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.
Al-Qaem border crossing is still closed.
A pregnant Syrian woman died on Monday September 3rd, at the Syrian side of Al-Qaem border crossing point. A day earlier 3 young boys, suffering injuries also died. The children arrived at the border three days previously, already suffering injuries. The stranded Syrians, including the pregnant woman who needed assistance as she was about to give birth, received no assistance from the Iraqi side, while the border remains closed, reported al-Anbar NGOs Council.
In a separate incident, one child died on September 2nd, also on the Syrian side where the refugees are still stranded. Apparently the child suffered an asthma case during a sand storm.
Al-Qaem border crossing has been closed since 16 August and there has been no increase in the number of Syrian refugees, which remains at 15,898 according to UNHCR (28 Aug 2012).
According to local NGOs, a total of 350-400 Syrian families are stranded on the Syrian side of this border. The refugees were trying to enter Iraq, fleeing the violence in the Syrian city of Der El-Zur when the Iraqi side closed the border and erected concrete barriers (4 meters high and 40 meters wide) on the morning of August 21st, to block the entry of Syrian refugees. The move was criticized by Iraq's parliamentary human rights committee, and described as a move against human rights principles.
On September 3rd, Al-Jazeera reported “al-Qaem border crossing is expected to be re-opened by the Iraqi authorities as soon as a new camp is established as the first one is already fully occupied.” Indeed, a new camp is currently under construction.
While the Al-Waleed and Rabiya border crossing points remain open UNHCR is advocating with the government that the Al-Qaem border be reopened. The Kurdistan Regional Government re-opened its borders to allow the entry of Syrian refugees two days after closing the borders, according to a security source in Duhok quoted by Radio Nawa. The source confirmed on September 2nd, that the decision to close the border crossing was taken as a security measure. Tens of Syrians entered the KRG through the Fishkhabour crossing point on the Syrian-Iraqi borders as soon as it was re-opened.
Al-Qaem Camp – Needs Registered
The Al-Qaem camp hosts almost 2,000 refugees and is being expanded. Another 1,700 refugees staying in schools are expected to be relocated to the camp very soon to allow classes to resume, according to UNHCR. In Al-Qaem, an Emergency Coordination Cell has been established by the Iraqi Government to plan for the movement of all Syrians who sought refuge in Anbar (mostly hosted in schools) to the UNHCR refugee camp, 5 km from Al-Qaem. The process has already started.
One international NGO and the Love and Peace Forum (a National NGO) visited the border city on Thursday 30 August 2012. Meetings were held with the representative of the Ministry of Displacement and Migration Mr. Salam Khafaji, UNHCR and Islamic Relief staff who are managing the camp.
Both NGOs conducted a needs assessment at Al-Qaem Camp that is hosting the Syrian refugees and visited the location where the new camp is currently under construction to receive the increasing numbers of refugees.
According to the Love and Peace Forum, the needs at the current camp included:
- Children and enfant milk;
- Children food supplements (soup and wheat);
- Drinking water;
- Medical treatment (chronic diseases);
- Additional sanitation facilities;
- Cookers to go along with the food baskets that will be distributed soon, replacing the hot meals distribution system.
- Winter clothes.
For their part, the Syrian refugees in Al-Qaem camp voiced frustration of their situation, saying that the inconvenient conditions they have to endure will dissuade other Syrians from seeking refuge in the Iraqi territories.
Syrian refugees have been entering Iraq at inconsistent rates. While Kurdistan has maintained a generally open policy toward refugees, most of whom have been Syrian Kurds, Baghdad has remained fickle regarding its stance toward evacuees. After opening the border for a brief stint between July and August, Baghdad closed its al-Qaem border on August 16th, only to reopen it again on September 18th with some improved humanitarian conditions, yet generally insufficient provisions, such as a lack of hygienic supplies, low quality and quantity food, as well as inadequate medical assistance. Various reasons were given for closing the border concerning both camp capacity and domestic security. In Kurdistan, some younger male refugees have been welcomed and provided with military training.
On August 16th, when Baghdad decided to close al-Qaem border in al-Anbar province, two reasons were given, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. The first reason was to wait for UNHCR to improve the camp and prepare for more refugees. The project included additional shelter, medical supplies, food supplies, and a plan to expand the water quantity to 470,000 liters. After the project, the camp was to be reopened (al-Qaem city council cited this as the main reason). The other reason, however, was security. The same HRW report states that “Iraqi authorities have announced that they will re-open the border after expanding the capacity of a camp at al-Qaem, though an official at Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch on August 27th that the ministry had not recommended closing the border and described the decision as purely a ‘security measure.’”
Baqer Jabr al-Zubaidi, a former finance and interior minister, who is now a parliament member from Mr. Maliki's coalition was also quoted saying “[i]f al-Qaeda succeeds in toppling the regime in Syria, then the Shiite government in Iraq will be next."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari further supported al-Zubaidi’s assertion in a separate statement: "The flow of refugees, the entrenchment of terrorist organizations, the veil of a fundamentalist regime, all this could impact us," Zebari told Reuters. "We are trying to take an independent position. Based on our national interests... Things are not black and white."
Although there is no evidence whether closing the border actually contributed to Iraq’s national security and prevented infiltrators, it certainly had not stopped shelling and other threats from across the border. On September 7th, 3 shells were launched into Iraq from the Abu Kamal district in Syria, killing 2 civilians, one of whom was a 5-year-old girl, and injuring 5 others. And while the official rhetoric focuses on preventing a “Sunni” threat, the rockets were Russian Katyusha rockets, which were most likely used by the regime.
Eventually, al-Qaem was reopened on Tuesday, September 18th, with increased security, which, as of September 24th, prevents single young men from entering the camp, allowing only women, children, and elderly or sick people. Between September 19th and the 23rd, a total of 618 Syrian refugees were granted entrance into the Iraqi territories, averaging 123 people per-day.
Tying up humanitarian issues with national security is not new; nor is prioritizing national security over human rights. However, the way by which al-Zubaidi and Zebari generalize the identity of Syrian refugees and link their migration with al-Qaeda, while placing them in opposition to the “Shiite government in Iraq,” distances officials from a responsibility for fundamental humanitarian matters. By conjuring the al-Qaeda threat, real or imagined, and associating it with an influx of a population in need, the Iraqi government can, and has been able to, justify almost any policy on the basis of an identity.
Conversely in the north, the KRG hosts their (mostly Kurdish) refugees very differently. As of September 28rd, the KRG hosts approximately 28,074 refugees distributed throughout Domiz camp in Dohuk, as well as host communities in Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah. There is also a new camp under construction in Kasak, Mosul. Syrian Kurdish politics and their relationship with the KRG have created new regional dynamics, while the lack of international aid has generated domestic tension.
Syrian Kurdish identity in the KRG, as it relates to armed resistance, functions on several levels. By providing arms and military training, the KRG and various Kurdish political parties are offering a solution to Syria’s uprising, which would simultaneously provide “protection” to Kurdistan and offer a new instrument for Syrian Kurdish autonomy. However, the overall goals of the new militia are ambiguous.
Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) external relations chief, Hayman Hawrami, said that they provided military training to many of the young men “so they can be a main supporter of the Syrian opposition and a main supporter of the positive change in Syria.” Furthermore, although the training has been viewed as an aggressive measure, both by Baghdad and Ankara, Kurdish officials, such as Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, maintain that it is “for the purpose of protection” and not explicitly to fight in Syria.
There are also opportunities for conflict. Although Iraqi Kurds have already established an autonomous region and maintain a distinct heritage, part of their culture is still intrinsically tied to Iraqi Arab culture because of their converging histories, governments, customs, and even ethnicities. This is analogous to Kurds who live/lived in Syria and their relationship with Syrian Arab identity. Syrian Kurds may experience inequality for a number of reasons because they are “visitors” and have entered into a reciprocal relationship with their Iraqi Kurdish comrades. They may even face conflict if they support the PYD, a rival faction of the two ruling parties in the KRG and believed by some Syrian opposition websites to be supported by the al-Assad regime. Many Syrian Kurds are still fighting for their own autonomous region in northeast Syria and do, in fact, support the PYD. And although it is entirely possible that conflictive politics will be avoided and cooperative politics will prevail, this depends on how the factors above are publicly addressed and the ways by which conflicts are resolved.
Furthermore, international aid has also been a key concern for the KRG. The KRG has petitioned for additional and necessary aid from various sources to provide refugees with vital assistance during the upcoming months as winter approaches and more refugees enter Kurdistan. It has not yet received a sufficient sum, nor comparable to other host governments. Shakir Yasin, the Kurdish official who is in charge of Syrian refugees in the KRG, mentioned his petition to the EU. “Their reply was that the number of refugees should be at least 15,000 to qualify for financial aid. The number reported by the Kurdistan Region has exceeded 27,000 so far, and still nothing has happened.” While it is unclear if other governments are directly funding Kurdistan, the KRG has recently allocated $10 million to support Syrian refugees within its borders. The KRG has not placed any limits on refugee capacity as yet. Therefore, without significant international financial assistance, the strain and limit on the KRG’s resources will be felt by many.
The KRG maintains a volatile relationship with almost all of its neighbors, including Turkey, Iran, and Syria, as well as Baghdad. The mass influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, combined with the KRG and Baghdad’s different reactions, creates new opportunities for opposition and conflict. Political and regional alliances, as well as demographic shifts are occurring, which will consequently inform and affect how NGOs operate in Iraq.