A few weeks ago I noticed an odd trope turning up in discussion of the Syrian Civil War: an assertion, without much context, that the country is highly urbanised. I’ve certainly come across this idea before, and given the imbalance between the virtually uninhabited badiya (the Syrian desert out towards Iraq) and the Aleppo-Hama-Homs-Damascus line of cities in the country’s greener portions, it seems plausible. But if you examine the facts, it turns out that Syria’s rural-urban split is remarkably tilted towards the rural side.
(All of these data come from before the civil war, of course; I’m not even going to pretend that there are current figures.)
The percentage of Syria’s population living in cities was 56.1% in 2011, according to the UN World Urbanisation Prospects report. This places Syria at #100, slightly above Slovenia and China and just behind Serbia. Syria’s urbanisation rate is 3.1%, placing it above well over two-thirds of the world’s countries (a high urbanisation rate usually correlates with a low urban population). Globally, then, Syria certainly doesn’t count as a highly-urbanised country.
Within the Arab League, the statistics are even less impressive. Of the League’s Members, the only ones which are less urbanised are Egypt (43.5%), Mauritania (41.5%), Sudan (33.2%), and Yemen (32.3%). Syria’s neighbours are all significantly more urbanised, particularly Lebanon (87.2%) and Israel (91.9%), but even Jordan (82.7%), which really only has Amman. Among its regional and cultural companions, Syria is still one of the least urbanised nations.
Of course, it is always possible that varying methods of obtaining data within various countries render a comparison between countries more or less worthless, but I’d like to think that the United Nations pays at least marginal attention to using the same research methods in different countries. So, if we assume the figures to be true, where on earth does this idea that the country is a highly-urbanised nation come from?
I have a few theories about this. One is that as Syria’s rate of urbanisation (3.1%) is fairly high, particularly compared to neighbouring countries, those working inside the country or studying it would notice a strong pattern of rural-to-urban migration, which may contribute to an impression that the country’s urban population is larger than it really is. I’d imagine that most people who spend a prolonged period of time in cities –unless they’re explicitly studying the urban/rural gap– would probably come away with the idea that a higher percentage of the population lives in urban areas than is actually the case; certainly until I looked the figures up there seemed nothing unreasonable to me in Syria having an urbanisation rate of 70% or 80%.
But if we look at the context in which these claims are made, another explanation suggests itself: Syria’s “highly-urbanised” status is brought out to represent the fact that most of the fighting is taking place in cities, and that is certainly a point worth making. The extraordinary level of urban violence and destruction which has already occurred in Syria has left most of the country’s cities in ruins (among them its most populous city, Aleppo). Compared to the sort of warfare one imagines in most contemporary civil wars (South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, and so on) Syria’s is certainly an order of magnitude different. The national urban stalemate, in which the front lines lie inside city centres and across residential districts, is something which I associate with nothing more recent than the Bosnian Wars.
This level of intense warfare has all sorts of effects on cities: mass displacement of populations, division of cities across political lines, eradication of the normal routine of daily life (calling it ‘disruption’ seems rather mild), to say nothing of the damage sustained to regional and global heritage by the destruction of the Aleppo Mosque and Old City, the shelling of Krak des Chevaliers, bombings in the ruins of Palmyra, and countless other offenses against places which used to be the focal points of a lucrative tourist industry (although it’s important to point out that, with the possible exception of Palmyra’s desert ruins, the tourist sites are also vital points in the geography of everyday Syrian life, and their destruction is far more a loss to them than it is to Western tour groups).
All of these effects of urban warfare are encapsulated by the description of Syria as ‘urbanised’. With only just over half of the population living in urban centres, think how much more devastating things might have been, had the proportion been higher. But the effect of stating it in this way, as if Syria’s population naturally gravitated to the urban centres, may have unfortunate effects in the future. Once the war finishes (admittedly in about 200 years’ time, but it’s best to get your analysis in early), there will be an immense population of refugees hastening to return. The return of a displaced population is a challenge facing urban authorities at the end of most wars; combined with the scale of urban destruction Syria is already facing (to say nothing of what it could look like in a year, or 5 years) the situation would be catastrophic. To international agencies involved in managing refugee settlement, the standard belief that Syrian society used to be a largely urban one could be useful to justify keeping people in cities, where access to employment and resources is supposedly greater, than sending them back to their villages. Syria is not a highly-urbanised nation – but, despite the war (or because of it), it may yet become one.