.