Syria is not Iraq

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

Syrian rebels hunt for snipers after att
The media is controlling the narrative by insinuating an inevitable post-Assad Iraq-style sectarian clash when such a scenario is far from certain [AFP]

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 regime 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

Inside Syria
Syria: an opposition divided?

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 regime – and Sunnis then retaliated – Christians in Iraq were targeted because they were an affluent but small community, ie 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.

Syria citizen journalists target opposition

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 regime 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 regime 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.

Sarah Harvey is a first year graduate student at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Sarah has lived in both Lebanon and Iraq and has travelled and worked throughout the Levant, including Syria. She is currently working towards a Master’s in Arab Studies with a focus in Political Science and is a Jamal Daniel Fellow sponsored by the Levant Foundation.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahmharvey