Is Syria coming back to life after its devastating civil war?

There is startling news from Syria. The country’s northwest, which includes the Idlib governorate and the western countryside areas of Aleppo and Hama, had a baby boom in 2021. This was reported by the Health Information System Unit (HIS), a Qatari-sponsored group that provides population data to the World Health Organization (WHO) and NGOs working in the region.

How is it that Western-backed organizations operate in northwest Syria? Because most of the region is not controlled by the Assad government but by groups loosely affiliated with the Syrian opposition's “interim government.” While the Assad regime has vowed to retake the area, a tenuous “peace” holds for now. Idlib saw some of the bloodiest combat of the Syrian Civil War and is where anti-government fighters were relocated after surrendering positions elsewhere.

Back to the startling news. For 2021, HIS recorded 76,663 births, a 22.8 percent increase from the previous year. Figures from the Idlib Health Directorate are even more impressive, showing 54,320 registered births in 2020 and 70,893 for 2021. That is a stunning 30.5 percent increase. As peace has broken out, some semblance of stability has returned. Thus far these figures are regarded as more of a post-conflict population “correction” than a trend.

The northwest region’s estimated population is 4.2 million, and almost 17 percent of them are children below the age of five. The 2021 population growth rate was a healthy 21.19/1,000; the mortality rate, 5.56/1000.

To fully appreciate the significance of this, some context is helpful.  

It was on March 15, 2011, that all heck broke loose in Syria.

That was the day massive demonstrations materialized in Aleppo and Damascus, as if by the flick of a switch. Behind-the-scenes legwork and intel ops had at last galvanized Syria’s discontent in the wake of the Arab Spring. Regime change was in the air. The government cracked down. Thus began the Syrian Civil War, which, though now largely settled, could erupt anew at any time.

Over 350,000 have perished (that is only counting verifiable deaths). There are millions of refugees and Syria is an economic basket case. Today unemployment is 85 percent in some areas. The value of the Syrian pound, 47 per US$ in 2011, is almost 4000 per US$1 today.

Syria is most interesting to demographers. Statistics can be sketchy in impoverished, war-ravaged lands, but here goes.

Syria’s population was over 21 million when the war began. That included 1.3 million Iraqi refugees, plus a half million Palestinians. Today the population is estimated at almost 18 million. By late 2021 there were roughly 6.7 million displaced people within Syria. Another 5.7 million were registered as refugees in North Africa, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Europe.  

Ethnically, Syria is 75 percent-plus Arab. Kurds are 10 percent, with 5 percent of Turkmen extraction, 4 percent Assyrians, 1.5 percent Circassians and 1 percent Armenian.

Religious divisions are profound. Within the Arab population 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, the remainder Shiite. The Sunni-Shiite division is huge – to the extent that Northern Ireland’s scuffles from the Troubles seem mild in comparison. Part of the Shiite population are Alawis, including the ruling Assad family.

Syria’s population is 88 percent Muslim, 9 percent Christian and 3 percent Druze. The dwindling Christian population is mostly Orthodox, Uniate, or Nestorian.

Religious and ethnic tension is a staple of Middle Eastern life. In the West people are most easily identifiable by race. In the Middle East it is by religion. The various religious and ethnic groups usually live apart. Should the woke West’s mavens of multiculturalism ever descend upon Syria, their work will be cut out for them.

In 1971 Syria’s fertility rate was 7.6. For 2021 it was estimated at 2.7, a 64 percent decline in 50 years. Life expectancy is 74. A third of Syrians are age 14 and under. A mere 4.5 percent are of retirement age (65 and over). Quite telling is that less than 20 percent are aged between 15 and 24. That is the age group with the most war deaths and refugees. A trickle of people is now returning to Syria, a sign that things may be looking up.

Before we draw definitive conclusions from this news, consider the qualifying remarks by HIS’s Mahmoud al-Hariri: “The statistics provided by HIS cover some of the facilities documented by the unit. But many births in northwest Syria have not been registered with HIS because the unit is limited to the private sector. Many women give birth in their homes with the help of a specialized doctor.”

Historically, fertility increases after wars. This was noted by British demographer Valeria Cetorelli: "Conflict-induced violence and insecurity can reinforce individuals' perception of group identity, particularly with respect to reproduction… Some women may feel compelled to compensate for the lives of relatives lost in the war.”

The Syrian Civil War was a disaster. There is much rebuilding to be done, including hospitals, nurseries, and schools. War is especially cruel to children.

A baby boom has also been reported in the region’s displaced person camps. According to sociologist Saba Muhammad, “This increase has become commonplace among Syrian families, especially in camps where conditions are unsuitable for newborns.” She attributes this to the influence of Islam favoring early marriage as well as a desire for children to restore families diminished by the war.

The cessation of conflict has allowed the country to begin rebuilding and has even facilitated some tentative cooperation between the government and international organizations operating in still-contested areas.

In warfare military and political developments dominate the news. But demography decides the future.


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