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Last update: September 2020

COI summary

[Main COI reference: Targeting, 10.3]

There are different estimations regarding the ethnic and religious composition of the Syrian society; however, all sources observe that Sunnis constitute the majority of Syria’s population (around 65 % - 75 %) [Targeting, 10.1]. Sunni Muslims reside throughout the country. There is a huge diversity among the members of the Sunni Arab community in Syria and they cannot be perceived as a unified group. Sunni Arabs vary according to their political affiliation, practice and identity, as well as regional and tribal loyalties.

According to various sources, even though the Assad government forged strategic ties with prominent Sunni families and religious authorities, the majority of high-ranking officers in Syrian Army and the security apparatus were Alawites. This led to a sense of injustice among Sunni Arabs, especially in areas where Sunnis and Alawites lived in close proximity. As the conflict ensued, the percentage of Alawites in the military increased as a result of Sunnis’ defections and sectarianism. Conditions for Sunni conscripts in the SAA were reportedly worse than those of the Alawite minority. Sunni soldiers were kept near the front lines for months, were poorly paid and insufficiently supplied [Actors, 2.3.1]. As a result, Sunni Arabs suffered most casualties in the Syrian war.

The fact that some members of the opposition movement identified themselves as Sunni Arabs gave a sectarian dimension to the GoS’ targeting of opposition. Sunni Muslims who were perceived to support the opposition forces received harsh treatment by the GoS, which resulted in significant casualties. The use of foreign Shia militias in Syria against Sunni opposition further exacerbated sectarian divisions.

Moreover, Sunni Arabs faced discrimination compared to ethno-religious minorities. According to a report, Sunni-populated areas in Damascus lacked essential services, such as electricity and water, while Shia-inhabited neighbourhoods did not face any of these issues. Furthermore, Sunnis were warned by the GoS against any communication with any foreign adherents of Sunni Islam as it was perceived as an act of political opposition or military activity, while such communication was not banned for other ethno-religious groups.

Reports also state that the government blocked attempts of displaced Sunni civilians to return to their homes, especially in Damascus and Homs.

Apart from the GoS, extremist groups like ISIL, HTS and Jaysh al-Islam who identified themselves as Sunni Arab, targeted Sunnis Muslims who did not adhere to the group’s interpretation of the Sharia. These groups killed hundreds of civilians, carrying out public executions, beheadings and crucifixions as a punishment for religious offences such as blasphemy, apostasy or cursing God.

Regarding the treatment of Arabs by SDF/YPG, see Persons perceived to be opposing the SDF/YPG.

Risk analysis

The acts to which Sunni Arabs perceived to be affiliated with ISIL or to support anti-government armed groups could be exposed to are of such severe nature that they would amount to persecution (e.g. arbitrary arrest, death penalty, torture). When the acts in question are (solely) discriminatory measures, the individual assessment of whether or not discrimination could amount to persecution should take into account the severity and/or repetitiveness of the acts or whether they occur as an accumulation of various measures.

Being a Sunni Arab in itself would normally not lead to the level of risk required to establish well-founded fear of persecution. In most cases where a well-founded fear of persecution is substantiated, it would be related to circumstances falling under other profiles included in this guidance, such as Persons perceived to be opposing the government and Persons with perceived links to ISIL. The individual assessment should also take into account risk-impacting circumstances, such as the regional specifics (e.g. living in areas controlled by extremist groups).

Nexus to a reason for persecution

Available information indicates that where well-founded fear of persecution is substantiated, it may be for reasons of (imputed) political opinion. In the case of persecution by extremist groups, it may also be for reasons of religion.