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Sieges, Demographic Shifts and Returns to ‘Liberated’ Cities

Amid a renewed offensive on Mosul and U.N.-led Syria talks in Geneva, Middle East journalist and analyst Patrick Cockburn discusses the changing demographics of Syria and Iraq, and the complexities of displaced people returning to “liberated” cities in both countries.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Canvas cluster
Over the course of the Syrian conflict, sieges and evacuations have led to the displacement of native civilians from cities, creating radical demographic shifts. AP Images

BEIRUT – With military strikes and targeted attacks in Syria and Iraq coinciding with new diplomatic talks last week, Middle East analyst and author Patrick Cockburn has warned that migration is radically shifting the countries’ demographic balances along sectarian lines.

These changes will be difficult to reverse, according to the former Middle East correspondent for the Independent and author of several books on Iraq’s recent history, including most recently “The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution” in 2015.

After six years of bitter fighting between the government and dozens of opposition and Islamic groups, with millions driven from their homes and floundering U.N. negotiations, the Syrian conflict has become “intractable,” according to Cockburn.

In Iraq, which is still struggling to recover from the U.S.-led invasion and where the government is battling to retake large swathes of territory from the so-called Islamic State, deepening sectarian hostilities have prevented hundreds of thousands of people from returning to their homes. Next door in Syria, deadly suicide attacks in Homs and government military strikes across the country nearly derailed the intra-Syrian talks that convened in Geneva on February 23 and have continued without a breakthrough.

Acknowledging the parallels between the conflicts is critical to understanding the fact that “every crisis in the region is linked to every other,” said Cockburn, citing the sieges of both Mosul and Aleppo, where he said regional actors – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar – “critically influenced” the outcomes. Both cities have experienced drastic demographic changes – a “dangerous shift” that will be “hard to reverse,” he warned.

The depopulation of so-called liberated areas is creating homogeneous religious, ethnic and economic communities that reinforce the sectarian and social divides, he said, citing the cases of displaced Iraqis struggling to return to their homes in Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq. Similarly, single-identity communities have become more common in Syria, especially in urban centres that form the “spine” of the country.

This interactive map provides an overview of so-called “liberations” that are creating single-identity communities in Syria, especially in urban centres that form the “spine” of the country. Sebastian Viskanic/Preethi Nallu

The “biggest losers are the IDPs and refugees,” he said, adding that in areas that had historically mixed identities, such as Aleppo, it has become more crucial than ever to establish concrete policies that address long-term, safe returns of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria.

With negotiations between the warring parties in Syria struggling to take off, five days into the Geneva meeting, News Deeply spoke with Cockburn about thepossibility of long-term returns and leveraging political pressure on all sides to ensure safe passage.

Preethi Nallu

News Deeply: If the outward migration flows point to the demise of nationalism, how would you say migration is shaping the identities of those living in areas under siege, followed by evacuations?

Patrick Cockburn: Migration in both Iraq and Syria is changing the communal balance within each country. This transformation is very radical and will be very difficult to reverse because it’s not just in response to immediate danger, but a response to calamitous communal relations. In concrete terms, if you’re in northern Iraq outside Nineveh and you’re talking to Christians or others who are returning, then they all believe that Sunni Arab villagers were complicit in driving them out, taking their houses, killing people, raping people. This is even more true of the Yazidis in Sinjar and elsewhere. These movements are becoming irreversible because people can’t go back.

A longer-term and very dangerous shift in both Iraq and Syria is that communities in general can’t live together any longer. That’s the trend. It goes back to 2003 and 2004 in Baghdad, particularly the 2006-07 sectarian war in Baghdad, which ended with the Sunni really being confined to a limited number of enclaves. There are very few really mixed areas left. Now, you are having the same thing in northern Iraq and [the] Nineveh plain.

Although governments are often blamed by humanitarian organizations, even at a popular level, people don’t trust each other or hate each other and aren’t prepared to live together anymore. The same is true in northern Syria: I’ve been in towns which were occupied by Daesh, where the Christians believe their Sunni Arab neighbors were cooperating with Daesh. So when they come back they drive them [the Sunni] out in turn. There’s a real, very high level of friction and hostility on the ground, which I think is going to be extraordinarily difficult to reverse.

News Deeply: What are the commonalities that you notice between these twin sieges in Mosul and Aleppo on the domestic front with internal pressures?

Cockburn: The fear of civilians inside is probably the same in each place – the armed opposition groups in east Aleppo or their equivalent in Mosul don’t want to see their areas depopulated. The purpose of bombing and artillery fire is actually common to counterinsurgency tactics the world over. It is carried out to mainly separate the guerrilla fighters from the civilian population. You had this with the British in what was called Malaya at the time, the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam. These operations have been conducted with varying degrees of concern for civilian casualties, but they have the same purpose. There’s a common interest among those who are holding these cities not to let the civilian population go, encourage them to stay.

But at the same time there is a real and quite understandable fear among people leaving, about what their fate will be. They’re going to be wholly vulnerable in the long term, in dealing with the people [who are depopulating the area] who are hostile to them.

These are the most important common features: What guarantees can be given to them? How real are these guarantees? Who can really guarantee their security?

Often, you see reports about people going back to their cities, but it’s a little simple-minded. It’s not just what’s happening in the city. What’s the condition on the roads? Who control those checkpoints? If you’re a Sunni civilian in Ramadi and you’re up in Kirkuk, there may be a Hash’d [Iraqi-state sponsored umbrella organization comprising mainly Shia armed groups] checkpoint on the road, it could be an extremely dangerous situation. The same thing is going to be true in Aleppo and the same thing is true down in Damascus.

News Deeply: How do you assess the role of external backers with military operations that lead to massive displacement?

Cockburn: Regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar have a critical influence on what happens to Sunni movements in Iraq, including peaceful protests, in terms of how they were covered by the Arab media and paid for by the Gulf.

Since 2011, if you look at the Syrian crisis, again and again, the real impulse for what was happening on the battlefield, what was happening in Syria, didn’t come from the parties within the country like Assad, or the opposition. It came from their outside backers. When Assad was doing badly, he looked to Russia and Iran. When the opposition was doing badly they looked to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and to a degree the U.S. Of course, it would be naive to imagine that their [the external backers’] agenda is wholly determined by the needs of the Syrian people. This is one of the reasons these wars go on for so long. This is true of Syria and Iraq.

News Deeply: It appears that some of the same external parties stoking the different sides of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are now struggling with how to control migration from these countries that are in absolute chaos. They have destroyed the basic political and social structure of these states and the migration influxes are a direct consequence. How do you begin to address the cause and effect?

Cockburn: The question is, where do you begin? Maybe you begin by not invading Iraq. But this has already happened, so what can be done positively? Pressure can be put on governments to make things a bit easier for people to go back, that they have a degree of safety when they are back. For example, the Iraqi state is very dependent on outside military support but also financial support. Loan guarantees from the U.S. is a priority for the moment because they need the money. But there should also be limits to what outside parties try to do. Trying to determine Iraqi politics from the outside – on how communities should treat each other – will not only fail to achieve these aims, but also produced a counterreaction within Iraq.

In Syria, my own view is that Assad has essentially won. He’s certainly not going to be displaced anymore. You can see that partly by the military advances in Damascus and in Aleppo, but also the lack of response from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

This interview was conducted in person and by email between December and early February.

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