Syria Table of Contents
Figure 7. Distribution of Ethnic Groups
A busy street in Dayr as Zawr
Courtesy Mona Yacoubian
The society is composed of a number of cohesive groups recognizing a common heritage and exhibiting great solidarity. Both linguistic and religious characteristics define these peoples; religious communities within the larger language groups function as separate quasi-ethnic entities and in many cases have developed distinctive cultural patterns. Ethnic and religious groups tend to be concentrated in certain geographic regions and certain social positions. For example, about 40 percent of the Sunnis are urban dwellers; of those, 80 percent live in the five largest cities. Alawis (sometimes given as Alawite--see Glossary) are generally poor and live in rural areas. About 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Jabal al Arab are Druzes (see Glossary); the Jews and Armenians are largely urban traders.
The cultural differences distinguishing religious communities are far greater than would be expected to arise from strictly theological or religious sources. The differences arose during the lengthy social separation during which each of the various communities pursued an independent communal life. For example, in addition to the obvious difference of religious belief and ritual, differences in clothing, household architecture, etiquette, agricultural practice, and outlook characterize the cultures of Muslims, Christians, and Druzes (see Religious Life , this ch.).
Accurate statistical breakdowns by language and ethnic group were unavailable in 1986, and estimates by authorities varied. Arabs, or native speakers of Arabic, were thought to constitute nearly 90 percent of the population, but Kurdish, Armenian, Turkic, and Syriac were also spoken. Arabs are divided into a number of religious communities. Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, who constitute the largest single group, account for slightly more than half the population.
Arabs live in all parts of the country--in city and village, desert and mountain. Non-Arab groups generally live in partial isolation from each other, either in their own village or cluster of villages or in specific quarters of towns and cities, mostly in the area north of Aleppo or in the Jazirah region of the northeast. The Jazirah is particularly heterogeneous; among its settled population, the proportion of non-Arabs is much greater than in any other region. The concentration of non-Arab groups in Halab Province and in the Jazirah gives these areas a distinct character and has caused concern in the central government about the maintenance of order there.
Many city dwellers speak a Western language in addition to Arabic; French is by far the most common, and many educated Syrians are as fluent in it as in Arabic. Although English is increasingly used, many Syrians do not know it as well as they do French, which has been the major channel for the exchange of learning between Syria and the West.
The consciousness of a Syrian nationality is not well developed. Both among Arabs and minority groups, primary individual loyalty is to the local ethnic or religious community. In effect, cooperation tends to be restricted to traditional family, ethnic, and religious groups. To protect himself or to meet an immediate need, an individual cooperates with those he personally knows and trusts; impersonal cooperation for long range programs with nonfamily or nonmembers of his religious community is another matter. As one Syrian has noted, a Syrian may want the government to do things for him, but he will rarely cooperate in getting those things done.
A man has few obligations to his ethnic group at large. Ethnic loyalties take shape only when one's group is under attack by another. For example, Kurds close ranks against Arabs if Arab landowners are raising land rents. Such action could be interpreted by Kurds as Arab persecution.
This extreme heterogeneity and lack of general coherence has led the government to attempt Arabization of the population. For example, it no longer refers to the Druze region as Jabal Druze (Mountain of the Druze), but has renamed it Jabal al Arab (Mountain of the Arabs).
Syrians are addressed in political speeches as "descendants of the Umayyads," "Arab citizens," "brother Arabs," and "descendants of Walid and of Saladin." "The blessed Syrian homeland" is "the land of Arabism." This deemphasis on ethnic differences has more and more equated the terms "Syrian" and "Arab."
The Syrian government deals with religious communities, not Arabs, Kurds, or Armenians. Census reports, for example, enumerate various Muslim groups, Druzes, Armenian Orthodox (Gregorian), Armenian Catholics, and Jews. There is no official listing of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, or Jews as such as ethnic groups. Candidates for political office are named in government lists as members of religious communities only; the government lead is followed even in the press, which describes individuals as Arabs or as members of religious communities and does not identify them with ethnic minorities.
Data as of April 1987
Syria Table of Contents