Not too distant a memory for even the younger Arabs, Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, was once a place of exuberant trade, culture, and community. Indeed, not very distant, and yet the ravages of war can make each year seem like a lifetime. One no longer measures time in days and months but rather in the number of deaths. In light of the recent World Population Day, let’s have a brief look at the demographics of the people who, whether in peace or in war, are the most fundamental part of Syria.
With a population of around 22 million in 2012, Syria was similar to many of its neighbors in its rapid growth. According to the US state department, it grew by more than 2% in 2009, and has more than tripled over the past forty years – growing from 6 million in 1971 to over 22 million today. And, according to the UNFPA, young people in Syria, aged 10-24 represent 36.3 percent of the total population and youth aged 15-24 constitute 22.2 percent. This proportion of young people suggests the need for interventions that are especially focused on the young in order to protect them from becoming victims.
A large proportion of Syria’s population was made up of refugees from other countries. The vast majority of the 1.8 million refugees living in Syria are from Iraq – around 1.3 million Iraqis displaced during the Iraq war and its aftermath still live in Syria. Other major groups of foreign nationals living in Syria include 540,000 Palestinians. Today, the country that once hosted the region’s most refugees has become the number one exporter, with around 1.7 million registered refugees with UNHCR.
The largest city in Syria is not its capital Damascus, but Aleppo, which is situated in the northeast of the country. Aleppo’s population was recorded at 2,301,570 in 2005, although the number has drastically changed due to the war and siege on the city. Although 80% Muslim, it is also home to one of the largest Christian populations in the Middle East. According to the latest estimates, approximately 250,000 of the city’s inhabitants (around 12%) are Christian.
Damascus is the second largest city in Syria, with a population of 1,711,000 (estimate, 2009). It holds the record as the oldest continually inhabited city in the world – there is evidence of human habitation in Damascus dating back to 9,000BC.
Syria is a largely Islamic country – according to the latest data from 2007, 87% of the country’s population is Muslim. Broken down, around 74% are Sunni and around 13% are Shiite. There are approximately 2 million Alawites in Syria today. Representatives of this group dominate Syrian politics and the Syrian military. Syria’s current President, Bashar al-Assad, is an Alawite. The other two major religious groups in Syria are Christian (around 9% of the population) and Druze (3%). The largest ethnic group (approximately 90%) in Syria is Arab, while other major groups in Syria are Kurds (2 million), Syrian Turkmen (0.75-1.5 million), and Assyrians (0.9 to 1.2 million).
The consequences of the socioeconomic crisis of the Syrian population have become immeasurable. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia predicts that unemployment could reach 58.1% if the conflict continues until 2015. With figures like these, the true challenge lies in rebuilding the economy, infrastructure, social structure while healing the religious and ethnic wounds.
The conflict in Syria is likely to continue and with it, the damages and suffering inflicted on millions. Yet, regardless of ethnicity, political affiliation, sect or religion, we must above all remember the fundamentally human faces behind the numbers. Human in their thoughts, in their hearts, and in their aspirations – and it is this common humanity that must remain at the center of all our views and opinions of Syria, and that must constantly guide any efforts or action we take in the future.
Georgio Khoury is a regional intern at the World Youth Alliance Middle East.