Syria Is Not Iraq

By: Sarah Har­vey


Ana­lysts must recon­sider com­mon rhetoric about Syria’s civil war and what the post-​Assad out­come will look like.

Some­times, a hypoth­e­sis that is posited first as one of sev­eral poten­tial results is accepted over time as an inevitable out­come. Like a snow­ball effect, one the­ory gets adopted by a few talk­ing heads and evolves until it is a gen­er­ally accepted fact. This is prov­ing true today in con­ver­sa­tions about the Syr­ian civil war.
Jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing the Mid­dle East today must be hav­ing a hard time find­ing new lan­guage to say the same things. Com­mon mantras employ a vari­ety of well-​worn catch­phrases about two regional issues that are too often conflated: the sec­tar­ian prob­lems result­ing from the US inva­sion of Iraq ten years ago and the civil war in Syria. These two dis­tinct top­ics are fre­quently par­al­leled, lead­ing to com­mon con­clu­sions that Syria is likely to degen­er­ate into a sectarian civil war as soon as the Assad régime is top­pled. These asso­ci­a­tions of Iraq and Syria are made almost with­out expla­na­tion, as if the ongo­ing strug­gle per­pet­u­ated by sec­tar­ian rhetoric in one coun­try is an inevitabil­ity in the other.
But Syria is not Iraq. Even if it was, the way the Iraqi pop­u­la­tion fell at each other’s throats was not a nec­es­sary out­come of that country’s his­tory or the US inva­sion and sub­se­quent blun­ders. Iraq’s plunge into chaos resulted from a spe­cific set of cir­cum­stances that are in no way inevitable. Sec­tar­ian infight­ing and intra-​communal ter­ror­i­sa­tion is not the only pos­si­ble out­come of con­flict in the eth­ni­cally and reli­giously plural Baath states of the Mid­dle East. 
My analy­sis here does not seek to explain how Iraq’s out­come may have been altered if the but­ter­fly had bat­ted its wings dif­fer­ently; rather, it briefly out­lines the vari­a­tions between Iraq and Syria in an effort to remind the world that com­par­isons of the two nations demon­strate inac­cu­rate and shal­low under­stand­ings of both.
Pop­u­la­tion statistics
Demo­graph­ics are impor­tant if you are going to get into sec­tar­ian finger-​pointing. Iraq’s pop­u­la­tion is 30 mil­lion: their largest sect, the Shia Arabs, is 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion and was side­lined from gov­ern­ment since before the incep­tion of the state in 1932. The mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion of the major­ity helps explain the level of ani­mos­ity and sus­pi­cion that was borne out between Sunni and Shia com­mu­ni­ties in the post-​Saddam bat­tle for power. But even those his­tor­i­cal ten­sions are not the sole cause for the Iraqis’ new reliance on sec­tar­ian iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: let us not for­get that it was the American-​derived CPA (Coali­tion Pro­vi­sional Author­ity) that dic­tated a con­fes­sional sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, allot­ting cer­tain min­is­te­r­ial and gov­ern­ment posts based on sect and reli­gion rather than demo­c­ra­tic selec­tion by the people.
Syria’s 23 mil­lion per­son pop­u­la­tion, on the other hand, is dom­i­nated by a robust 75 per­cent Sunni pop­u­la­tion that has enjoyed strong busi­ness ties to the rul­ing elite and was by no means excluded from the accu­mu­la­tion of wealth that took place for those in favour under the Assad family’s rule. Fur­ther­more, there are many more non-​Muslim Syr­i­ans than non-​Muslim Iraqis. Only 3 per­cent of Iraq’s pop­u­la­tion is Chris­t­ian; this num­ber was def­i­nitely much higher prior to the 2003 inva­sion, but it never com­pared to the 13 per­cent or more non-​Muslims in Syria.
Whereas Shia mili­tias in Iraq may have tar­geted their Sunni co-​religionists out of anger towards the pre­vi­ous régime — and Sun­nis then retal­i­ated — Chris­tians in Iraq were tar­geted because they were an afflu­ent but small com­mu­nity, easy prey for ransom-​seekers and any­body who wanted to insti­tu­tion­alise vio­lence in order to dom­i­nate through force. The same could cer­tainly become true in Syria, if the same absence of secu­rity is allowed to emerge. But this is unlikely.
The “Arab Spring” and the con­ta­gion affect
Syr­i­ans have cell phones. This was not true in Iraq, which had been cor­doned off from tech­nol­ogy for 13 years under inter­na­tional sanc­tions dur­ing the 1990s. All of the major Syr­ian cities were con­nected to the inter­net and most size­able vil­lages had one or two inter­net cafes, so that most of Syria was online between 2003 and the start of the con­flict. High Com­mis­sioner Anto­nio Guter­res recently told a Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Sub­com­mit­tee that Syr­i­ans are the most tech­no­log­i­cally advanced soci­ety he has ever seen fall vic­tim to a human­i­tar­ian crisis.
This means they saw what hap­pened in Iraq. Con­trary to the direc­tion of some rhetoric com­ing out of West­ern mouths, this edu­cated pop­u­la­tion can eas­ily make the com­par­i­son between their own sit­u­a­tion and that of their unfor­tu­nate neighbours.
Much has been made of the Arab Spring’s “con­ta­gion effect”, refer­ring to the phe­nom­e­non of rev­o­lu­tion­ary demands spread­ing from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and even Jor­dan. This tan­gi­ble demon­stra­tion of intra-​national influ­ence across Arab bor­ders speaks to the power of a more-​than-​imagined Arab com­mu­nity. The log­i­cal con­clu­sion, then, is not that all Arabs are des­tined to act exactly the same way but rather that the news cov­er­age of one place has seri­ous reach across bor­ders and into liv­ing rooms of other Arabs. Peace-​loving peo­ple the world-​over have seen on tele­vi­sion and the inter­net what Iraqis went through, and nobody has dealt more directly with the impli­ca­tions and causes of that cri­sis than neigh­bour­ing Syria. Even the most tan­gen­tial expo­sure to Iraq would serve as a les­son in the hor­ri­ble fall­out of sec­tar­i­an­ism; to sug­gest that Syr­i­ans could wit­ness that con­flict (not to men­tion Lebanon’s 15 year civil war) and not do every­thing in their power to pro­tect against it is to seri­ously under­mine their intelligence.
Secu­rity vac­uum: Paul Bre­mer vs Islamist militias
What will the out­come look like? In the end, the peo­ple who dom­i­nate mil­i­tar­ily on the ground will be the ones in con­trol. Who­ever that is — and who­ever came to their aid dur­ing the war — will have a sig­nif­i­cant role to play for years to come. But here is the crit­i­cal depar­ture from what hap­pened in Iraq: regard­less of who that con­trol falls to, secu­rity will be main­tained.
The depar­ture of the régime will not look at all like the US occu­pa­tion of Iraq. Chaos will not ensue in the same pro­tracted way that it did in Bagh­dad because law and order will be enforced by the oppo­si­tion fight­ers who are respon­si­ble for Assad’s defeat (and who, hav­ing wit­nessed Iraq, will some­how man­age to resist the “urge” to take sec­tar­ian revenge on their “ene­mies”). With­out Paul Bre­mer to dis­band the entire secu­rity mech­a­nism, the indis­pens­able ingre­di­ent for chaos — a power vac­uum — will not materialise. 
Toby Dodge has writ­ten exten­sively about this key ingre­di­ent being the only absolute deter­mi­nant to a slide into chaos like Iraq in 2003. As Dodge and oth­ers point out, the rever­sion to “tribal” and fam­ily iden­ti­ties in Iraq was pred­i­cated on the absence of an alter­na­tive legit­i­mate and capa­ble power. It is the lack of secu­rity — not even the absence of food or oil — that nec­es­sar­ily resulted in ghet­toi­sa­tion of Bagh­dad and the resul­tant insti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion of sec­tar­ian hatred in the mem­o­ries of Iraqis. As long as Syr­ian fight­ers con­tinue to enforce order (really just as long as they pre­vent mass loot­ing and law­less­ness), civil­ians will not have to rely on clan­nish alliances or sec­tar­ian iden­ti­fi­ca­tion for safety.
Finally, though, the issue of mem­ory should not be over­looked. It is actu­ally this point that is both most dif­fi­cult to mea­sure and most appro­pri­ate to com­pare with Iraq. That is, the way this con­flict plays out in the mem­o­ries of Syr­i­ans will deter­mine how they behave for years and even gen­er­a­tions to come. That is why the media’s con­stant refrain about sec­tar­ian num­bers — this Chris­t­ian group vs the Salafi oppo­si­tion forces vs the Alaw­ites vs the Kurds — is not only false but dan­ger­ous. The more we talk in sec­tar­ian terms, the more it becomes a real­ity. Groups inside the coun­try and in the dias­pora who are organ­is­ing marches, pub­li­ca­tions, online man­i­festos and web­sites against sec­tar­ian rhetoric are crit­i­cal in this regard. They are fight­ing for con­trol of the nar­ra­tive, but they are not fight­ing Bashar al-​Assad: they are fight­ing the media and the uncrit­i­cal “ana­lyst” who con­tin­ues to use these inac­cu­rate descrip­tions. Their bat­tle is crit­i­cal because of its abil­ity to influ­ence the Syr­ian mem­ory of the con­flict — now and, much more pow­er­fully, in the future. The cur­rent régime has clearly recog­nised that sec­tar­ian fear-​mongering is its great­est chance for dri­ving a wedge between the Syr­ian peo­ple. The least we could do — the absolute least — is not assist him with his cam­paign of sec­tar­ian rhetoric.

Syria is not Iraq, and 2013 is not 2003. Ana­lysts and politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and stu­dents have a moral imper­a­tive to reject the sug­ges­tion that Syria’s day of sec­tar­ian infight­ing is coming.

Source: Aljazeera

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