10 Jan 2012


The rate of Iraqi civilian deaths is dramatically down, 7% of the civil war high. However it has been stuck in a plateau since 2009. Indeed it slightly increased in 2011 over the preceding year by some calculations. This plateau is the result of changing trends in violence on the eve of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, some positive and others different but equally negative and dangerous. Flashpoints for conflict in the post-withdrawal environment include the foreign-origin questions of the Turkish and Iranian bombing of Iraqi Kurdistan, Camp Ashraf, and overflow of the Syrian crisis into Iraq. The main threat to Iraqi stability in 2012 however is not from without but rather from within, notably the still weak checks and balances in Baghdad.


Changing Nature of Domestic Violence

The full-fledged insurgency appears to be over. In 2007 3,800 individuals were being killed monthly. At the formal completion of the mission of U.S. troops in December 2011 the rate was less than a tenth of that figure.   Nevertheless the killing of over 300 civilians a month is hardly stability. Moreover high profile targeted assassinations are on the rise.


Assassinations particularly target security officers, government officials, journalists and some protest organizers. The parties carrying out the attacks may be divided into two primary categories. The first are groups outside the parliamentary process attacking government targets. The second are members of various political parties within the parliamentary process either carrying out assassinations against members of other parties in the parliamentary process or independent non-violent critics from civil society.


Violence against journalists and protest organizers increased notably during the last year, despite the dramatic drop in the killing of Iraqi civilians in general since 2007. Indeed the assassination and attack rates increased by 50% and 80% respectively in the first half of 2011 over the monthly averages of the previous year. The rise in violence corresponded precisely with the period of the Iraqi Spring which sought peaceful reform of the government in general and the ruling coalition in particular. Practitioners of non-violent political criticism are also the particular targets of legal harassment by leading government figures using Saddam-era legislation, new legislation with troubling loopholes passed in the last two years, and executive orders. Legal harassment includes crippling fines for the ‘insult’ of leading politicians, the closure of publishing houses, and the non-issuing of permits to protest.


This timing and targeting therefore point to a worrying trend in Iraqi politics where members of government rather than random civil war violence are becoming the primary threat to freedom of speech and organization in Iraq. Moreover the three provinces under the semi-autonomous rule of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) witnessed rates of physical and legal harassment of practitioners of freedom of expression and organization just as high as the other 15 under Baghdad’s direct control. This fact casts doubt on the frequently made assumption that that the KRG’s far lower rates of overall violence than the rest of the country have led to far higher rates of respect for civil and political rights.


The clear assistance of government insiders at all levels of security breaches indicates the limits of much-improved state control, geographically and institutionally. Monthly prison breaks of high-value terrorists carried out with insider assistance are one example. The heavy use of government-issued IDs and silencer weapons, are among the continuing evidence of the assistance of ranking members of government in the wave of assassinations as well. Public evidence reached the level of provoking frank acknowledgement of the problem by officials ranging from the head of the Baghdad Operations Command, up to the Prime Minister himself in late Summer 2011. Indeed, in August, the Baghdad Operations Command formally announced that it had issued orders for all guards and police in Baghdad to turn in their Glocks because most of the assassinations in the capital had been carried out using government-issued guns. A crackdown in Baghdad following the scandalous revelations showed some signs of success. But it also pushed many of assassinations outside the capital into neighboring provinces.


Geographically, the brunt of violence overall will remain in the provinces with the heaviest ethno-sectarian mix and those containing the disputed territories.The last year’s distribution of violence and current political tensions support this contention. During the last year and into 2012 the nine provinces farthest north and south, half the country, represented a mere 4% of national violence.   The three northernmost provinces making up the semi-autonomous KRG (Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniya) represented 1% of national violence. The southernmost six provinces (Basrah, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Maysan, Najaf, Qadissiya) represented a mere 3% of national violence. Much publicized Iranian and Turkish attacks into the KRG have been limited to a slim strip of land by the borders themselves, which is mostly rural, leading to comparatively few deaths in reference to the rest of the country. By contrast the central provinces (the most heavily mixed provinces plus Sunni-dominated Anbar and the Shiite religious center of Karbala) continued to bear the brunt of national violence. The provinces of Ninawa and Kirkuk alone accounted for 25%; Anbar, Babil, Diyala, Karbala, Salahaddin and Wassit 34%; and Baghdad 37%. A look at the domestic and transnational political factors indicate why the above enumerated trends in violence are likely to continue into the near future.


Sectarian Questions

The Prime Minister’s apparent disregard for the repercussions of measures easily read in a sectarian light – the recent crisis following his threat to remove all 9 MPs of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya Bloc (which won the plurality of parliamentary seats in the last election) including the two highest ranking Sunnis in government from cabinet (personally undertaken by the Prime Minister), the continuation of a politicized de-Ba‘athification process and arbitrary detentions (more generally undertaken by Baghdad) – is worrying given the continuing fragility of the democratic process in general. In specific, it is of concern given the importance of the return of Sunnis in particular to the polls after a 2005 boycott leading into the height of the civil war in 2006-2007.


A notable intensification of large-scale al-Qaeda type attacks immediately followed the provocative maneuvers. These were among the deadliest coordinated attacks in Iraq of the past year.   This indicates the dangers of the violent alternatives when a large sector of society feels disenfranchised from the democratic process.


However if such measures are often given a sectarian reading in both popular Iraqi and international analyses, and by virtue of this perception alone can give rise to sectarian violence, the roots of the ‘sectarian’ provocations are as, if not more, justly seen as a piece of a larger pattern of equal concern -- the broken checks and balances in the federal government in Baghdad.

Broken Checks and Balances in Baghdad

In 2011, for the first time in several years, Iraq moved in a positive direction on international transparency indexes. Regardless of the move from 4th to 8th most corrupt country in the world, such a title remains a highly negative indicator of Iraqi governance.


Interior and defense ministers remain un-appointed 22 months after elections. Instead these key ministries are headed by temporary personal appointees, and loyalists to, the Prime Minister. These appointments entirely circumvent the parliamentary process since all ministers according to the Constitution should be confirmed by a parliamentary vote. Likewise, the Integrity Commission, a key check on government corruption, recently lost its latest head, who like all his predecessors, was either fired for investigating too deeply, or quit as a result of parties’ stone-walling of the Commission’s attempts at prosecuting well-connected members of government.


Federalization attempts, like the more extreme example of explosions, may be considered outcroppings of protest against the failings of the central government. Protesters and Provincial Council representatives in favor of federalization in Sunni-dominated provinces have frequently cited in particular patterns of arbitrary detention by federal security forces, in addition to feelings of disenfranchisement from a meaningful role in politics at the national level as reasons for desiring the status of region for their provinces.   But provinces dominated by populations of the same Shiite Arab background as the core of the ruling coalition in Baghdad have also at various times put forward federalization proposals, many for the first time in Iraqi history. This indicates that the intense frustration with the central government is hardly limited to a single sect.


The sub-party level also indicates problems in the balances of power.Despite fierce interparty competition in the political (and indeed at times physical) realm, intra-party democracy is still greatly lacking. The law can and has allowed voters to modify the order of parties’ seat allocations, but cannot force the removal of leader. Intra-party disputes end more frequently in a splinter group than a vote.


The Disputed Territories and Erbil-Baghdad Relations

At the core of the dispute between the regional administration of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (the KRG) and the federal government at Baghdad, is the lack of a final division of legal authority over people and resources.Currently negotiations on the status of the disputed territories, a hydrocarbons law, a revenue-sharing law, provincial elections in Kirkuk and a national census are all suspended, leaving a legal vacuum regarding chains of authority on a range of political, legal and military aspects of conflict between Erbil and Baghdad.


The physical location where tensions between Erbil and Baghdad are most explosively played out on the ground is the Disputed Territories.These are the territories in the provinces of Kirkuk, Ninewa, Salah ad-Din and Diyala with substantial or historic Kurdish populations, authority over whom is disputed between Erbil and Baghdad.Many, notably Kirkuk, also contain the KRG’s only hope of meaningful hydrocarbon reserves. For the last three years, the four provinces which contain disputed territories have quite simply been the four provinces with the highest levels of violence per capita of all eighteen.


The U.S. military withdrawal has a genuine chance of destabilizing the situation further because of this military’s particular and now discontinued role in the security frameworks in these territories, namely the trilateral patrols.Forces made up of elements of the federal Iraqi army, the local police forces and Kurdish peshmerga were assembled into joint patrols in 2009-2010 in the Disputed Territories with the aim of facilitating communications and providing early-warning between parties to the conflict. Such units have undertaken raids targeting insurgents’ hideouts and are deployed at 22 checkpoints across the Territories. They have widely been considered effective, and have witnessed nearly no internal conflicts in carrying out their coordinated missions. However their numbers are a fraction of the overall forces deployed in the disputed territories -- only about 1,200 persons overall. By comparison, the Iraqi security forces there number more than 600,000, and the peshmerga 100,000 under their respective, separate, command structures. Both political backing and even funding for the continuation of the joint patrols and their expansion are already suffering. Moreover there is little prospect of the acquisition of a comparatively neutral armed third party, such as NATO or a U.N. force, to serve as a monitor in joint patrols in the wake of U.S. withdrawal since both have already quite clearly declared they are uninterested in partaking in such missions.


Status of Forces: Statistics, Soldiers, and Contractors

Months of debate have indicated that while the Iraqi public was and continues to be strongly pro-withdrawal, many in the governing coalition had concluded that some U.S. and/or NATO troops should remain, though under a more diplomatic title such as ‘trainers’. Without being able to convince foreign governments, notably the U.S., to concede the immunity of their forces however, no agreement could be reached.


Nevertheless a considerable number of foreign security forces will remain, mostly as contractors. The U.S. Department of State demands at least 5,000 security personnel to guard the 16,000 civilians remaining as part of the U.S. mission in Iraq, the largest American diplomatic mission in the world. This is only 3% of the size of peak levels of foreign security personnel in the country since the invasion of 2003. Yet their indeterminate status is certain to cause controversy, if not violence. Security contractors are not regular troops (although the Geneva Conventions do have some provisions for ‘mercenaries’ as they are anyway termed in popular Iraqi political parlance). Their subjugation to a diplomatic mission makes little difference, legally or popularly. The massacre and ensuing scandal which made the security contracting firm formerly known as Blackwater, and the contracting business in general, household words were committed while that firm was working in precisely the capacity of diplomatic protection. Indeed Blackwater itself, having gone through a series of name changes seems set to return to win such contracts in Iraq personally.


Moreover figures such as Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of one of the most important ‘resistance’ militias in the country, have at various times declared that their forces will consider all private security contractors, like regular uniformed military, occupying forces and therefore valid targets for violent attacks.


At the same time contractors are limited from the more useful aspects of the former mandate of the army, notably the participation in trilateral patrols in the Disputed Territories, where security contractors will have no role.


Syria, Rebels and Refugees

With the death-toll of the Syrian Spring already over 5,000 individuals in a matter of months, the Syrian question has become a concern for Iraq on a geo-strategic as well as humanitarian level.   The heads of the ruling coalitions in Iraq are nearly to a man heads of former underground resistance organizations to oppressive rule. They are therefore less than thrilled to be seen as directly supporting another oppressive regime. However geo-strategic considerations of the effect of attempts at regime change in Syria on the stability of Iraq have taken precedence in their actions.


Syria was not long ago a major transit point for insurgents into Iraq, particularly of a takfiri variety. It took both the political will and organization of the Syrian government to stop this trend. Iraqi politicians reasonably believe that any attempt at regime change (internally or externally forced) in Syria would increase the chance of ensuing chaos or civil war in Iraq because of Syria’s internal and regional dynamics. Whether deliberately as revenge on Iraq for pushing for regime change in Syria, or as a natural result of the Syrian government’s loss of control, the return of the Iraqi-Syrian borders to the previous porous condition they witnessed at the height of the Iraqi insurgency and civil war is considered a serious threat by the Iraqi government.


Refugees are a second fear. The Iraqi Government does not want to deal with a sudden return of the vast numbers of Iraqis currently residing in Syria, the host country to the largest number of Iraqi refugees in the world. They want far less to deal with a flood of Syrian nationals looking for refuge. A few have already arrived in Camp Walid in al-Anbar, but agencies such as the UNHCR are monitoring the situation without recording a significant jump in their numbers to date.


For a combination of these geostrategic reasons Iraq abstained from both the 12th of November 2011 Arab League vote to suspend Syria from the League and the 27th of November 2011 vote for sanctions against Syria, and then proposed itself as a mediator between the Syrian government and the opposition. It is simultaneously currently trying to push through legislation mandating much harsher punishments of illegal immigrants into the country, the manner in which most refugees cross borders. The Iraqi government’s conservative position regarding Syria therefore seems likely both to continue and cushion Iraq for the time being from major negative domestic repercussions of the Syrian crisis.

Turkey and Iran’s Bombings of Iraqi Kurdistan

Cross-border bombardments by Turkey and Iran into Iraqi Kurdistan, in pursuit of their respective armed Kurdish opposition groups who find a safe-haven in the mountainous borders between Iran Turkey and the Iraqi North, have left at least twelve civilian dead and thousands of persons displaced in the past year. The coincidence of the bombardments with the short harvesting season, destructions of dunums of land and hundreds of heads of livestock,   have led to accusations that the bombardments specifically target civilians to clear the mountainous border areas where such armed groups operate. As such they are roughly consistent with years past and look to continue at similar levels into the coming year.


However the direction of the attack has changed as a result of the domestic policies of Iran and Turkey, with clear repercussions for Iraqi Kurdistan. Since its rise in 2002, the ruling Turkish party, the Justice and Development Party, has seen a more diplomatic approach to their Kurdish question as a desirable policy both allowing them to win a useful number, nearly half, of Kurdish votes in domestic election cycles, and as a necessary step in E.U. entry negotiations. But with the tangible benefits to diplomacy with Kurdish opposition in Turkey apparently nearing naught in recent years, as E.U. entry negotiations have ground to a halt and negations with the Kurds have themselves witnessed numerous setbacks, the ruling party will have to court the ultra-nationalist Turkish vote, and even a traditional popular base that is demanding a ‘hard’ response to increases in tit-for-tat violence between Turkish and Kurdish forces. The jump in Turkish state violence against Kurdish civilians and military targets at the borders with Iraq at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 has already strongly supported this trend. By contrast, the frequency of the bombardment of the Iraqi Kurdish North originating from Iran has decreased dramatically since early September 2011. At that time an agreement was rumored to have been reached between the KRG and Iranian authorities to tighten KRG border security in return for a lightening of Iranian bombardments, as well as an apparent cease-fire between Iran and the PJAK, the Iranian armed Kurdish opposition organization counterpart the PKK in Turkey. The durability of the PJAK ceasefire with Iran, and therefore the notable decrease in Iranian bombardment of their mountainous safe-haven in Iraq, is unclear. However, the annual intensification from the Turkish side is unlikely to reverse, indicating that this will be the origin of the main thrust of cross-border bombing violence against the Iraqi North into the foreseeable future.


Camp Ashraf

The fate of the 3,000 inhabitants of Camp Ashraf has come directly into question with the U.S. withdrawal. International law stipulates that refugees whose lives could be in danger as a result of being returned to their country of origin should not be forcibly returned. The dissolution of the camp housing members of an until recently armed Iranian opposition group (the Mojahedin-e Khalq or MEK) present in Iraq since the I980s when they fought with Iraq against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, is a desire of Iran which the current Iraqi government has so far appeared more than willing to fulfill.


Residents and the UNHCR have called for extending the closure deadline to allow for the full processing of asylum claims and hoped-for resettlement of all former inhabitants. The Iraqi government has so far shown only lukewarm compliance. On December 21st, 2011, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced that the closing of Camp Ashraf would be delayed for six months if the MEK agrees to a Memorandum of Understanding for the relocation of the Camp Ashraf residents. However, a December 20th statement from the spokesperson of the camp, which also agreed to the transfer in principle, set out conditions that have not been agreed upon. Because of the impasse, the prospect still looms that force could be employed to close the camp.


Even without immediate closure many questions about the treatment of the camp’s inhabitants at the hands of the current Iraqi administration remain. Since the return of authority for guarding the camp from U.S. troops to Iraqi ones in June 2009, two violent incidents involving Iraqi security forces, in July 2009 and April 2011, have led to the deaths of more than 40 Camp Ashraf residents. Likewise allegations of torture have followed questioning of camp residents by Iraqi authorities.



Following the U.S. withdrawal, insurgency is far down. Bombardments from the Iranian side are at least for the mid-term comparatively quiet. State policy towards Syria seems to effectively be keeping Iraq out of the way of negative repercussion of the Syrian crisis for the time being. Turkey’s internal policy, over which Iraqi has little influence, is causing and looks to continue to cause an upward swing in cross-border bombings causing the killing and displacement of KRG civilians. The large and increasing force of foreign security contractors in the country is certain to cause controversy.


However overall international questions are for the time being far less pressing and less dangerous than internal ones. It is the domestic questions, notably the strengthening of checks and balances in Baghdad, and a final settlement with Erbil, that will be required to move Iraq out of the security plateau in which it has been muddling through for the last three years and the dangerous jump in violence in the first month after withdrawal.

The death toll of the Syrian Uprising to date is nearly four times greater than that of all of the other Arab Springs combined except Libya – some 11,000 dead in total.[i] Furthermore throughout the Uprising's first year both the rates of violent deaths in Syria, and in parallel refugee displacement therefrom, have been accelerating sharply. Monthly figures of Syrians killed by violence doubled in each of four consecutive periods reaching 2,000 per month by March 2012.   The rate of displacement has accelerated in parallel, doubling in the last two months the number reached in the previous ten. In mid-April 2012 UNHCR reported that the number of Syrian refugees in Syria's four neighbors stands at 55,000 registered.   Conservative estimates put a further more than 200,000 Syrians as displaced within their own country (Syrian Red Crescent).

Given Iraq's own recent and incomplete immergence from insurgency, terrorism and civil war, it is unsurprising that the first waves of refugees have chosen and continue to prefer to go to Syria's other three neighbors (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon). But for some – both new Syrian refugees and Iraqi refugees displaced back to their countries of origin – Iraq may be the only place they can go, and their numbers have been accelerating as the Syrian Uprising passes its one-year anniversary. This is especially true in light of current trends of violence which indicate that a serious risk remains of violence increasing, spreading its geographic reach, and becoming more sectarian in nature – even as a 6-point peace plan has been nominally agreed upon by both opposition and government forces and the first batches of UN observers deployed.

Syrians Fleeing Syria

When first looking at Iraq it might seem logical to ask who would seek refugee from a war zone in a country with its own ongoing conflict? Actually, there are a number of highly compelling reasons for certain segments of Syrian society and the Iraqi refugee population in Syria to seek to come to Iraq.

Iraqi violence is still extremely high, but also highly concentrated in certain areas. The northernmost three provinces (the Kurdish Region) and southernmost six provinces account for only some 4% of violent incidents throughout the country though they represent 50% of the country's provinces. Most of the Syrians seeking refuge in Iraq are males (80%), young and unaccompanied (60%), of Kurdo-Syrian origin, many fleeing mandatory military service. They seek refuge under the auspices of the Kurdish Regional Government because of its proximity to their provinces of origin (Hasakeh, Qamishli, in the Kurdish-dominated North-East of Syria, although there are also refugees to a lesser extent from Reef Dimashq, Damascus and Aleppo), shared language (despite differences in dialect) and perceived sympathy of the authorities in the semi-autonomously governed KRG. Most importantly, for those who are deserters some of Syria's other neighbors that still have or are rumored to have intelligence coordination with the current Syrian government (Lebanon, from whence deserters have already been returned across the border, and to a lesser degree Jordan) are therefore less appealing options for fear of refoulement. Although those who have fled to Iraq represent only roughly 1 in every 24 Syrian refugees at the time of writing their particular needs and vulnerabilities mean that as long as violent conflict continues anywhere in Syria their numbers are likely to continue to rise. Likewise, even if violence subsides, so long as the Syrian government remains the same, deserters among the ranks of the Syrian refugees in the KRG will be unable to return home for fear of imprisonment, torture or death.

Due to snowballing rates of Syrian refugee entries in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, the KRG, the UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM), partner NGOs such as Qandil, and NNGOs such as the Kurdistan Civil Rights Organization (KCRO) have been focused on providing food and non-food assistance as well as constructing a second refugee camp called "Domiz" in Dohuk for Syrian nations. The KRG already had a refugee camp ("Qamishli"). However it became overcrowded following the wave of refugees of the 2011-2012 Syrian uprising. Indeed the population of Syrian refugees in the KRG jumped from only 360 on March 31st 2012 and an estimated 760 arrivals altogether, to over 1,776 registered and 2,376 arrivals 2 weeks later (UNHCR estimates).   The Sunni-Arab dominated province of al-Anbar, which faces much higher levels of violence and is under the direct control of Baghdad has also engaged in the establishment of camp facilities to accommodate persons displaced by violence in Syria, about 10km away from the al-Walid border crossing, but has apparently not witnessed notable levels of arrivals to date.

Iraqis Refugees Fleeing Syria

The 102,000 currently registered Iraqi refugees in Syria, amid a government estimate of 1 million Iraqis in total there, are both the most numerous and the poorest of the Iraqi populations outside of Iraq. They are therefore particularly at risk either if forced to return home or if they stay as the situation heats up in Syria. To date there has been no mass departure of Iraqi refugees from Syria. However it is notable that according to Iraqi Government figures in 2011, 67,000 Iraqis registered as returned from Syria double the number in 2009 and 2010 combined.   The average monthly rate of Iraqi refugee returns from Syria doubled again over 2011 in the first quarter of 2012 alone (UNHCR/IMoDM).

A combination of the very recent encroachment of Uprising-related violence to the populations hubs where Iraqi refugees are concentrated, and unrelated longer-standing incentives to return, are behind the jump in the rate of Iraqi refugee returns to Iraq witnessed during the last year.

For most of the first year of the Syrian uprising whose first anniversary was in March 2012, the safety of Iraqi refugees residing in Syria was by and large not directly affected because Iraqi refugees largely did not live in areas where protest and consequently violence was occurring. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria live in the political and the economic capitals of the country (Damascus and Aleppo). While areas such as Homs, Daraa, and Idlib, have experienced shelling employing heavy artillery in broad daylight, and some of the capital's suburbs require as many as 7 check-points and an ID indicating residence in the area to move in and out of them, restaurants in the capital continue to remain open and people in the streets past midnight throughout the events in the rest of the country. This has only changed in the past 4 months, with a campaign of bombings finally bringing more concentrated violence to Damascus and Aleppo.

Incentives for Iraqis to return home unrelated to the Syrian Uprising include a notable drop since around 2009 in violence in Iraq to a tenth of the circa 2007 heights of the Iraqi Civil War. This maintained drop in violence, in addition to monetary incentives provided by the government, has been one of the main reasons for increases in the return of Iraqi IDPs to their homes during the last year. Other incentives for Iraqi refugees in Syria to return home also include the fact that the population of Iraqis that went to Syria (which has practically implemented an open-door policy for Iraqi refugees unlike other neighbors such as Jordan which imposed quotas and strict education requirements etc.) were the poorest. Thus for this population the drying up of savings has long been an ever increasing concern, particularly in light of the fact that technically it is illegal for them to work in their host country although many do menial jobs for sub-normal salaries under the table. The doubling of the prices of many essential food items in Syria during the course of the last year as a result of international economic sanctions only makes the situation of economically and legally vulnerable persons in Syria even more so.

On balance the increasing wave of Iraqi returns from Syria may have more to do with negative pressure than positive incentives however. A survey by UNHCR just before the start of the protest movement in Syria which found that most refugees surveyed were still unwilling to return home permanently has led some analysts to deem the increase in returns during the period of the Syrian Uprising "premature", i.e. the result of a choice between two bad options rather than a comfortable and truly voluntary decision to return home.

Outlook on Violence in Syria: Possibility of Proxy Wars and Consequent Displacement

The year of the Syrian Uprising since its inception in March of 2011 has seen a shift from a predominantly peaceful protest movement towards increased armed conflict in which outside states have high stakes, and the tactics of the Syrian government, outsiders and even the armed groups among the opposition themselves could contribute not only to increases in violence but also its greater sectarianization.

Starting December 23rd 2011, a series of bombings have rocked the capital which had previously been spared the violence. The Syrian government calls such incidents evidence of the rise of violent, foreign-funded, salafi-takfiri extremist Islamist currents in the opposition. By contrast the Syrian opposition has accused the government of staging the attacks to justify its crackdown on the uprising. In particular, the Syrian opposition notes that many of the bombings have taken place in the few areas of the capital where protests have occurred, or like the first attacks, just before unarmed (Arab League) observers were scheduled to deploy in Damascus. In this way the attacks allowed the state to restrict the movements of the monitors with a safety detail the government stated that it was providing for the monitors' security. Such explosions have continued and increased since the deployment of the UN observer mission.

Indeed, opposition forces see the likes of these bombings as part of greater theatrics put on by the state, including government-permitted or even government-sponsored violence in minority-dominated areas, and distribution of weapons 'for the self-protection' of citizens in minority areas, as a regime tactic to divide possible opposition along sectarian lines, and scare minorities and fence-sitters into blind support of the state's program of violence by proposing the security provided by the current government, or a Lebanese/Iraqi civil war scenario without it, as the only two possible outcomes of the protest movement. A fairly clear series of concessions to certain long-time opposition Syrian Kurdish parties – promising to grant citizenship rights to 300,000 stateless Syrian Kurds and even allowing the opening of some PKK-run Kurdish language instruction (previously not even legal much less encouraged) is seen by the opposition as further evidence of the state's divide and conquer strategy, and attempt to neutralize a large swath sector of Syrian society (Syrian Kurds), a potentially very potent oppositional force representing more than a tenth of the state's population. Some Syrian Kurdish parties like the Kurdish Yekiti Party (KYP) have thrown in their lot with the Syrian protest movement. However regarding the PKK, one of the stronger of the Kurdish parties the tactic has so far apparently worked. Indeed, PKK fighters have even assisted in inhibiting protests in some areas and the PKK has announced that if Turkey interfered in the Uprising, it would stand with the current Syrian government.

The precise levels of exaggeration from either side are difficult to discern in an atmosphere where free press remains almost entirely banned by authorities in Syria. However even if the Syrian government's version of events is accurate they mean that the violent conflict has arrived to the political and economic hubs of the country where Iraqi refugees have been centered. Likewise whether the result of genuine targeting of minorities by extremists or state fabrication thereof, rising levels of violence have resulted in some de-facto segregation of sects. This includes for example the flight of many Alawites (the sect of the president, and one notably over-represented in the still loyal upper-echelons of the army) to the coastal areas where they are more dominant, and Christians, from areas witnessing intensified violence like Homs. Isolation of sectarian groups from one another and blanket-association of whole minority groups as "regime supporters" increases potential for balkanization of the conflict. Balkanization of the conflict would be a major issue in a state with such a rich diversity of ethnic and sectarian groups.

Following the deployment of a UN observer mission due to report on the implementation of cessation of hostilities starting April 12th 2012, the daily rates of killing of Syrians dropped sharply. However they have increased from the first days of the mission. Two weeks after the supposed implementation of cessation of hostilities by both sides, and assurance of free movement for the press by authorities, in some of most sensitive areas (such as Homs) attacks are nearly back to pre-ceasefire levels, the state's heavy weaponry remains positioned in heavily populated urban areas, and journalism no freer. This has led some observers to label the mission a failure as the Arab League observer mission was before it. As one journalist asked rhetorically, regarding the arrival of a Norwegian general arriving as part of the second deployment of UN, "I wonder if by the time he gets to Syria, there will be any cease-fire left to monitor?"

The failure of the Kofi Annan brokered peace-plan and the UN observer mission is still unconfirmed. If the mission is beefed up from its current 15 persons, to at least the full 300-persons agreed upon by the UN Security Council, or what opposition leaders see as a minimum of 2-3,000 person size to be able to truly do their job in a country of 22 million, it might yet succeed or at least continue to put a damper of violence and allow greater peaceful protests to organize without fear of imprisonment or armed retribution by state forces. By some estimates, the largest number of protests to occur to date was 715 separate gatherings on April 13rd (i.e. immediately following the arrival of the observer mission).   However if the UN observer mission fails or continues to flounder, and possibly even if it does not, regional interests in the preservation of the Syrian government (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia whose only warm water port is located on the Syrian coast) or change of the Syrian government (notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the US) could tip the conflict into a much more violent and difficult to stop proxy-war. Russia and Iran already provide military and strategic support to the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly discussed supporting the possibility of foreign military intervention in Syria. This is unlikely to occur given the unwillingness of any major military powers currently to devote boots on the ground, or even planes, to such a mission. However indirect support of armed opposition forces is well within the range of possibilities, with states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar recently putting forward a pledge of 100 million US dollars to pay for the salaries of the (opposition, defector-lead) Free Syrian Army first announced in July 2011 after 5 months of state crackdown on the peaceful protest movement, the discipline of whose leadership structure is uncertain, and among whose ranks some cases of torture of prisoners have already immerged.


The sustainability of the two week drop in levels of violence following the deployment of a UN observer mission to Syria is as yet unclear. If the UN peace-plan is not proven to be working soon, the combination of a tenacious state willing to employ even heavy weaponry in heavily populated civilian centers to stop the protest movement, a highly fragmented Syrian opposition even on the most basic issues (such as foreign intervention or arming the opposition), interest of wealthy foreign backers in funding the arming of diverse parties to the conflict, and some evidence of de-facto sectarian segregation raise the specter of an even more serious proxy-conflict with intensified overtones of sectarian violence. As such the failure of the UN mission would likely signal a return of Syria to the patterns of death and displacement of Syrians and Iraqi refugee returns from Syria to Iraq as had been occurring and indeed escalating for the previous year. With the March 2012 UN call for funding for the plan for assisting Syrian refugees regionally only 20% funded to date, and the Iraqi government still facing a lack of capacity in implementing its promised and legislated assistance and benefits for returning citizens, questions remain in Iraq as in other neighboring countries, how the needs of the displaced will be filled if this scenario occurs.


The Syrian Uprising and Iraq: Returnees, Refugees, and Revolutionarie, the NGO Coordination Commitee for Iraq, 1 May 2012, by Ana Nikonorow

[i] The United Nations estimated the more than 9,000 civilians had been killed in the course of the Syrian Uprising by March 2012, the Uprising's one year anniversary (U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process speaking before the UNSC, 27 March 2012). Syrian non-governmental groups, counting combatant deaths beginning in March 2012 and extending through the beginning of May 2012 range in their estimates from the Center for Documentation of Violation in Syria (749 combatant deaths), to the Syrian Martyrs Organization (1,210 military deaths), to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (3,145 combatant deaths to April 16th only). Although the Syrian government's estimate of overall deaths at 6,044 in April 2012 was much lower than the UN or Syrian opposition/human rights groups, the Syrian government places their estimates of combat deaths much higher. The Syrian opposition and human rights groups counting combatant and non-combatant deaths place their total estimates of Syrian dead notably higher than the UN for the period through end of April 2012: (10,966 total deaths) according to the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, (12,269 total deaths) according to the Syrian National Council, and (10,281 total deaths) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A concise sketch of the reporting methods of the various organization cited above, and the weaknesses of these methods, may be found in an piece by Eman El-Shenawi, "Raising a brow at the Syrian death toll, al-Arabiya, 25 March 2012. Taking into consideration the above calculations, this article has employed 11,000 as a highly rough median estimate employed in an environment where reliable estimates are extremely difficult to obtain.

Although Iraq’s revenue is rapidly increasing, official consideration of humanitarian issues is taking a back seat, external funding for development is diminishing, and corruption appears to be thriving amidst undemocratic practices. These issues are most clearly manifested in the nation’s 2013 budget proposal, the largest budget in the country’s history. Out of the colossal 138 trillion Iraqi Dinars (USD 118.6 billion), most notable are the allocations to oil production in the form of foreign and domestic projects, the security and defense sectors, and the Prime Minister’s office. To be sure, the primary reason for the exceptionally large budget is oil revenue and production, as Iraq boasts the fourth largest oil reserves in the world[1] and may quickly become the world’s second largest oil producer. It is, therefore, worth exploring how Iraq’s 2013 budget reflects the ways in which oil production affects state power, humanitarian funding, and social programs.


Oil Production and State Power

Proposed by the Ministry of Finance, the 2013 budget displays an 18% increase from the 2012 budget of ID117 trillion. According to Ali al-Dabbagh, an official government spokesperson, the figures are partially based on expected average oil prices of $90 per barrel, and exports of 2.9 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) (of which 250 thousand bpd are planned from the Kurdistan region). Revenues based on these calculations are expected to contribute to 95% of the 2013 budget. These figures are compared to Iraq's 2012 draft budget, which forecasted oil exports of 2.6 million bpd, a significant increase from Iraq's average of 2.2 million bbl/day in 2011. In fact, predictions are being made all the way up to the year 2035 of a yearly average of $200bn in oil revenue (The Guardian).

Although it is clear that Iraq’s oil exports and revenues are increasing, the strong influence of oil production on Iraq’s budget works both politically and socially. To be sure, many of the world’s developed and developing economies depend heavily on oil. However, there appear to be inconsistencies between the domestic politics of oil producers and oil consumers. The production and consumption of oil often seem to have a connection to undemocratic practices, albeit in different ways. This is not to say that oil production leads directly to corruption or repression, but rather corruption and repression may be facilitated by complex relationships that have developed with the evolution of the oil industry. Although this correlation may be due to economic pressures or a desire to repress populations and buy political support, Timothy Mitchell argues that this trend may also be related to the properties of oil, the means of production, cash flow, and the dependent relationship between oil producers and oil consumers.

In fact, the budget can be viewed as a medium through which state power and undemocratic practices are reinforced by oil. One need only refer to the recent pressures on Kurdistan by Baghdad to halt their unilateral oil deals with ExxonMobil and Chevron, condemning the deals as “illegal,” then allocating 250 thousand bpd to the KRG to control energy flow and curb potential conflict. This conflict revolves largely around the oil and gas law, or lack thereof, and drilling territory. Due to the fact that claims to the disputed territories are not resolved, and would have to be in order for there to be a comprehensive oil and gas law, Baghdad and the KRG have clashed over contracts, jurisdiction, production, and other issues. The hydrocarbons draft law has been in negotiations since 2007 and there does not seem to be a consensus in the near future. Additionally, Kurdistan refused to vote in favor of the proposed budget because the salary of the Peshmarga was not included, while other allocations for security in Iraq make up 14% of the budget.

These events illustrate how power and security are tightly bound to oil via the budget. In other words, oil is used to bolster internal security, while restricting and controlling resources and defense. When one examines the budget’s content this becomes more pronounced. ID19.86 trillion is marked for security and defense sectors, ID13.6 trillion is reserved for foreign oil companies' projects, and ID405.88 million alone is reserved for the Prime Minister’s office, compared to ID12.71 trillion for education and ID17.7 trillion for social services. (It should be noted that the funds allocated to the Prime Minister’s office are officially for social benefits, such as the Women’s Care Department, which are facilitated by his office.) These numbers indicate not only that power and security in Iraq flow through oil, but also that power lies with the Prime Minister and the government’s priorities revolve around security and defense.

The central government has tried to curb the autonomy not only of the KRG, but also of oil laborers through law, intelligence, and security measures. As a result, the government more effectively controls the means of oil production, which is also strengthened through the budget, and uses it as a tool against demands for workers rights. In February, 2011, Baghdad implemented crackdowns (not for the first time) on illegal strikes and unions at Kirkuk’s North Oil Company, as well as strikes in Basra during the past several years. Although workers still form unions despite their illegality, legislation has not yet changed and strikes continue to be suppressed. Furthermore, because of an abundance of human resources in the country, a relatively low level of specialization required for menial oil labor, and the government’s effective enforcement of power, strikes and unions are not as effective as they need to be. Thus, in Iraq’s case, oil production actually works to oppose democratic practices.

On the other hand, the stifling of pluralism and representation in Iraq also comes in the form of corruption, which is just as prominently linked to money, power, and oil. Baghdad and Moscow’s recently botched arms deal, allegedly due to corruption and bribery of the Iraqi officials who were negotiating, demonstrates the inability of the central government to fulfill its goals. Thus, corruption not only takes the form of repression on the street and in public spaces, but also in private among public officials. LUKOIL, Russia’s second largest crude producer, concurrently has plans to accept an offer from Exxon to take over West Qurna-1 oilfield (Reuters) and it is already in the process of developing West Qurna-2. So although there is a chance that Baghdad and Moscow may not benefit from a weapons deal and exchange tools of hard power, they are already cooperating in their production of soft power in southern Iraq.


Humanitarian and Social Programs

Although exorbitant spending on defense and energy is a common trait between oil producers and oil consumers, the way by which it affects humanitarian and social affairs regarding external funding, domestic programs, and civil society, is particularly stark in oil producing nations. High revenue, as a result of oil, make it easy and convenient to ignore or mask numerous inequalities in income and services. According to a previous NCCI op-ed, “In 2008, far fewer donors contributed about $473.6 million to humanitarian assistance in Iraq. In perspective, there was an 86% decrease in funding since the peak of funding in 2003.” Most recently, ECHO decreased funding from EUR 8 million (2012) to EUR 7 million (2013) for their humanitarian action plan (HIP) in Iraq, despite the fact that the country belongs to “category 3 (most severe) of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (DG ECHO) crisis index and to category 2 of DG ECHO’s vulnerability index for 2012”(ECHO/WWD/BUD/2013/0100; emphasis added). The report cites Iraq’s economic growth and need to focus on capacity building, as opposed to rebuilding, for its reasons to decrease funding, yet the report strangely acknowledges that 23% of the population (7 million people) lives below the poverty line. With a clear reference to inequality and growth, the report does not address that the government actually does have the capacity to generate revenue or that corruption and repression are the problems regarding inequality. Instead of identifying the sources, destinations, and ways by which national profits are generated and contribute to the long-term problem, programs focus on short-term goals, which, while important, cannot function alone as a remedy.

Moreover, responsible domestic budgeting and administration is just as important as high revenue and funding. Hollowing out institutions in the name of security, intelligence, and reform does not foster valuable growth. In mid-November, the Iraqi Cabinet announced plans to eliminate food ration cards, which the government had been distributing since the 1990s when Iraq was struggling with international sanctions under Saddam Hussein’s regime. The decision to eliminate the rations was quickly reversed after public outcry, despite the sentiment that the system has been quite ineffective. According to The Iraqi Knowledge Network, for example, 80 percent of Iraqi families who had ration cards had only ever received one of the items on the ration card list between 2010 and 2011. This reveals the government’s inability to adequately deliver social services, as well as a portion of the public’s dependency (real or psychological) on services that seldom deliver. When supplemented with the ECHO report it becomes apparent that there is a discrepancy between international donations/donors, capacity building, and government services. A recent BBC report also noted a recent survey, estimating that between 800,000 to a million Iraqi children have lost one or both of their parents. However, Iraq's Deputy Minister for Social Affairs, Dara Yara, said that "We are working day and night to improve the services we provide to orphans. But the money I'm allocated for this is very limited. And the whole social security system in this country needs reform.” A recent UNICEF survey also highlighted further inequalities among children, noting that one in three (5.6 million) children in Iraq suffer from at least one of the following: inadequate access to and promotion of health services; lack of access to quality education; violence against children in schools and families; psychological trauma from years of extreme violence; discrimination; prolonged detention in juvenile facilities; insufficient attention to the special needs of children with disabilities and who are not in their family environment; and lack of access to information and participation in cultural life.

On the surface, Iraq’s budget provides only a few ways by which revenue, state power, and corruption are linked, but when reviewed more carefully in the context of Iraq’s politics and society, the relationship between money, power, oil, and humanitarian concerns are revealed. Each of these elements and institutions produces and reproduces power in different ways. Incidentally, yet on a macro scale, this also illuminates the irony of America’s policy of bringing democracy to Iraq, from which the U.S. received massive benefits as an oil consumer, while facilitating and influencing oil production. Despite projections of mass economic growth in Iraq’s future, this in no way guarantees structural or social change. If there is to be a more vibrant civil society, more effective social services programs, democratic capacity, and reform of structural inequality, workers and other disenfranchised groups must be allowed to voice their demands, international organizations must work with local groups to produce effective and necessary programs, and the means of oil production — including the depletion of fossil fuels — must be reassessed.