Chapter 2 – The social and historical background to conflict in Syria and Iraq

“Before the war there were no problems, we were like brothers, very close to Muslim neighbours and friends.”
Christian female Syrian refugee,
Beirut, Lebanon, February 2016

“I lived with my neighbours for 40 years, and all of a sudden they pointed at me with their weapons.”
Christian male Iraqi refugee
, Amman, Jordan, June 2016

“People in Kobani were butchered, and not only by Daesh [IS] but by their neighbours.”
Syrian female Kurdish refugee,
Beirut, Lebanon, February 2016

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War gave European powers an opportunity to expand into the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, negotiated between Britain and France, led to the creation of modern-day Syria and Iraq. It was the first time that these geographical entities had existed as states governed from the capitals of Damascus and Baghdad, respectively. The creation of these states based on artificial borders, which primarily served the interests of the colonisers, caused dissent among the populations and the ruling elites, whose traditional positions were usurped. Those leading each country faced the challenge of governing and maintaining control of a single entity that was uncomfortable within its own borders and rife with ethnic, religious and social divisions.

Despite being neighbours and sharing some historical, religious and cultural identities, the relationship between Iraq and Syria has been poor for much of the two states’ existence. For example, Syria was one of the few Arab states to support Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and Syria allowed Allied forces to launch attacks on Iraq from Syrian territory during the First Gulf War.

There are numerous similarities between the situation facing religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Ba’thism, a particular doctrine of Arab nationalism, has been an important political ideology in both countries. It emerged in Damascus in the 1940s and promoted pan-Arabism, socialism and a preference for a strong state with protection and freedom of religious practice. Conversely, Ba’thism could not accommodate non-Arab ethnic minorities with the same inclusivity offered to those who identified as Arab. Constructing the state’s national identity on a framework that championed a single ethnic identity disenfranchised certain religious minorities who happened not to identify as Arab.

Furthermore, Iraq and Syria are both geographically positioned between two major faultlines in the region (Sunni-Shia and Arab-Kurd). However, there are also distinct differences between Iraq and Syria with respect to the current challenges faced by their minorities. Most importantly, the Iraqi state has gone through a slow disintegration over decades, exacerbated by the US invasion in 2003.

This chapter provides an introduction to the demographic composition of Syria and Iraq and key events in the recent history of both countries. It outlines sectarian and discrimination patterns before the current conflicts broke out, and provides an analysis of the current conflicts and their effects on the majority and minority populations.

The population of Iraq9

The predominately Muslim population is comprised of three large groups – Sunni Arab, Shia Arab and Sunni Kurd. Southern Iraq is predominantly Shia, and the centre, west and north are mainly Sunni. The cities of Baghdad and Basra are mixed. Kurds form the majority of the population in the north and north-west of the country.

Many of Iraq’s religious minorities live in the north, including Christians and Yezidis. The Assyrian Christians who constitute the most populous Christian group in Iraq speak their own languages and do not necessarily identify as Arab. Consequently, they regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as a distinct ethnic group. The Yezidis are predominantly Kurdish speaking, with homelands in Iraq and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Since 2003, much of the Yezidi homeland of Sinjar has been under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), although it officially remains under the jurisdiction of the central government of Iraq. While many Yezidis are willing to identify as Kurds, they see themselves as a distinct ethnic group. Other ethnic minorities in Iraq include Turkmen, Shabaks, Kaka’i Armenians, Shia Muslim Kurds, Afro Iraqis and Roma.

Christian leaders in Iraq estimate that, as of November 2016, there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country.10 The Christian population has declined steadily over the last 10 years from a pre-2003 estimate of around 700,000 to 290,000 (2014), to the current estimated population.11 Approximately 67% of Iraqi Christians are Chaldean Catholics (eastern rite of the Catholic Church), and nearly 20% are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The rest are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Anglican or other Protestants. Only 50 Evangelical Christian families reportedly remain in Iraq, down from approximately 5,000 in 2013.12

The Shabaks, most of whom are Shia, number somewhere around 250,000 in Iraq. Leaders report a Yezidi community of approximately 500,000, most of whom reside in the north.13 Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community in Iraq vary. According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, no more than 5,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south with small pockets in the Kurdistan region and Baghdad. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 1,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups. According to Kaka’i (also known as ‘Yarsani’) activists, their community has approximately 200,000 members, located mainly in villages south-east of Kirkuk, in Diyala and Erbil in the north, and in Karbala.14

Table 1 summaries key information about the different religious and ethnic groups in Iraq. All figures are estimates since there has not been any recent census or other reliable demographic study on which to base figures, and recent widespread displacement and migration complicates the picture even further.

Table 1: Main Religious and ethnic gropus in present-day Iraq

Majority15Population 201616Religion/denominationLocation
Shia 55–60% of total population Shia Muslim Mainly southern Iraq and Baghdad
Large Minority17PopulationReligion/denominationLocation
Arab Sunni 20–25% of total population Sunni Muslim Centre, west and north Iraq
Kurds 17% of total population Mostly Sunni Muslim North and north-west Iraq
Minority18PopulationReligion/denominationLocation
Turkmen 600,000–2 million
  • Approximately 60% Sunni
  • Large minority Shia
Concentrated in the north – Tel Afar, Kirkuk, Erbil, Salahuddin, Diyala, Baghdad, Kut
Significant displacement after 2014
Christians 250,000 Main denominations:
  • The Chaldean Catholic Church
  • The Assyrian Church of the East
  • The Syriac Catholic Church
  • The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
  • The Armenian Orthodox Church
  • Other Christian churches
Historically, Christians had large numbers in the Nineveh Plains and Kurdistan, as well as Baghdad
Repeatedly forced into displacement and migration since 1961, with a new unprecedented wave of displacement since 2014
Yezidi 500,000 Yezidism Pre-2014 located in Sinjar, Sheikan Ba’shiiqah and Bahzan in Nineveh governorate and in the district of Semele in Dohuk governorate
Since 2014, a majority displaced into and around Dohuk and Erbil
Kaka’i (Ahl-e-Haqq) Estimated as fewer than 200,000 Kaka’i, also called ‘followers of Yarsanism’ Historically lived around Kirkuk, Majority displaced to the Kurdistan region after 2014
Shabak 250,000 Most identify as Shia Muslim and the rest as Sunni Muslim Scattered populations throughout Nineveh Plains, the city of Mosul and villages north and east of Mosul
Most displaced to the Kurdistan region after 2014
Faili Kurd 1 million Shia Muslim Along the Iran-Iraq border
Sabean-Mandean 5,000 Sabean-Mandean Historically, around the Tigris and Euphrates, mostly in Baghdad and the southern governorates
Almost all displaced to the Kurdistan region since 2003, in a process intensified after 2014
Baha’i Fewer than 1,000 Baha’i Scattered in the big cities
Afro Iraqis 1,500–2,000 Most are Shia Originally, descendants of East African migrants who came to Iraq after the birth of Islam
Mainly in south Iraq
Roma (Kawliyah and Qaraj) 50,000–200,000 Mostly Sunni and Shia Muslim Isolated villages in south Iraq and outskirts of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra
Suffered significant displacement since 2003 and 2014
The Kheder family had to flee when IS attacked Sinjar. They now live as IDPs in a camp outside of Dohuk. Photo: Håvard Bjelland
The Kheder family had to flee when IS attacked Sinjar. They now live as IDPs in a camp outside of Dohuk. Photo: Håvard Bjelland

Background to the current conflict in Iraq

In its almost 100-year history, the people of Iraq have not had a stable, pluralist democratic system under which the rights of different ethnic and religious groups could be protected and access to power can be negotiated and shared. Instead, religion and ethnicity have been used to determine status, power and rights, and deliberately marginalise certain groups.

Iraq’s first three decades were turbulent – dominated by the British, and powerful individuals relying on the British and their own personal networks, to maintain power. The British appointed Faisal, son of Sharif Hussain of Mecca, as King of Iraq. He demanded the inclusion of Kurdistan in Iraq, so there would be a sizeable Sunni minority population to balance the majority Shia. Between 1945 and 1958, more than 20 different central government cabinets governed Iraq.

Ba’thism initially failed to gain traction in Iraq because it did not immediately appeal to the large Shia and Kurdish populations. Following a military coup in 1958, which overthrew the monarchy, and then Saddam Hussein’s regime from 1979–2003, Ba’thism became the dominant political ideology in the country. Initially non-confessional and ideologically pan-Arab, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime became increasingly family- and tribal Sunni-dominated, particularly with the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and it pursued genocidal and suppressive policies towards the Kurds, Shia Muslims, and other ethnic and religious minorities.19 These policies have had a determining role in steering the sectarian and political landscapes up to the present time.

Arabisation programme

This programme resulted in the forced displacement of Kurds, Turkmen, Shabaks, Assyrians and Yezidis from their land and property, destruction of a lot of the documentation proving minority ownership and the reallocation of land and property to Arabs. The Yezidi were among those forced to move from their homes and relocated to collectivised villages in other areas, abandoning the use of their language and acquiring a new Arabised identity. The Assyrians were obliged to choose between Arab or Kurdish nationality in the 1977, 1987 and 1997 national censuses. Those who insisted on identifying as Assyrian were struck off the list or arbitrarily registered as Arab or Kurd.20 To encourage minorities to identify as Arab, Decree 199 in 2001 outlined the right of every Iraqi to change their ethnic identity to an Arab one.21 After 1991, in a process that accelerated after 2003, these forcibly displaced groups returned to their land, resulting in tensions with the Arab population, particularly over the control of oil-rich Kirkuk.22

The Kurdistan region

Ever since the creation of Iraq, the Kurdish population has sought some kind of autonomous region and been in political and armed conflict with state authorities, which have largely rejected the idea of Kurdish autonomy. Kurdish uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s led to forced displacement of Kurds. Although Saddam Hussein allowed Kurds some autonomy in the 1970s, Kurdish forces were defeated in 1975. Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein, was tasked with leading the 1988 Anfal Campaign, a series of attacks in which 180,000 men, women and children were killed including 5,000 in the chemical weapons attack on Halabja.23 The end of the First Gulf War in March 1991 precipitated a Kurdish uprising. Saddam Hussein initially repelled this, and an estimated 1.5 million Kurds fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders. Kurds eventually received international protection – an autonomous zone was created in 1992, governed by the KRG.

Shahed (6) and Faras (8) Alkholid live in a refugee settlement in Bar Elias with their grandmother Minawar Horani. Their mother and father were killed by barrel bombs in Syria. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.
Shahed (6) and Faras (8) Alkholid live in a refugee settlement in Bar Elias with their grandmother Minawar Horani. Their mother and father were killed by barrel bombs in Syria. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.

Despite economic blockades and ongoing violence in Iraq, the Kurdish-controlled region has achieved economic growth and remained relatively peaceful. Since the US-led 2003 invasion, Kurds have taken the opportunity to strengthen their position and extend control over disputed areas. With the establishment of the KRG, the process of Arabisation has been reversing by expelling Arabs from various areas of the Kurdish region and pressuring religious minorities to identify as Kurds. With the upsurge in violence and the seizure of Iraqi territory by IS in 2014, many religious minorities – including Christians and Yezidis – have sought, and been allowed, refuge in the KRG controlled areas. This migration tendency had begun earlier – Sabean-Mandeans, for example, had previously been displaced from southern Iraq to the Kurdistan region after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The KRG and the population of the Kurdistan region are acknowledged by many as having saved lives and provided safe havens for hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis. However, many people among the minority groups in Kurdish-controlled areas feel they are part in some political game, in which the KRG works to obtain political, economic and military support from the international community by presenting itself as the protector of displaced Iraqis and minority groups.24

Disputed territories

Following the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sinjar, the Nineveh Plains and other territories along the Kurdistan region’s legal borders became part of the so-called ‘disputed territories’. Both Iraq’s central government and the KRG claim the right to govern these areas for historical reasons. The KRG claims that the territories along its borders with the rest of Iraq (in the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk Salahaddin and Diyala) form part of historical Kurdistan. Another incentive for the KRG to incorporate these disputed territories into its region is to create a wider buffer zone between it and the rest of Iraq, following decades of mistreatment and marginalisation of Iraqi Kurds by successive governments in Baghdad.

Article 140 of Iraq’s 2005 Constitution sets out a mechanism to resolve the status of the disputed territories, whereby a referendum would determine local communities’ wish to be part of the KR of federal Iraq. The Iraqi authorities ultimately failed to implement Article 140. A key obstacle for the government has been the requirement for areas previously ‘Arabised’ to be ‘normalised’ – meaning that communities who were forcibly removed would receive the necessary support to return.

Discrimination and sectarian violence in Iraq

Iraq has been described as a country with ‘high’ government restrictions on religion in four Pew Forum index reports in a row, from 2009–2013. In 2014, this rose to ‘very high’.25 Much of the structural discrimination against minorities is rooted in laws and policies that were promulgated during Saddam Hussein’s regime and have permeated government mechanisms and structures. These include the army, police and judiciary – institutions that have been accused of corruption, ethnic or religious favouritism and prejudice against women.26

The 2005 Constitution recognises Islam as the official religion of the state but also recognises that the country is religiously and ethnically diverse. According to Article 4 of the Constitution, Iraqis have the right to be educated in their mother tongue, which includes Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen, Syriac and Sabean-Mandean, and the right to use these as official languages in regions where they are the predominant mother tongue. Although the 2005 Iraqi Constitution guarantees the rights of minorities, including the right to freedom of worship, some argue that minorities have been discriminated against by central and local government in all areas of life, including access to public services, employment and property ownership.27

Post-Hussein civil conflict has made all Iraqis vulnerable to violence – attacks often serve the purpose of instilling fear among targeted minority communities and acts of retaliation that further inflame conflict. Minorities have being disproportionately affected by violence. Between 2003 and 2007, the number of civilian deaths from violence in Nineveh Province was, on average, approximately 11% of the total civilian deaths from violence in Iraq. Between 2008 and 2013, this percentage rose to around 26%.28

Between 2003 and 2015, three-quarters of Iraq’s Christians were driven from their homes or killed.29 The Iraqi Ministry for Migration and Displacement estimated in 2009 that nearly half of religious minority communities had left the country since 2003. Christians were partly at risk because their faith was associated with the West and the multinational force in Iraq. Earning a living by serving as translators for US forces made Yezidis suspiciously regarded as collaborators by many Arabs.30

According to findings from a 2016 survey led by NCA on the perceptions and experiences of religious minorities displaced in the Kurdistan Region, residents of Mosul were the most likely to report experiencing insults before the IS occupation (74%), compared with about 25% in other areas. Accounts by IDPs from different minority communities (Shabaks, Kaka’i, Christians, Turkmen and Shias) and their religious leaders confirmed the increasing hostile conditions that non-Sunni Muslims have experienced in Mosul since 2003.

In the words of a member of the Kaka’i community from Mosul displaced in the Kurdistan region, “We never lived a single day without harassment from Muslims – from the early days of our lives”.31 Shabaks spoke of constant provocations and acts of retaliation for public statements made by Shabaks elsewhere, or even revenge for killings in southern Iraq.32 According to a Chaldean religious leader, between 2003 and 2014 at least 2,000 Christian families moved from Mosul to Erbil in the Kurdistan region, because of threats and harassment.33 Seventeen per cent of respondents to the same survey felt the need to hide their religion – 24% in the case of Yezidis. Groups of Christians reported living in constant fear and being defenceless, and women from religious minority groups felt obliged to conform to Islamic dress codes because of fear of being harassed or abducted and raped.34

The largest-scale attack on minority communities prior to 2014 was a 2007 incident involving multiple vehicle bombs in two Yezidi villages, which killed between 400 and 800 members of the Yezidi community.35 The Caldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council reported in July 2016 that at least 60 attacks were perpetrated on churches between 2003 and 2013, most notably involving car bombs and other explosive devices. One of the most high-profile attacks targeting Christian areas in Baghdad occurred in 2010, on the Our Lady of Deliverance Church. Several militants attacked the church using small arms and suicide vests; more than 50 people were killed. From January 2007 to February 2008, the Sabean-Mandean community in Iraq suffered 42 killings, 46 kidnappings, 10 threats and 21 attacks, a disproportionately high amount. 36

Many Sabean-Mandean experienced threats by Islamists to leave the country or be killed. In many cases, families were forced to sell everything to pay ransoms for kidnapped relatives. In some cases, the killing was carried out despite despite the ransom being paid. Some killings were reportedly to terrorise the families rather than for money.37 Similarly, kidnapping for ransom has been one of the biggest problems Assyrians have been facing. Six abductions were reported in 2011, five of them in Kirkuk.38

In 2003–2014, the main type of violent acts against minority groups involved:

  • Destruction and defacement of religious buildings.
  • Mass murder of congregations gathered in and around religious buildings.
  • Abduction and murder of religious and civic leaders and individuals, including children, targeted because of the perception that certain minority groups are wealthier than the rest of the population and could pay ransoms.
  • Threats to leave houses and apartments and subsequent confiscation of property by individuals or militia groups.
  • Forced conversion to Islam using tactics such as death threats, rape and forced marriage.

Women from religious minority groups have suffered from threats, harassment and sexual violence because of their double condition of belonging to a certain religious or ethnic group and for being women. Rapes of Sabean-Mandean women could go unpunished because of some people’s belief that the rape of an ‘unbeliever’ is acceptable, and even constitutes an act of purification.39

Minorities have also enjoyed a lesser sense of protection by Iraqi security forces – impunity for attacks on minority groups has been rampant.40 According to some Kaka’i people, no violent attacks on their community have been prosecuted and punished since 2003.41 Christians in the Kurdistan region also recounted attacks and looting of their shops in 2011, incited by an imam during Friday prayers in Zakho, and impunity for the attackers ever since.42 For women with a minority religious background, access to justice is even more difficult due to discrimination against minorities in the police and judiciary.43

Islamic State and the impact of current conflict on minorities

IS’s origins go all the way back to 1999 and Abu Musad Al-Zarqawi, and later al-Qaida in Iraq, which gained strength after the US occupation of Iraq. A merger among several Sunni Islamist groups in 2006 took place and shortly after this umbrella group took the name Islamic State of Iraq. Under the leadership of Abu Bakhr al-Baghdadi from 2010, the group’s original goal was establishing a ‘caliphate’ in Sunni areas of the country. It later expanded its ambitions and became IS in Iraq and the Levant in 2013, as it became involved in the Syrian conflict.

In June 2014, IS made enormous territorial gains in the four Iraqi regions of Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin and Diyala, essentially moving north from Arab areas into the Kurdish sphere. At this time, the middle territories that IS sought to control were still home to religious minorities. However, certain religious minorities have no place at all in the extremist ideology and religiously ‘pure’ society envisioned by IS, based on a radical and literal interpretation of the Quran. Nevertheless, the apparently wide support lent to IS from other Iraqis in 2014 appears to be based not so much on the group’s religious fervour and hatred for minorities, as in what the group had to offer, as outlined below.

The economic dimension. IS was offering weapons, money and logistics in situations where the resources of Sunni Arabs in Iraq were dwindling. IS affirmed itself in a situation that was already very tense because of the tug of war between Erbil and Baghdad since 2012, caused, among other things, by the question of control of oil revenues and petroleum resources south of the Kurdistan Region. IS moved in to reclaim these wells for Sunni Arabs.

The political dimension. The Shia-dominated political elite in Bagdad, and the executive power, regained strength in parliamentary elections in spring 2013 and again in 2014, prompting the re-election of Nuri al-Maliki for a third term. This was in effect unconstitutional under the standards of the Iraqi 2005 Constitution. IS affirmed itself as a Sunni Arab alternative, and was able to secure tactical alliances with tribes and political forces in Anbar and the surrounding provinces. In early June 2014, this led to Sunni militias declaring an unwillingness to fight IS until Nuri al-Maliki was removed.

The religious minority dimension. In January 2014, the Iraqi government proclaimed that four districts were being considered for administrative reform that would elevate them to provinces. Under this scheme, the Nineveh Plains would secure an Assyrian-Christian province, Talafar would secure Turkmen, Tuz Khurmato would be a mosaic of minorities (but also have a Turkmen majority),44 and restive Sunni Arab Falluja would be separated from the rest of Anbar. This would entail an administrative break-up, and establishment of new minority provinces in, some buffer zones between Sunni Arab Iraq and Kurdish areas.

The Nineveh Plains proposal in particular was seen as a way to finally make the province a ‘safe haven for Assyrians’, work that had been going on for more than a decade. A separate province would provide more self-government for Assyrians, economic transfer from Baghdad and increased political representation in Baghdad. From a Sunni Arab perspective, the change would do the opposite. The Nineveh Provincial Council responded by threatening to declare the province a federal region if the decision on Talafar and Nineveh Plains was implemented. So did the Salahuddin and Anbar Provincial governments. So while the religious minorities perceived this as a victory in the quest for higher levels of self-rule, economic strength and protection, the Kurds viewed it as a way to halt legitimate Kurdish territorial ambitions, while the Sunni Arabs perceived it as yet another move by Baghdad to dispossess them. This is why many Sunnis chose to accept the IS offer of a tactical alliance in spring 2014.

In June 2014, following large-scale offensives in Iraq, IS seized control of Mosul, Talafar and most of the Nineveh Plains, and attempted to capture Tuz Khurmato. The IS conquest of these areas was seen by some as a move provoked by Baghdad, by abusing the ‘protection of other minorities’ argument to further marginalise Sunni Arabs. As the Iraqi security forces collapsed, Kurdish armed forces (peshmergas) moved into other disputed areas, enlarging their territorial control by approximately 40%.45 Later that year, IS was driven out of Tuz Khurmato by Kurdish pershmergas. More than 700 Sunni Arab residents of Tuz Khurmato have reportedly since joined IS.46 Shia Turkmen fighters aligned with the popular mobilisation forces (predominantly Shia militias) have also reportedly abducted and tortured some 150 Sunni Arabs from the Tuz Khurmato area, killing between eight and 34 of them.47 As of November 2016, a three-sided conflict is taking place in these areas. While IS has taken advantage of this conflict to increase its ‘room for manoeuvre’, the conflict has been particularly devastating for religious minorities who do not fit into any of these warring factions.

The Iraqi security forces were largely Shia-dominated (70%) in 2014. They disintegrated and proved incapable or unwilling to protect religious minorities facing the IS advance. The Kurdish peshmerga also partly failed in this. Some religious minority groups responded by organising their own militias and protection forces. The Assyrian Democratic Movement established the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, and localised protection groups included Dwekh Nawsha (self sacrifice) for Christians and the Kaka’i Al Zuraifani Militia.48 Religious minorities were directly targeted for conquest by IS to secure influence for the Kurds and were not sufficiently protected by Baghdad.

The proclamation of the IS Caliphate in June 2014, however, brought the pressure and persecution of religious minorities in IS-controlled areas to an entirely new level, both in terms of scope and impact. The new Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi) made clear his intent to lead the Sunni Muslim Umma into a new phase of expansion and the re-establishment of a Sunni (Arab) empire. Previously mainly tactical attacks against religious minorities became a strategic goal for the Caliphate, loaded with religious symbolism, political posturing and promises to reclaim disputed territories for Sunni Arab Iraqis.

The language, symbols, rituals, propaganda and ideology of IS in 2014 was unquestionably couched in religious terms, increasingly gained religious meaning and made the situation of religious minorities dramatically more precarious. However, the underlying power struggles and the reason for its widespread support and brutal expansion into minority areas are based in economic, political and identitarian grievances rather than intrinsic hatred directed against religious minorities.

In the interpretation of IS, the Quran commands that other groups have a choice of either leaving its areas of control or accepting its authority and subjecting to its rules without question. People who remain must either convert to Islam and become integrated members of the community and faith, or they may preserve their religion if it is an accepted religion under Islam. In this case, they pay a special tax in return for IS protection and the right to perform their religion. This social status of dhimmi introduces a set of rights and obligations that differ from those of Muslims. Only ‘people of the book’ (ahl al-kitab) are accepted into dhimmitude by IS. These include Christians, Jews and certain other monotheist sects that follow the Bible, such as the Sabeans.49 Whether the Sabean-Mandeans of Iraq belong to the Sabeans, and hence ahl al-kitab, or whether they are counted among the mushrikun (such as Yezidis) has been a subject of scholarly controversy for centuries, among Sunni and Shia scholars alike.50 Similarly, IS considers Shia Muslims to be heretic and prohibits Shia practices such as worship at the graves of venerated people.

Although IS has reportedly allowed Christians to remain in some areas it controls if they convert or pay a ‘tax’, its militants have targeted Christians. IS’s English language publication Dabiq lists numerous restrictions beyond taxation on Christians in its territory, and states that it is permissible to kill Christians who violate these rules and to seize their property.51 In Mosul, IS militants marked the homes of Christian families with ‘Nasarah’ and gave them until 19 July 2014 to leave the city, pay a tax and convert to Islam or face execution. IS confiscated all their property as Christian families fled the city, and those who departed received no compensation.52 Almost at the same time, IS seemed to fully remove the tax option for Christians and issued a statement that the Christians had to convert or leave Mosul.53

Yezidis fall outside the ahl al-kitab category. While ‘recognised minorities’ theoretically face three options during IS offensives – conversion, subjection to dhimmitude or death, Yezidi men were only offered two – conversion or death. IS has justified its taking of slaves and their treatment, including sexual exploitation, on religious grounds.54 Yezidi women were offered the ‘choice’ between conversion to Islam (and subsequent marriage to IS fighters) or to be sold as slaves in accordance with the IS interpretation of sharia rules on enemy females and children captured in war.

On 3 August 2014, IS begun targeting Yezidi settlements in Sinjar district. On the same day, peshmerga fighters in the area began to withdraw, while reportedly reassuring the local population of their safety. The IS attacks resulted in tens of thousands of Yezidis fleeing to Mount Sinjar for safety. After days of siege, Kurdistan Workers’ Party People’s Protection Unit (PKK-YPG) fighters crossed from Syria and opened a corridor, allowing many Yezidis to flee. The PKK-YPG and a local Yezidi militia group they helped to establish (YBŞ) were the major forces defending Sinjar until December 2014, when the peshmerga regained control of the north side of Sinjar.

Thousands of Yezidi men, women and children were killed or abducted. The women and girls were separated from the men and sold as domestic or sex slaves. They were moved between Syria and Iraq, raped repeatedly, beaten, verbally abused, incarcerated and denied food. Children were separated from their parents, and women and children were forced to convert to Islam.55 In Kocho, Iraq, at least 700 Yezidi males were killed in August 2014. Men who refused to convert were taken to a farm and shot by IS fighters acting upon direct orders received via telephone.56 In January 2016, 35 suspected mass graves of Yezidis in Sinjar were identified.57

The offensive against the Yezidis has been qualitatively different from that against other religious minorities – they have been exterminated as a policy objective. Several international fact-finding missions have subsequently indicated that some of the acts undertaken by IS in Iraq in 2014 may amount to genocide in the strict legal sense.58 In February 2016, the European Parliament called upon the UN to refer IS abuses against civilians to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and for IS abuses against religious minorities to be considered as genocide.59 The next month, the US Congress passed a resolution labelling actions perpetrated by IS against Christians, Yezidis and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.60 In June 2016, UN investigations similarly concluded that IS had committed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against Yezidis in Iraq and Syria.61

IS has destroyed homes, shrines and other buildings belonging to ethnic and religious minorities.62 It established a unit specifically tasked with selecting and destroying prominent targets (Shia mosques, Christian churches and shrines).63 It has destroyed notable archaeological and cultural heritage sites, including libraries and places of worship (see Annex II for examples). It has also looted museums and historical sites such as Palmyra in Syria, to raise revenue from the sale of antiquities. Estimates about how much income IS generates in this way vary, but it is widely agreed that it is in the hundreds of millions of US dollars. Many experts believe that IS is storing most of these looted items to sell at a later date. Current international regulations on selling antiquities are insufficient to stop this illegal trade.64

Minorities have also been exposed to abuses by other armed actors. Abuses committed by the Iraqi security forces and pro-government militias include shelling civilians and civilian infrastructure, abducting residents of recaptured areas and denying civilians access to safer areas at checkpoints.65 In its efforts to regain control, the Government of Iraq has been supported by the popular mobilisation units, which are predominately Shia and have been accused of using child soldiers and committing serious human rights abuses against Sunnis. In areas under IS control, the Government of Iraq and its supporters have killed and injured civilians, mainly Sunnis, in indiscriminate airstrikes, hitting mosques and hospitals. In areas recaptured from IS, there have been reports of extra-judicial killings by government-affiliated forces.66

Anecdotal evidence suggests that armed groups associated with persecuted minorities also engage in attacks on civilians. One episode cited by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) apparently took place in January 2015. Reportedly, a Yezidi armed group67 attacked Sunni Arabs in two villages north of Sinjar – Al-Sibaya and al-Jeri. Some 20 people were shot dead, including children, women and elderly people, and the villages were burned and looted. Around 17 people were abducted and the inhabitants of both villages were displaced. Reports of such incidents risk triggering further retaliatory attacks.

The population of Syria

The population size and demographic composition of Syria can only be estimated. Before 2011, there were around 23 million people living in the country. Estimates in 2015 suggested that Sunnis constitute 74% of the population and are present throughout the country. Other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis and Shia, together make up an estimated 13% of the population. The Druze account for around 3% of the population and various Christian groups constitute around 8%.68

The majority of Syrian Christians adhere to Eastern and Oriental orthodoxy although there are also Catholic and Protestant churches in the country. Most Christians in Syria identify themselves with Arabic culture. The majority live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Latakia, although significant numbers live in the Al-Hassakah governorate in the north-east of the country.69 The majority of Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia governorate, but they have a significant presence in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs and Damascus. Many of the Druze live in the rugged Jabal al-Arab region in the southern governorate of Suweida, where they constitute the vast majority of the local population. There is also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000, primarily in the north-east and Aleppo, but the government does not recognise these people as belonging to a faith distinct from Islam. The few remaining Jews in Syria (100-200) are concentrated in Damascus and Aleppo. While Sunni Arabs are predominant in the eastern provinces, Kurds dominate in the north and Alawites to the west, many religious minorities are mostly located in the centre of Syria, in the most populous areas around Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south.

In addition, Syria has hosted 1.5–2 million Iraqi refugees who fled following the US-led invasion and subsequent violence, and more than half a million Palestinian refugees displaced after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Table 2 summaries the different religious and ethnic groups in Syria in 2016. As in the case of Iraq, these figures are estimates since there has not been any recent census or reliable demographic study on which to base them. Recent widespread displacement and migration are also further complicating the picture.

Table 2: Main religious and ethnic groups in present-day Syria

Majority70Population 201671ReligionLocation
Sunnis 74% of the population Sunni Muslim Predominantly in the eastern provinces
MinorityPopulationReligionLocation
Alawites Approximately 11% of the population Shia Muslim/Alawite72 North-west coastal region, Damascus, Homs and Hama
Druze About 3% of the population Muwahhideen Jebel Druze on south-west border with Jordan, Golan, four villages south of Damascus, 14 villages north of Aleppo in Idleb Province
Ismailis 2% Shia Muslim Mostly east of Hama
Christians Around 1,4 million73 Main Christian denominations:
  • The Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch
  • The Greek Catholic Church
  • The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
  • The Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch
  • The Armenian Church
  • Other Christian churches
All over Syria, mainly in large cities (Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama), also in the coastal area (Latakia, Tartous), in the mountains, in Huran and in the north (Quamishli, Deir el-Zor)
Circassians 50,000–100,000 Predominantly Sunni Muslim Concentrated in Harwan Province
Turkmen 500,000–3 million Mostly Sunni Muslim Aleppo, Damascus and Hama
Kurds Approximately 10–15% of the population Mostly Sunni Muslim North of Aleppo and around the Turkish border
About 10–15% live on the outskirts of Damascus
Yezidis Fewer than 80,000 Yezidism North-eastern- and Kurd-Dagh areas
Jews 100–200 Judaism Damascus and Aleppo
Palestinian refugees74 450,000 Mostly Sunni Muslim Around 30% live in official camps, the rest are settled throughout the country

Background to the current conflict in Syria

Under the Ottomans, Sunni Muslims were the privileged community in Syria. The French saw themselves as the protector of religious minorities – the Maronites, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis – and toyed with the idea of creating separate states for minority groups. It was under the French that Alawites began to emerge from their rural highlands and enjoy a certain amount of autonomy. Along with other minorities, whom the French deemed ‘reliable’, the Alawites joined the Troupe spéciales du Levant (Levant special forces), establishing the Alawites military tradition. At the time of Syrian independence in 1946, the Alawites were well-placed in the military, an institution that few Sunnis had joined.75

The Ba’th Party became popular in Syria during the 1950s and 1960s. It appealed to Alawites and other religious minorities because its promotion of pan-Arabism meant that minorities could be integrated into the state as Arab Syrian citizens rather than being seen as members of a particular confession. Minorities were divided – some continued to argue for separate states but this claim almost disappeared when Ba’thism became the dominant ideology. As the Ba’th Party gained more parliamentary seats, it allied itself with powerful military elements. This enabled more Alawites to move into senior political and military positions so that by the time Hafez al-Assad came to power, the Alawites were well established in Syria’s military, security and political apparatus. Since 1970, Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, have consolidated this position.

The Assad regime, with a religious minority as a power base, has been able to dominate the whole of Syria. The main pillars of the regime include the close family circle, the military and various security and intelligence services ultimately led by a family member or trusted person from the same community. The regime also controlled the business elite, which became dependent on good relations with the country’s leaders for its wealth. The Assad regime applied the same policy to religious institutions. Its largest opposition to the regime was Islamist, represented by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood throughout the 1970s. This force was violently crushed in Hama in 1982, weakening Islamist political aspirations in the country.

The current armed conflicts in Syria began in 2011 when popular reform movements swept through the Middle East and northern Africa, leading to demonstrations seeking political and economic change from the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Syria descended into fully-fledged civil war in 2012, after the regime’s violent response to the demonstrations caused the majority of casualties and destruction to date.76 This led to the popular uprising becoming militarised, and gradually mostly Islamised, with radical armed Islamic groups occupying and controlling large parts of the country.

Since then, Syria has become the scene of many disputes, as the instability of the region and the involvement of global and regional powers has played out inside, and across, its borders. At its core, the current armed conflict is between Assad’s government forces and opposition militias, the government and IS, and IS and other militias vying for territory. The variety of religious identities in the country, combined with the government being dominated by the Alawite minority, contribute to the particular dynamics of this conflict, as different religious groups align with different factions in the civil war. With the 2013 arrival in Syria of IS from Iraq, the sectarian dimensions of the conflict have intensified. In addition, Syria has become the theatre of two significant challenges: the influx of foreign fighters seeking to join various parties in the war, and global involvement in multiple power struggles between both regional and international influences. While the former has increased the brutality of the war in Syria, the latter has prevented any realistic prospect for its swift resolution.

Discrimination and sectarian violence in Syria prior to 2011

Pew Forum’s index catalogued Syria as a country with ‘high’ government restrictions on religion in its first two reports in 2009 and 2011, and ‘very high’ in the following one in 2012. In the 2009 and 2012 Pew Forum’s social hostility indexes, a measure to gauge hostilities both between and within religious groups,77 Syria scored ‘high’. Sunni representatives strongly claim that there is a history of structural discrimination against Sunnis inside Syria.78 This is in sharp contrast with responses to a 2016 NCA-led survey inside Syria, which found evidence of generally widespread religious tolerance among people prior to the 2011 crisis. The vast majority of respondents to that survey (93%) said that insults or attacks to do with someone’s religion were not common before the crisis, with 74.8% saying that they almost never happened.79 Non-Alawite Shiites were most likely to report that insults were fairly or very common (14%), followed by Syriac Catholics (11%) and Evangelical Christians (10%). Intolerance was most commonly reported in Al-raqqa (19%), municipal Damascus (15%), rural Damascus (13%) and Al Hasakah (9%). Only 3% of respondents (70) felt they needed to hide their religion: Evangelical Christians (6%), Maronites (4%) and Shiites (4%).80

Overall, Syrians – irrespective of their religious denomination and walks of life –reported religious respect prior to 2011.81 However, there is anecdotal evidence from focus group discussions of underlying divisions and religious segregation. This includes different sports clubs for Muslim and non-Muslim members, which engaged in fights, and personal experiences of harassment – although, in some cases this could be more related to socio-economic and educational differences and the rural-urban divide than to religious affiliation. Whatever latent feelings of confessionalism existed, there is a degree of agreement among Syrians that the armed struggle and war stirred sectarianism,82 as described by a young Christian Syrian: “Before the war, there was the feeling of confessionalism but maybe it was hidden. People would try to figure out who you were by asking your name (‘is it a Christian name?’) or where you came from. After the war broke [out], there was blunt and open questioning.”83

The impact of the current conflict on minorities in Syria

Although the Assad regime argued that the 2011 uprising was initiated by Jihadists and targeted Sunnis as unrest grew, the initial protests were rooted in social discontent and demands for human rights for all Syrians, as well as a legacy of grievances among certain groups.84 Findings from a 2015 survey of Syrians by an opposition-affiliated NGO pointed out near-consensus among Sunni respondents in supporting the 2011 opposition demonstrations, whereas Alawites’ and Shias’ answers highlighted positions against them. More than half of Christian respondents and the largest proportion of Murshidis (an Alawite break-away group) supported the demonstrations (48.4%), whereas a considerable proportion of Druze and Ismaili respondents opposed them. The perception of sectarian discrimination as the main reason for the anti-regime demonstrations in 2011 was higher among Islamists than secular respondents, as well as among those with lower incomes and lower education levels.85

In 2011, early in the Syrian conflict, some Christians complained about the regime’s attempts to link this minority religious community to political support of the regime. The regime sponsored and facilitated pro-government demonstrations in Christian areas of Damascus. This diluted the narrative that Alawites formed the main base of the regime, since Christians and Druze were apparently backing the regime. Opposition members, on the other hand, tended to highlight these pro-regime demonstrations as evidence of the regime’s attempts to stoke sectarianism to justify its crackdown. When Assad security forces targeted Christian and Alawite anti-regime activists, many opposition members interpreted this as a sectarian response, as minorities opposing the regime undermined its claim that it was fighting ‘Sunni extremists’.86

The Assad regime and the opposition in Syria have both sought the support of religious minorities to prove or illustrate the sectarian nature of their adversaries, to broaden their base and the legitimacy of their struggle and to delegitimise the enemy’s position. Even in 2012, early on in the conflict, there were credible reports of ethnic cleansing of mixed neighbourhoods in Homs. Sunni Muslim civilians were massacred in villages located in majority Alawite areas, such as Houla and Qubair. This prompted revenge massacres in Alawite villages, such as in Aqrab and Hatla.87 When a UN report released in December 2012 stated that the conflict in Syria had “become overtly sectarian in nature” between mostly Alawite government forces, militias and other Shia groups fighting primarily against Sunni-dominated rebel groups, both opposition and government forces forcefully denied the claim.88 During 2013, opposition forces increasingly attacked Syrian Shias, and more specifically the Alawites, through sieges, shelling and destroying their religious centres.89 In 2014, it was obvious that the level of ‘religious hostilities’ in Syria was on the rise.90

Simultaneously, a number of outside actors entering Syria were stoking the sectarian nature of the civil war – including the Lebanese Shia Muslim militia Hezbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Shia fighters from Iraq, all in support of Assad.91 The mutual declaration of war between Shia Hezbollah and the Iraqi Sunni Muslim group IS in the summer of 2013 increased Sunni-Shia tensions in Syria. The influx of a large number of Sunni Muslim foreign fighters into the opposition, and the proliferation of Shia militias from neighbouring countries on the side of the regime (particularly after the call to jihad – holy war – against IS by Ali al-Sistani in the summer of 2014) has to some extent imported the sectarian Sunni-Shia divide from Lebanon and Iraq into the Syrian conflict.

In several areas, members of religious minorities in Syria have been forced to choose sides in the escalating political conflict between larger sectarian groups. In situations of non-international armed conflict or where non-state armed groups exercise control, minorities have been exposed to additional risks – they may be targeted because they are either associated with another non-state armed group or the state.92 Some religious minorities’ position in the political conflict, supporting the regime and the Syrian state for their own protection, has produced a high percentage of minorities (like Alawites) in the regime’s armed forces – and suffering a disproportionately large number of casualties.93 Religious minority groups in Syria have also been subject to varying degrees of military conscription, ranging from social pressure to threats of imprisonment.

The Syrian regime implicitly refers to its broad sectarian basis as a way to gain legitimacy, leading to tendencies to extend attribution for the regime’s acts to Christians and other Shia sects. Alawite and Shia youth have reported Sunni colleagues threatening them in schools and universities due to their religious affiliations and perceived support for the government.94 The type of explicit and visible distancing from regime policies required to counter this pattern of attribution would in all likelihood expose a religious minority to government reprisals. Religious minorities that do not choose sides in the Syrian conflict are subject to pressure, suspicion, allegations of collusion and violent attacks.95

The conflict parties are also waging a war of misinformation and propaganda, to gain the allegiance of minorities. Rumours of violent acts and manipulated facts are being spread by traditional and social media, as well as word of mouth, to increase minorities’ feelings of being targeted, fear of vulnerability, and thus their inclination to seek protection.

“I lived in a suburb of Damascus, where Christians were lower in numbers [than] Muslims. Christians respected the Muslims and their celebrations, and they also respected us, our celebrations. This was one of the first suburbs uprising and the oppression was terrible, with constant shelling. One day, our Muslim neighbours warned 256 Christian families when al Nusra was coming and took us to a safer area in Damascus. Later on, our church was put on fire by al Nusra and the same group published it on the Internet, stating that is was destroyed from bombing by the regime.”
Christian woman from Damascus, Beirut, September 2016

Such rumours also serve to signify religious minorities’ support for one side in the civil war. There have been unconfirmed reports that the Assad regime’s Facebook and Twitter accounts displayed pictures of Christians celebrating the opposition defeat and deaths in Aleppo.96 Knowledgeable Christians from Aleppo were not aware of such actions and denied the veracity of this claim – if such reports exist on social media, they may include manipulated imagery of end of summer celebrations.97

This five years old Yezidi girl has just been released from IS captivity. The extended family is taking care of her and her brother. There is no information about their parents. They do not remember their mother tongue, they only speak the language of their captors – Arabic. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.
This five years old Yezidi girl has just been released from IS captivity. The extended family is taking care of her and her brother. There is no information about their parents. They do not remember their mother tongue, they only speak the language of their captors – Arabic. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.

Religious minorities who dwell in the border areas where IS and other major Sunni Arab armed groups have attempted to capture land from the regime, particularly in the province and city of Homs, have been disproportionately affected by attempts to drive them away. IS has directly targeted minorities in Syria for extermination, as in Iraq. An episode that indicates IS’s intent to exterminate took place in Al-Taliliyah (Al-Hasakah, Syria) on 29 May 2014, when IS attacked a village that used to contain a Yezidi community. The village had been taken over by IDPs, most of whom were women and children from Al-Safira near Aleppo. IS fighters – mainly foreign fighters who did not speak Arabic and so could not understand the protestations of those they were killing – believed their victims to be Yezidi Kurds. The executions halted when an Iraqi IS fighter arrived and confirmed to his fellow fighters that the civilians were Sunni Arabs.98

On 23 February 2015, IS attacked the Assyrian villages in Khabour region and held more than 250 people (men, women, children, old and young) hostages for more than a year. The Assyrian Church of the East mobilised its financial resources under the leadership of the Syrian diocesan bishop Mar Aprem. After complicated negotiations and paying an undisclosed sum of US dollars in ransom, the church secured the release of more than 240 of these people. During this process, IS killed three hostages and broadcast the killings online. IS control of Khabour and fighting to regain the region, in addition to other factors, led to the near-eradication of Assyrian Church of the East members in Khabour. Out of more than 15,000, just a couple of hundred people, mostly old people, stayed. Others headed to Lebanon to be settled in diaspora countries – thousands have already managed to be resettled.

In Al-raqqa, attacks on Shia Husaynias and homes caused mass displacement, while other Shias converted in order to survive. The destruction of the Uwais Al-Qarni Shia Mosque and the desecration of seventh-century tombs on 31 May 2014 were carried out as part of an assault against Shias in the area. Sunni mosques constructed around the tombs or shrines of religious figures have been considered idolatrous and also destroyed by IS.99

Language used in the Syrian conflict may be intrinsically sectarian, stir up tensions and reopen old wounds. In July 2016, opposition groups announced the Ibrahim al-Youssef-offensive to break the Syrian government’s siege in Aleppo. The offensive was named after a captain at the Aleppo Artillery Academy, who in June 1979 led an attack that killed 32 Alawite students and wounded 54. A common anti-Alawite (and anti-regime) slogan is a unifying motto for a diverse set of armed groups involved in it: ‘unified against the regime’.

In October 2015, as Russian airstrikes in opposition-held areas of northern Syria were intensifying, the head of the Al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, called for indiscriminate attacks on Alawite villages in Syria, saying: “There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia”. While the direct targets were Alawites, the objective was to pressure Assad and the Russians to ease the bombing. In other words, Alawite villages were serving as hostages because they represented an accessible way to get at the Alawite Assad. In 2015, a case was made before the UN Human Rights Council for the protection of Alawites (notably Alawite civilians on Ansari Jebel in north-east Syria), on account of high levels of animosity towards them because of the regime’s Alawite links and the high proportion of Alawites in the officer corps.100 These acts are all war crimes under international law – because they directly target civilians, are reprisals against civilians and involve hostage-taking.101 However, they are primarily driven by sectarian hatred.

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Chapter 1 – The concept of minorities in Iraq and Syria

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Chapter 3 – The humanitarian contexts in Syria and Iraq