In order to make sense of the terrible destruction that has overtaken Syria and Iraq, one must understand the fighting in the context of nation building - a process that has swept the globe since the first nation states were formed out of the American and French revolutions.
WW1 was an empire destroying war that created a multitude of new nation states. It destroyed the Russian Empire, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. In 1919, the Paris peace conference chopped those multi-ethnic lands into nation states. And from Poland to Palestine, they all failed spectacularly.
Many peoples were stuck together in one state who did not want to live together. Central Europe and the Middle East did not fit naturally into the new world order nation states: living together in a sprawling multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire, where all one needed to profess was loyalty to a dynasty, was entirely different from the authority of imperial rule. It was difficult for the people in these new states to form organic political communities that shared common national aspirations. It was not long before distrust, competition, and mutual suspicion undermined efforts to rise above religious and ethnic differences. The process of dividing up the Ottoman Empire into nation states was inevitably a long and bloody project.
Historians have done a tremendous job of cataloguing the extraordinary violence and ethnic cleansing that tore apart Central Europe in WW2. We know how the Jewish communities of Europe were destroyed in the nation-building process. Recent books such as Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder and Savage Continent by Keith Lowe describe how a “great sorting out” took place in Europe -- a sorting out in which ethnic groups fought for dominance in the various nations. For minorities the process was a zero-sum game. They were brutally crushed and pushed about. By and large, the borders were not changed to fit the people, but the people were changed to fit the borders.
The international community doesn’t want to change the borders, because the argument is, if this border changes, then other borders will change and it will just be this fluid situation.
So in Syria the growth of an ISIS state the size of Great Britain, that spread all the way from Baghdad to Aleppo, was an attempt to create a Sunni sectarian state – a caliphate – instead of these nation states. It will fail, I presume, because the international community has said: “you can’t do that”. You can’t erase the border between Iraq and Syria, you can’t go back to caliphates, there’s gotta be nation states.
This paroxysm of fighting that begins in both Iraq and Syria begins with the collapse of dictators like Saddam Hussein. These dictators like Hussein and Bashar al Assad are like Tito, the first President of Yugoslavia. They’re holding together, by brute force, these disparate peoples. And when they are destroyed – we shouldn’t use collapse, it’s really a destruction of their states by foreign powers – you get a scramble, a free-for-all, as various supra-and-sub national identities get out.
The borders were not changed to fit the people, but the people were changed to fit the borders.
In Syria, the supranational identities are things like Islamism, which crosses borders; the subnational are groups like the Kurds, Alawites, Christians, Yazidis, Assyrian and so on. Some of these want these nation states to protect themselves, but they’re not going to get them because they’re too small and too weak – they’d get pushed aside and ethnically cleansed.
In Syria you had the Alawites, a minority religious community, that make up about 12% of Syria's population but managed to capture power after the French left in 1946. They were overrepresented in the military – something the French supported by encouraging minorities in the military to control Sunni Arab nationalism. The Alawites used the platform of the military to grab control of the state through a coup in 1970, under Hafez al Assad, the father of Bashar. The Sunnis ruled on the face of it, because the Prime Minister was Sunni and the cabinet was Sunni. But the real muscle behind this was a security state, a military and intelligence dominated by Alawites.
The Arab Spring uprising in 2011 was an attempt to throw off this Alawite, Assad-dominated security state. But the Alawites were worried about being ethnically cleansed and marginalised, and they fought back. They’d seen this happen all over the region: in Turkey, where the Christian population dropped from 20% to nearly nothing, and in Palestine.
They don't want to join the losers, as Trump would say, they want to be one of the winners. So when the people rise up, they start shooting, and it turns into an ungodly civil war. And the other side begins to organise along sectarian, Sunni lines in militias, calling for some kind of Sunni, shariah, state which would reduce other minorities to some sort of second class citizenship, or even erase them.
As a result of that Syria is now divided into different districts. You’ve got a government-controlled region along four major cities, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Damascus. Many people have taken refuge in this government zone because it offers more security and state services like schooling, water and electricity. The government probably control 70% of the people across 35-40% of the land mass. The rest is either ISIS dominated, Kurdish dominated, or controlled by a variety of different militias thrashing it out in the Idlib region or toward the Jordanian border. In all those rebel-controlled areas there are no minorities left, except the Kurds. They’ve all been ethnically cleansed, or fled. The Christians have fled from ISIS, the Yazidis have fled and so on. There are no Alawites. All the Alawite villages that have been conquered by the rebels in areas around Idlib have been completely emptied out.
Christians have gone from being 15% of the Syrian population at around the end of WW2 to around 3-4% today. The Alawites, we presume, have stayed fairly steady because they can’t immigrate very easily. They don’t have traditional communities abroad and have been fairly privileged so they haven’t left.
Today if you’re a Syrian you can’t get out, really, unless you get family reunification. That means Christians have been the most able to leave, because they’re more likely to have family members abroad. Muslims have been finding ways to leave, too. Maybe between 60,000 and 100,000 Alawites have been killed in the war and the Assyrians who were living along the Khabur river that was taken over by ISIS fled. Rebel areas have pretty much been drained of minorities.
Rebel areas have pretty much been drained of minorities.
In addition we have Kurdish territory too, that stretches from the Iraqi border to where the Kurds have dominated in eastern Aleppo. It’s quite multi-ethnic: there’s lots of Arabs there too – they’re discriminated against but they haven’t been driven out – and there’s Christians, but there’s Kurdish governance and laws and so on. Turkey is livid about this – they see it as a fifth column and they want to destroy it. Whether than happens depends a lot on the international community, and America, I think, will probably stick with the Kurds, though they’re unlikely to recognise an independent Kurdistan.
Sunnis Arabs, though, have been the most adversely affected population. They thought they would be the winners, but they’ve turned out to be the losers. That’s because Assad, who everybody thought would fall, did not fall. Instead, he got tonnes of outside help from Hezbollah, the Shahs in Lebanon, Iran and of course the Russian air force. This has allowed the Syrian army, dominated by an Alawite officer corps, to come back. That means the rebels have been pounded. An area like eastern Aleppo which had two million people in it was reduced to a population of about 150,000, many of whom were evacuated, and now it’s a wasteland.
We know that nearly five million Syrians have left the country – 4.8 million are registered with the UNHCR, but a lot haven’t registered. The UN have said that outside of that five million about half Syria’s population are displaced within the country. A lot of those people may have fled for a while then returned to their homes. We don’t know how many are permanently displaced, but there’ll be more because there’ll be intense bombing in many cities as America hits ISIS.
So, Sunnis have become the losers because their militias took over so much of Syria and are now getting driven out, and they’re really getting pummelled. They’re being pummelled by an air force, and they don’t have an air force. Their neighborhoods have been levelled where there’s intense fighting, and they’ve fled in big numbers. The majority of the five million registered refugees are Sunni. A lot of those are Kurds, because ISIS did a real number on them, but some of them have come back and they’ve expanded their territory with American support in the fight against ISIS.
So let’s say Syria was 22 to 23 million people at the outset of this war. People are saying there’s now around 18 million inside Syria – we don’t know exactly, but that’s a guess. That compensates for rapid population growth, because even though five million flee you’ve probably got about two million babies born. So you would’ve expected the population to fall by a lot but it perhaps hasn’t fallen as much as people think.
Within Syria, people have fled from the east to the western part of the country, and Damascus. Sections have been emptied out, Idlib Homs and Aleppo have been pounded and will continue to be. Many refugees have fled to Damascus and to Hama, to the coastal cities, Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Jableh. These places have a tonne of Sunni refugees. So there’s been a shift in population away from battleground cities toward government-controlled areas, where life runs fairly normally and there are still some services.