international analysis and commentary

Syria through Iraqi eyes


Recent unrest in Syria has dominated both the local and international news. The latter in particular has devoted much commentary (speculative as well as narrative) to the stirrings of sectarianism within the country.

The recent Muslim-Christian clashes in Cairo will undoubtedly add fuel to the debate on a possible Syrian fitna (Koranic term signaling division and divergence among believers). Theories are most often formulated according to the worst-case scenario model, namely the Iraqi analogy hypothesis: that Syria could disintegrate into sectarian civil war, as experienced by its Eastern neighbor when insurgent groups exacerbated the Sunni-Shia divide.

Like Iraq, Syria may be considered descriptively sectarian, due to its composition of religious, ethnic and tribal groupings: Sunnis, Shiites, Christian denominations, Kurds, Armenians, Alawites and Druze. The cohesion of these groups, themselves neither hermetic nor homogenous, is central to national security. If shattered, or so Liz Sly claims in the Washington Post, Syria’s peaceful demographic sectarianism could be replaced by “a cataclysm of chaos, sectarian strife and extremism that spreads far beyond its borders.”

Yet few hypotheses go much beyond the outbreak of sectarian crisis, to consider the subsequent humanitarian crisis that would surely follow; just as few considered the migratory challenges of the Arab Spring in general until North Africa’s displaced started arriving on Italy’s shore. Perhaps the corollary is taken for granted, but proper exposition would account for Syria’s first-hand experience of sectarian conflict in the role of primary humanitarian host to the Iraqi exodus. As such, Syrian schools and hospitals have experienced the burden of accommodating the post-sectarian displaced.

Furthermore, in light of their double experience – firstly, of generalized insecurity and sectarian violence prior to leaving Iraq and secondly, as a refugee minority in Syria – the rarely consulted population of Iraqi refugees hosted in Syria could provide valuable insight into the current situation. The “ping-pong” phenomenon of short return visits to Iraq allows them to closely monitor developments in both countries, positioning them well to evaluate the cross-border parallel.

Refugee in Aleppo, Syria since 2006, Abu Mosul recalls how he was taken hostage by unknown militia in Baghdad. “After I witnessed them blowing up our church I received death threats,” he explains. “One day they shot my car and imprisoned me until my parents paid a ransom.” Tragically Mosul’s story is far from unique, as many fled Iraq after becoming victims of sectarian discrimination, targeted violence, kidnappings and torture.

“I don’t think so,” he answers on whether similar events could one day happen in Syria. “People here have in mind what happened in Iraq and they are conscious of this danger.” The community of the Syrian Orthodox church, which Mosul has joined, is particularly cautious, given the problems already faced by Christians in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite a history of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and the great ecumenical diversity of Syria’s Christians, most official Easter celebrations were reduced this year in order not to appear provocative. The decision to go ahead with the Easter party at the Sheraton Hotel in Aleppo – an event which would normally welcome the non-Christian elite – was condemned (by Christians also) as insensitive to events taking place in the Syrian street. 

While group identity is important to many within Syria, people want to avoid sectarian confrontation at all costs. Few slogans of the recent protests expose anything of the Islamist character. On the contrary, the cry “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one” has been repeated throughout the country. While there are group-based concerns (protection of Christians, inclusion of Kurds, maintenance of the Sunni-Alawi power balance), little sectarian discourse is exchanged between the predominantly secular protesters and the constitutionally secular state. Still, reminds Mosul, we should be cautious, for sectarianism is a phenomenon without clear agency. “Actualized, it serves one group; simply propagated through fear it serves the opposite.”

As for sectarianism within the refugee community, Mosul claims, “that we left it at the border. We have gone through enough. It’s not easy for us but now we are one people,” a sentiment echoed during last month’s UNHCR-organized celebration of Iraqi culture.  The organization has registered approximately 300,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria since 2003, from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.  As an urban population (not resident in camps), they join existing communities, frequently faith communities upon which they may come to depend. Mosul is grateful to Syria for the safe haven it has provided, in which he may pray and sleep without fear. “In fact, I have two communities,” he clarifies, “the Iraqi and the Christian.”

However, Iraqi refugees are still perceived as vulnerable, not because of sectarian aggression, but rather due to exacerbation of their existing hardship and survival challenges. Prolonged displacement has left personal savings, as well as emotions, exhausted and for many the future remains uncertain. UNHCR has heightened protection concerns due to “potential secondary movements towards neighboring countries and/or premature return to unsafe areas of Iraq.”

As tourism and trade have been hit hard by recent events in Syria, the Refugee Agency notes that “the tolerated access [of Iraqi refugees] to the informal employment sector is shrinking.” Some fear increased competition could result in greater animosity towards refugees. That said, reports that refugees have received assistance from Syrian neighbors at the peak of the crisis in Der’aa shows the good will of the Syrian people, as well as their continued solidarity and sympathy towards the victims of sectarian violence.