Tag Archives: Iraq

The Plight of Syria’s Refugees is Another Security Crisis in the Making

Chatham House Expert Comment

By Christopher Phillips and Neil Quilliam

If the objective of Western policy is to prevent fall-out from the Syrian conflict leading to a direct terrorist threat to their countries, then policy-makers would do well to consider the significant economic, social, educational and security challenges a refugee crisis presents, to both the host nations and the international community. 

Although Syria’s civil war remains in the headlines, largely thanks to Islamic State (IS), Syrian refugees have dropped on the policy priority list. Given the protracted nature of the Syria conflict, refugee communities will likely remain a fixture in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Host governments, communities, international donors and refugees themselves need to move from short-term emergency planning to long-term development. However, neglecting the needs of Syria’s refugees and failing to help neighbouring host countries and communities accommodate their long term presence will store problems for the future.

While most Turks, Jordanians and Lebanese initially welcomed the refugees, the number of refugees (3.1 million and counting) and the long-term nature of the crisis means that, unless addressed, tensions between host and refugee communities will rise, as competition over resources intensifies.

The longer the refugees stay the more Ankara and Amman will be pressured by their own populations to move all Syrians into camps; a move believed by host communities to remove the threat to local jobs. However, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) warn against this strongly, discourage further camp building and urge that refugees be given the right to work. They argue that experience from other long-term crises has taught that integrating refugees into host economies not only helps retain critical skills and experience, but over time improves relations with hosts, as their contribution is viewed an asset rather than a burden.

In 2013 UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimated that up to 80 per cent of Syrian refugees of school age in Lebanon were not in school, and many INGOs fear of a ‘lost generation’ of refugees growing up across the region without access to education. Not only will this limit their ability to help rebuild Syria if and when they return after the war, it also increases the chances of radicalization by militant groups. Again, INGOs cite other examples, including amongst Palestinian and Afghani refugees, where the neglect of pressing education, social and economic issues over time has led to a permissive environment that supports militarization. With jihadism and sectarianism on the rise, it is a serious security risk, as well as a neglect of basic rights to leave so many young men and women disenfranchised.

A sustained international effort is required if Syria’s refugees are to be given the chance to contribute towards host communities and eventually prepare for return. In the immediate term, donors should increase their support for UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP). The under-funded WFP recently cut support for Syria’s refugees. Cash payments for refugees in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq have been halved and the calorific value of food bundles reduced to 825 calories a day. In the meantime, UNHCR has reported receipt of only 51 per cent of the $3.7 billion needed to support Syria’s 3.1 million refugees this year.

Saudi Arabia, a regional economic giant that has sent funds and weapons into the civil war, has contributed only $2.9 million to UNHCR in 2014. While the UK and US have spent more than most, their outlay in 2014 still pales compared to the $1.1 billion the Pentagon has spent on ‘destroying and degrading’ IS since June. Similarly, Western states need to revisit their policies on taking Syrian refugees. 100,000 have declared asylum in EU countries and a handful have been resettled, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to Syria’s neighbours. Unless Europe revises its approach, the number of refugees seeking illegal entry will continue; already 3,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

The failure to address these problems could leave Syria’s refugee communities posing not only a threat to regional stability, but also Western capitals. Few Western policy-makers saw the Arab Spring coming, nor were they prepared for the emergence of IS. This time, there can be no excuse for not seeing it coming.

The Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative is a major multi-year research and convening project focusing on the long-term impact of the conflict on Syria’s immediate neighbours, which aims to support a coordinated and holistic policy response.

 

Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.

Syrian Regime Strikes ISIS

A few of my thoughts for Syria Deeply 26 June 2014

Syrian regime fighter jets launched aerial attacks yesterday on key positions held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, and Qaim, across the Iraqi border. The strikes are part of the Syrian government’s intensified campaign against ISIS, which has been using the spoils from its takeover of Mosul earlier this month to propel its expansion in Syria.

The attack surprised those who assumed that Assad, who has until now been fairly passive in fighting ISIS in the east, would focus on the war’s other fronts while letting armed groups fight among – and ultimately weaken – themselves. But as reports emerged that ISIS has been gaining recruits from Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups, concern spread in Damascus that its power could grow faster than expected – possibly requiring intervention.

Syria Deeply: Why did the regime choose to strike now?

Chris Phillips: There has been a lot of press coverage of the regime’s role in ISIS coming [to power]. It had a desire for radicalism to emerge – in order to discredit the opposition – but it doesn’t actually want ISIS to thrive. It doesn’t mean they want them to succeed in taking very large swaths of Syria and Iraq – and I suspect they’ve been genuinely shocked by the capacity ISIS has shown in the last few weeks. While they were content with ISIS controlling parts of eastern Syria, they now see a force that could control parts of Iraq as well – so the regime could be genuinely concerned about ISIS’s momentum and trying to check it.

There’s also the matter of its ally, Iran, which has contributed a large amount to the regime’s war effort and is now sending its own troops to take on ISIS in Iraq. So for it to request [aerial] help from the Syrian government is not out of the question.

Syria Deeply: The regime’s military resources are stretched. Does it have the manpower to fully tackle ISIS?

Phillips: The regime’s position hasn’t changed. It doesn’t have the capacity to reconquer all of Syria. What it seems to want to do is keep the opposition factions, including ISIS, [contained] and fighting each other.

The regime is also attacking ISIS symbolically. The regime’s long-term plan, remember, is to risk short-term international isolation, then wait for the international climate to shift and walk back in. It might see ISIS as that opportunity. If it can present itself as the force in the region that the West can count on to take on ISIS, then its period of international isolation would end.

 

The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.

Mubarak urged new dictator in Iraq

Surprise surprise. Wikileaks reveals Egyptian President Mubarak urged the US in 2008 to allow an army dictator to take over in Iraq. Autocratic solidarity once more… See this piece in Hurriyet:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak advised the United States in 2008 to “forget” about democracy in Iraq and allow a dictator to take over, according to a diplomatic cable released this week on WikiLeaks.

Mubarak made the comments during talks with visiting U.S. congressmen to whom he also admitted that he was “terrified” by the possibility of a nuclear Iran, in the cable sent home from the U.S. embassy.

He noted to the U.S. delegation he had advised Washington against the 2003 invasion of Iraq to depose dictator Saddam Hussein. But now that they had troops in mainly Shiite Iraq, American troops should not withdraw because that would only serve to strengthen Shiite Iran next door. “You cannot leave” because “you would leave Iran in control,” the diplomatic dispatch, dated May 27, 2008 according to the website, quoted him as saying. “Mubarak explained his recipe for going forward,” the cable said.

“Strengthen the (Iraqi) armed forces, relax your hold, and then you will have a coup. Then we will have a dictator, but a fair one. Forget democracy, the Iraqis by their nature are too tough,” Mubarak said in the cable. He said he would never accept a nuclear Iran and acknowledged: “We are all terrified.”

 

Christianity’s place in the Middle East

My latest article on comment is free which has provoked some interesting responses in the comments section….

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian Comment is Free, 11th November 2010

Overextrapolating from the al-Qaida church attack plays into the hands of radicals wanting to push the clash-of-civilisations myth

The brutal attack on a Baghdad church by al-Qaida in Iraq last week, together with subsequent attacks this week, has prompted a renewed interest in the declining numbers of Christians in the Arab world. While some commentators have limited their views to the tragedy unfolding in Iraq, others have generalised about the doomed fate of Christians across the region.

One article in Foreign Policy went so far as to suggest the church attack might spell “the end of Christianity in the Middle East” altogether. Yet such generalisations play into the hands of radicals wanting to perpetuate the clash-of-civilisations myth. Though anti-Christian feeling may be rising on the extreme radical fringe of some Arab societies such as Iraq, this should not obscure the harmony that has long been a characteristic of other parts of the Arab world.

In Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and, most rapidly, Iraq, the Christian community is shrinking and, in places, life is becoming more uncomfortable. Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have risen and many complain of institutional discrimination by the state. Similarly, Christians living in Hamas-ruled Gaza complain of a lack of protectionagainst occasional attacks by extremists.

In this context, the attacks in Baghdad only serve to escalate fears of potential persecution, especially after al-Qaida in Iraq declared Arab Christians a “legitimate target”. Indeed, it claimed the attacks were to avenge the imprisonment of two Muslim women it claims are being held by Coptic priests in Egypt, suggesting an internationalisation of its campaign beyond Iraq across the Arab world.

However, as Robert Fisk has suggested, declining Christian numbers could also be largely due to demographics and favourable immigration conditions rather than increased persecution.

First, Christians tend to have smaller families than Muslims – a long-term trend that cannot be linked to recent political events. Second, with the exception of Iraq (where there was a dramatic increase in departures after the 2003 invasion), Christian migration from the Arab world has been a process spanning several generations, rather than a sudden reaction. Migration westward began in the late 19th century and has never really ceased, not even during the era of Christian political dominance in Lebanon from the 1920s to 1950s. Sixty-three per cent of Arab Americans are Christians, which has helped facilitate further immigration to the US, as existing family ties are favoured. While bouts of political instability, such as the Lebanese civil war and the Iraq war, have at times catalysed migration, it must be seen as a long-term trend rather than a gauge of increased anti-Christian feeling.

In fact, large parts of the Arab world remain tolerant and display deep inter-communal harmony. The fact that most of Iraq’s displaced Christians have fled not to the west but to other Arab states, notably Syria and Jordan, seems to illustrate this.

In Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy has long styled itself as the protector of the minority 6% who are Christians. Seats are reserved in parliament, Christians make up a significant portion of the business community, and Christian strongholds such as the town of Madaba are central attractions in Jordan’s tourist industry.

While Jordan is a religious society, it is important to note that in the University of Maryland’s 2010 Arab attitudes survey, only 16% of Jordanians listed Islam as their primary identity, compared with 31% of Egyptians and 61% of Moroccans. In contrast, 58% saw themselves primarily as Jordanian, and a further 19% as Arab, both being identities that don’t just tolerate Christians, but see them as equals.

Syria, too, has a strong record protecting Christians. Historically it was a safe haven for Armenian Christians fleeing the Turkish massacres of the first world war. Today, about 10% of Syrians are Christian and, while diminishing in numbers, they retain a privileged position. Christian religious festivals are publicly celebrated, Christians hold key positions in business and government, and the state even provides free electricity and water to churches and offers tax breaks to priests.

Ideologically, the ruling Ba’athists are secular, even though the constitution demands the president be a Muslim, while the ruling elite, themselves from the Alawi sect, see the benefit of supporting another minority. Not surprisingly, most Christians speak positively of the government, seeing it as a protector from radical Islam – a myth that the regime is happy to perpetuate.

Of course, the Syrian and Jordanian regimes fall down on several other counts. Both are dictatorships with poor human rights records. While both regimes offer equality and cultural freedoms to their Christians, they deprive other groups of rights, notably the Kurds in Syria and somePalestinians in Jordan. Yet on the specific issue of religious freedom for Christians they counter the claims that Arab governments are allowing increased discrimination and persecution.

Moreover, at a broader societal level across the region, it seems wholly unjust to suggest Arab Muslims are suddenly turning on their Christian compatriots. A radical fringe in each state may share the extremist views of al-Qaida, but that does not mean they are accepted by mainstream society. Even Islamists such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood expressed their disgust at the Baghdad bombings, and called for Cairo to protect its churches. This issue varies across the region more than generalist commentators are allowing for.

Christian numbers may be diminishing and the radical fringe may sadly be gaining the upper hand in certain pockets such as Iraq, which the international community should rightly condemn. However, the Arab world in general remains a place where Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and look certain to continue doing so. Perhaps we should be celebrating this fact rather than exaggerating the extent to which the whole region is suddenly becoming anti-Christian.

 

Tariq Aziz death sentence

Iraq’s Supreme Court yesterday passed the death sentence on Saddam’s loyal deputy Tariq Aziz. John Simpson of the BBC writes:

His crime, essentially, was that he was Saddam’s front-man, arguing publicly and cleverly for some of his worst policies.

The Iraqi opposition, like the Americans and their supporters, felt a particular hatred for him.

He was a strong supporter of violent action against Shia and other resistance groups – the crime for which he has been sentenced to death.

But again, it is hard to feel that final proof of his involvement in this kind of action was demonstrated.

Tariq Aziz was Saddam Hussein’s loyal courtier. If he had questioned his judgements, he would have died. This is not an argument for his innocence, but it does temper his direct responsibility for the policies he backed.

In a similar vein, the Guardian‘s Mark Seddon makes the point that Aziz is sitting on a deep archive of personal knowledge that many don’t want to see the light of day:

Could it be, then, that the death sentence is partly an insurance against any future Iraqi government showing clemency? Tariq Aziz is old and unwell, but he has the mother of stories to tell. Throughout the 1980s, when Saddam was seen as an invaluable bulwark against the Iranian ayatollahs, a succession of western politicians and businessmen paid homage at the court of Tariq Aziz.

Donald Rumsfeld was even pictured watching Iraqi rockets being fired on the Fawr Peninsula. Perhaps Aziz, who could tell the whole story of western involvement in Iraq, before, during and after the war, simply has to be got rid of.

Which is why the British government probably won’t appeal for clemency, even though it should.

Seddon has a point. The British, and indeed all western governments who claim to oppose the death penalty, should stick to their principles, even for allies and accomplices of Saddam Hussein. Of course he should answer for his crimes, but this needn’t be at the end of a rope. Aziz is an old man who will probably not last in prison more than a few years.

From a historian’s point of view, he seems the most likely Albert Speer of the Ba’ath regime, who might offer some genuine insights into the workings and the realities of Saddam’s regime. Surely it is as important to study and understand regimes such as the Iraqi Ba’ath’s in order to prevent such atrocities from occurring again as it is to seek retribution from those who committed them?

I fear this point is lost on the western governments who won’t be pressing for an appeal on Aziz.