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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.