Syria has been ruled by the authoritarian father-son team of the al-Assads since 1971--father Hafez from 1971 until his death in 2000, and son Bashar (a physician, trained as an ophthalmologist) since that time. When Hafez al-Assad took over the government, there were 6.5 million Syrians, women were having 7.5 children each, the infant mortality rate was 77 per 1,000, and 66 percent of the population was under the age of 25. When Bashar al-Assad took control, there were 16 million Syrians, fertility had dropped to 3.4 children per woman, the infant death rate had dropped to 17 per 1,000, and the percentage under 25 had dropped slightly to 62 percent. In the twelve years of his rule, the population has continued to grow--it now exceeds 22 million, and the birth rate has gone down only slightly to 3.2 per woman, the IMR has stayed at 17, and the percent under 25 has dipped only slightly to 58 percent. These demographic trends have put tremendous pressure on the Syrian economy, which is heavily dependent upon oil and gas exports, which cannot obviously increase in tandem with population growth.
But underlying the tension in the country are the demographic differences among the religious/ethnic groups in the country. Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd talk about this in their book on the Convergence of Civilizations, written before the current violence began. The al-Assad family and most members of government are from the Alawite sect, connected to the Shiite branch of Islam, and represent only 11 percent of the population. They tend to be well-educated and have low fertility. A majority of the country's population belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam, but Courbage and Todd suggest that "the opposition between the Sunnis of Damascus and the Sunnis of Aleppo is a part of national folklore and an element in the popular consciousness. The Sunnis of Damascus no longer have anything to do with their coreligionists from Aleppo. In terms of culture (schooling of children, length of time in school), anthropology and demography (family structure, exogamy, mixed marriages, fertility, residential arrangements), and even cuisine, they have moved to the other side, completing the disaggregation of the Sunni group" (pp 56-57).
Demographic patterns are also spatial in nature. Most of the country's population is on the western side toward the Mediterranean and as you go north from Damascus (which is not far from Lebanon), to Homs, Aleppo, and then the border with Turkey, the demographic/ethnic/religious composition changes. These are among the many reasons why it has been hard for outsiders to intervene--it is a very complex society.
This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.
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