How Many Alawis Have Been Killed In Syria?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on May 20, 2015


In a report on the internal divisions in the Assad regime and the passing of Syria’s sovereignty to Iran by Ruth Sherlock in The Sunday Telegraph on May 17, there was this stunning sentence: “Perhaps a third of all Alawite males of military age have been killed in the civil war.” This is a startling thought.

To determine if this figure for the proportion of Alawis killed is plausible it is necessary to know how many Alawis there were in Syria at the outset of the war, and how many people have been killed during the war.

The Alawis are often said to be 12-15% of Syria’s population. I have written previously that I think this number is too high, for reasons of relative birth-rates and emigration. In this post I shall try to show my working.

The last available Syrian census is from 2004:


It is known that the minority-dominated provinces, Latakia, Tartus, and as-Suwayda, grew at a lower rate than the strongholds of rural Sunnism like Deraa, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and Idlib—about 1.8% as compared to 3%. If one calculates crudely based on these numbers, with the three minority provinces at this lower rate, the four rural Sunni provinces at the higher rate, and all others at the 2010 average of 2.4%, the result is:


This total population tallies with the most credible estimates of Syria’s population at the end of 2010/beginning of 2011. The World Bank estimate of Syria’s population at that time is 21.5 million, and the State Department said the population at the end of 2010 was “approximately” 21 million. Others put the number slightly higher. A United Nations report in January 2011 said Syria had a “total population of 22 million people,” and numerous press reports have said the same. Perhaps this higher number is correct. But for the purposes of this rough estimate, the above table is within the realms of the possible.

The Alawis concentrate in the provinces of Latakia and Tartus, home to Jibal Ansariya (the Alawite Mountain). But there are many caveats—in both directions.

The first caveat is that there are major Sunni population centres along the coast, which creates a risk of overestimating the number of Alawis.

The Sunnis on the coast concentrate in Baniyas (41,632), Jableh (53,989), Latakia (383,786), and Tartus (115,769). (All figures taken from the cities’ section of the 2004 census.) Baniyas and Jableh are solidly Sunni; Latakia City, despite being the regime’s principle port and the de facto Alawite capital, had a Sunni majority; and Tartus City had a narrow Alawite majority.

If—for ease of numbers—Baniyas (41,632), Jableh (53,989), 55% of Latakia City (211,082), and 45% of Tartus City (52,096) are taken away from the Latakia and Tartus total population—allowance made for the contrivance of such exact numbers, the fact that anything up to a third of the countryside population is also Sunni, and the impossibility of knowing the exact sectarian make-up of the cities—the number of Alawis on the coast in 2004 was: 1,222,147, about 77% of the population of the two coastal provinces.

If the coastal population is estimated for 2011 using the 2.4% growth rate (note: Baniyas and Jableh will be closer to the higher rate), then the number of Alawis on the coast at the beginning of the uprising was about 1.37 million (76% of the coastal population).

The second caveat is that there are fairly large Alawite populations in the interior, and not all of them can be counted accurately, which creates a risk of under-counting the number of Alawis.

Fabrice Balanche, who has done much work on the Alawite population, estimates that on the eve of the uprising: there were 500,000 Alawis in Damascus (10% of the urban area) and 200,000 Alawis in Homs (25% of the city).

There are also Alawite populations in and around the cities of Aleppo and Hama, though these were reduced during the Muslim Brotherhood revolt and it is not clear to what extent they have reconstituted. Balanche has elsewhere noted that many Alawis fled from Aleppo to the coast during the Ikhwani revolt, the main phase of which began in June 1979 with a savage massacre of Alawi cadets in Aleppo—the Alawis’ Speicher, closing the ranks of the community against the rebellion.

In 2004, Homs had populations of 652,609; adjusted by the 2.4% growth, Homs had an estimated population of 771,995 in 2011. Thus, Balanche’s 200,000/25% number for Alawis in Homs roughly tallies.

Balanche’s numbers for the Alawis in Damascus does not add up. 10% of the urban population of Damascus would be (by the 2011 estimate) about 180,000; 10% of urban and rural Damascus is just over 450,000. For the sake of argument, I will assume Balanche’s figure of 500,000 Alawis in Damascus is the correct one.

I was unable to find good figures for Alawis in Aleppo and Hama, so I will leave them out of the equation.

Thus, between Damascus (500,000), Homs (200,000), and the coast (1.37 million), there were an estimated 2,070,000 Alawis in Syria in early 2011, 9.72% of the total Syrian population.

The CIA World Factbook gives Syria’s population structure as 15-24 years: 20.2%, 25-54 years: 37.9%, and 55-64 years: 4.8%. For the sake of ease, if that expansive definition (15-64) of “males of military age” is used, it is: 62.9%.

The 2.07 million Alawis has to be halved to find the number of males (1,035,000), multiplied by 0.629 to find the number of fighting aged males (651,015), and then divided by three, which means the estimate for a third of fighting aged male Alawis in 2011 is: 217,005.

The next question is: How many people have been killed in Syria? There is no easy answer to this.

In January 2014, with 100,000 recorded fatalities, the United Nations stopped keeping track of the dead in Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) is the most oft-quoted source, and SOHR said in mid-April 2015 that 310,000 people had been killed since March 2011, though it only had confirmation for 220,000, and gave a breakdown of approximately 258,000:

  • 104,629 civilians (40.62%)
  • 39,848 rebels and defected soldiers (15.47%)
  • 28,253 foreign Salafi-jihadists (10.97%)
  • 78,189 from the regular regime army and National Defence Forces (30.35%)
  • 3,526 foreign Shi’ite jihadists fighting for the regime (1.37%)
  • 3,162 unidentified deceased (1.23%)
  • SOHR notes that this does not include 20,000 people in regime custody and 9,000 people in the hands of the Salafi-jihadists, whose fate is unknown
  • SOHR adds that it estimates the real number of foreign Salafi-jihadists killed is 86,000 (i.e. three times higher than the verifiable number).

For what it is worth, Jabhat an-Nusra’s commander, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, said in an interview with al-Jazeera on Dec. 18, 2013, that 400,000 people had been killed, and when I was in Lebanon in May/June 2014, with the then-current total for the dead being over 150,000, two separate U.N. officials told me that they thought the real figure was probably double that.

By December 2011, 5,000 people had been killed in Syria; a total of 10,000 people were dead by May 2012; and by September 2012, 30,000 people had been killed, which would be a 5,000-per-month kill-rate for June to September 2012. A detailed study in January 2013 modified these figures sharply upward, finding that at least 60,000 people had been killed, with a consistent death-rate of around 5,000-killed-per-month since July 2012.

Given that the regime only started using fixed-wing aircraft against cities in August 2012 and the massive Iranian intervention was only beginning around that time, with the major surge in Salafi-jihadists to the Fertile Crescent after Hizballah openly intruded into Syria at Qusayr in May 2013, it is reasonable to assume that the average monthly kill-rate in Syria has significantly increased since January 2013.

At the end of this month, Syria’s war will be fifty months old, and with an average kill-rate of 5,000-per-month that is 250,000 dead.

The real number of dead in Syria is almost certainly much higher than 250,000, but I will use that as an example. And I will use the SOHR figure of 30% of casualties as regime troops, and count them all as Alawis. (In reality, though the regime’s forces are overwhelming Alawis—Sunni conscripts have been confined to barracks for many years—they are not all.)

If 30% of the 250,000 dead are Alawis, this is 75,000, three times less than the number that would be needed to reach the above estimate—217,005—for one-third of the military-age male Syrian Alawite population. Even with the most extreme cases—30% of 400,000 is 120,000, and (assuming the highest plausible rate of Alawis killed) 40% of 400,000 is 160,000—the number of Alawis killed does not reach one-third of the military-age male population.

In short, it seems unlikely that one-third of the military-age male Alawis have been killed since the outbreak of Syria’s war. By this rough estimate—75,000 killed out of 651,015—11.5% of the military-age male Alawis have been killed, which is still a heavy toll.

Of course this is only a rough estimate. Aside from the beyond-doubt flawed estimates for the 2011 Syrian population, the known unknowns are: the number of Sunnis on the coast, the number of Alawis in the cities of the interior, the fact that not all regime troops are Alawis, the need to refine the figures for military age, and the likelihood that the real casualty figures are higher than those used here.

UPDATE: I managed to contact Balanche, and his verdict on the number of Alawis in the cities of Hama and Aleppo was: a few thousand remaining in Aleppo and a few hundred in Hama, with most having fled after 2012. Balanche however said that al-Ghab Plain, in Rif Hama, was about half Alawite and there are some Alawi villages surrounding the Ismaili-majority town of Salamiya in north-west Hama Province.

According to a Ministry of Agriculture report from 2004, al-Ghab’s population was about 300,000: at 2.4%-growth-per-year, this is 354,880 by 2011, which makes for 177,440 Alawis. This would make the total number of Alawis 2.25 million (10.56% of the total population) and a more accurate estimate for a third of fighting aged male Alawis in 2011 is: 235,600. This does not fundamentally alter the point made above. It does mean that the estimated percentage of military-age male Alawis killed is a little smaller: 75,000 out of 706,800, which is 10.6%.

8 thoughts on “How Many Alawis Have Been Killed In Syria?

  1. Raytheon

    I think not counting Alawites in Hama governorate (i.e. rural Hama as opposed to Hama city and suburbs) is a fatal error. There are significantly large Alawite communities in the Ghab plains of Hama, soe would estimate around 25%-30% of the population of the Hama ghab. Secondly, a signficant geographic portion of the Hama Governorate is in the mountain country that is geographically and culturally contiguous with the Tartous and Lattakia mountains – namely the Masyaf and Salhab Districts of Hama that stretch all the way to the mountains just south-west of the Idlib-Lattakia border. Alawites comprise probably the majority of these mountain districts of Hama province – around 70% atleast , just like they do in the mountain interiors of the coastal provinces. So one should assume Alawites comprise atleast 15-20% of Hama Governorate.

    Similarly, Homs Governorate strecthes well into the mountains with the Talkalakh, Marmarita-Safita and the Wadi al-Nasara districts administratively belonging to Homs province but being contiguous to mountainous Tartous for all practical matters. Besides the sizeable Alawi minority in Homs city, the population of the mountain districts and sub-districts of Homs Governorate should also be taken into account. I guess combining this the Alawite population share in Syria would come up to slightly less than 11.5%.


  2. Raytheon

    What would be quite interesting to guess, and this would be totally up to guesswork, is the actual number of Alawite men who are under State arms in Syria at this moment and who are fighting on the battlefield. Guessing the number of Alawites under State arms in 2011 would be easier but since then there have been incalculable additions and subtractions from that number. I guess Syrians who have lived in Syria in the leading up to 2011-2012 and who for good measure have served their compulsory service in the armed forces, would be able to offer a guesstimate as to the real proportion of Alawites under State arms (Alawites are easily recognisable in Syrian society through a combination of dialect and anthropology** – I’ll expand on the anthropology part later). I would guess Alawite soldiers and officers comprised anything between 33% to 55% of the Armed Forces (upto 70% in some divisions) and a slightly higher percentage in the Internal Security and intelligence forces in 2011-2012. Since then there has been a vast addition of armed Alawites under subsiidary Popular Committees and NDF whose total strength is estimated at anywhere from 25 – 20,000 to 100,000 nationwide.

    ** it is an unspoken understanding in Syria that Alawites tend to be characterised with more “European” or “lighter” features and would more closely resemble Greeks and other “Mediterranean” ethnicities in appearance. However, Mediterranean and Southern European features are fairly common even among Sunnis of interior Syria, the difference is probably of frequency.


    1. KyleWOrton Post author

      Agreed: we’re in a realm of near-total guess-work here. FWIW the best report I’ve seen on this is here: It estimates a starting force for the SAA of between 200,000 and 300,000 (itself so vast an estimate as to be nearly useless), but that was whittled down with more than 50,000 defections (almost all Sunnis) by the end of 2012, and the Shabiha and Popular Committees were then organized into the National Defence Forces by Iran and now have more than 100,000 men, overwhelmingly Alawite, with the remainder largely Christian, Druze, and Shi’a, but of course including some Sunnis.

      On the make-up of the regular force, that estimate says the Defence Companies were 90% Alawi; they were broken up after Rifaat’s coup attempt and the remnant became the Fourth Division (12,000 men). The rest formed the Republican Guard, the premier Praetorian unit, and others went into the Special Forces. Both the Fourth Division and the Republican Guard are overwhelmingly Alawi; Special Forces less but still well over half Alawite, and throughout this whole war Assad has relied on politically loyal (read Alawi-controlled) units.

      Best estimate is that by the spring of 2013, Assad had (at most) less than 40,000 “usable” (Alawi) troops – hence Iran’s intervention in late 2012. This effort did militarize further sections of the Alawi community, however. It must be a staggering proportion of the military-age male Alawis who have been or are involved in combat: of ~230,000: *way* more than 50,000 are dead, and between the regular forces and militias something approaching 100,000 Alawis must have been through (considering rotations), so you’re looking at 40-50% of the whole fighting-age male demographic among the Alawis having partaken in this war.


      1. Raytheon

        I think the 3rd Armoured Division is also overwhelmingly Alawite and also one of the “Praetorian” formations that are garrisoned in and around Damascus. The 3rd’s subsidiary brigades were heavily involved in the initial Idlib and Hama fighting in 2012.

        One notable exception in the civil war right from 2011 has been the Special Forces Divisions. These are also part of the praetorian formations garrisoned in Damascus with a majority of Alawite composition, but as far as reports go there hasn’t been a single SF action such as airborne/paratroop landings parachuting entire companies and battallions into enemy territory used by the Government. The regime instead has relied on Scud missiles to enforce its strategic writ, I feel using airborne capabilities might actually have helped to turn the tide in localized battles in Idlib and Aleppo. One of the reasons might have been that the SF actually had a much larger composition of Sunnis – around 50% would be the guesstimate. This is derived from anecdotal evidence mostly, that the Special Forces in general are less sectarian associated in the mindscape of the Syrian conflict.


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