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.