Do you remember when the Syrian Civil War was the lead story on the nightly news? Do you remember when it dominated newspaper columns? Now, after seven years of fighting, about 500,000 people dead, twelve million people displaced from their homes, we seem to have become bored of the entire bloody thing. But perhaps we will start to show some interest in the conflict again when it ends. It seems as if President Assad will hold on to power (thanks to Iranian, Hizbollah and Russian help and American passivity).
But when the conflict ends (perhaps this year?) what will the country look like? What will Assad be in control of? Many of Syria’s cities are mere shells of what they once were: full of rubble and husks of buildings. Even more significantly, the country’s population will be significantly altered. As this piece in the Indian newspaper, the Daily Pioneer, argues: demography shaped the conflict and will be extremely important in the peace that follows it. Practically all of the rebels in the conflict were Sunni Muslims. On the other side, many government supporters were also Sunni, but the majority of the 70 percent Sunni population backed the rebellion. Hardly any non-Sunnis were against the Government. Instead, the minority Shia, Alawites, Druze and Christians were pro-regime. Many in these minority communities feared the Sunni extremists who made up large parts of the rebellion forces and the consequences of a rebel victory.
This demographic cleavage due to the civil war now gives the Assad regime an opportunity: to get rid of as many as possible of the poorer Sunnis, particularly those who live in cities and who were so prominent in the rebel cause. With nearly half of the population displaced (six million abroad and six million internally) and with nearly all of those Sunni, there is a chance for the regime to consolidate its power for a long time to come. And it is apparently taking that opportunity.
A new law has been passed which requires property-owners in parts of the country devastated by the war to produce their ownership documents within 30 days. If they don’t, they will have no further claim to their home or the land it once stood on. Since many of the war-ravaged areas of Syria were those held by the rebels and then bombed and shelled by the government forces, Assad’s regime assumes that most of the people who own houses in those areas backed the rebels. Many of these homeowners are refugees or internally displaced and many may have no access to their ownership documents. Even if they do, many will be reluctant to come home and put themselves in the power of the regime. The outcome will be that, when these areas are eventually rebuilt, the homes will go to people who backed the regime, or at least stayed neutral: “good” Sunnis and the minorities.
In short, the outcome of the civil war may be that Syria will have smaller cities than before, but they will be reliably regime-friendly. The country will still be majority Sunni, but the Sunni preponderance will be less. The parts of the population most anti-regime will be living in exile. Syria will be firmly in the hands of Assad (and his backers) and peace will return. But it is unlikely that all those Syrians who left the country for Lebanon, Jordan and further afield will return anytime soon. And that, perhaps, is just what the regime is hoping for.