Humanitarian Bazaar | FOCUS: Emergency in Syria, Iraq, and the Kurdish Areas
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NEXT WEBINAR ===> Thursday 27 April 2017  |  7-9pm Central Europe time  |  Online  |  Webinar: Emergencies in Syria, Iraq & the Kurdish Areas: A Primer. $40. Virtual, Berlin time, 1900-2100, Skype. Trainer: Ben Hiller. Sign up at
Have you wanted more clarity on how Syria, Iraq & the Kurdish areas overlapping them have transformed into such a complex emergency? Our founder and adviser-trainers have worked in the region and can break it down, shaping the discussion on the goals of the trainees. If you are looking to get into aid and refugee assistance, we can start with how UN and aid agencies are coordinating response. If, however, you are a journalist looking for a refresher, we can discuss how fighting groups have formed alliances, or turned against each other, and how best to approach reporting on the ground.


57. 2008 Iraq, Kurdish security forces, Halabja, Daniel J Gerstle (3)

Part 1: Primer on the Syria & Iraq’s Ethnic Groups


  • Who are the Arabs of Syria and Iraq? Here we just make sure that our trainees know the foundations as it will illuminate important dynamics. Arabic culture is obviously complex, ranging tremendously from urban intellectual and artistic culture, which looks globally, to the rural, conservative, and religious culture which tends to look inward. Arabic communities were historically was organized by blood lines (families identified with the father, the father’s father, and so on back to an original settlement), then by language dialects.
  • Although religion has been a major factor, many rural and conservative Arab communities still first try to solve conflicts with their bloodline elders, or even regional bloodline elders, often before they go to the religious leaders or the state or police. This has shifted in recent decades, especially with the pull of , global liberalism in big cities, dictatorship in Syria and Iraq, and the reprise of very committed Islamic movements, But this is vital to understanding, for example, why a local fight over a power station in Mosul, Iraq, may turn bloody with people insisting on resolving it through local business leaders and heads of families without the government or police ever being involved. The bloodlines and local business leaders may resolve a violent dispute with compensatory justice which locals find more fair then the police sending the attacker to jail with no compensation to the victims of his crime. This is a major factor in both violence it the region, and how it could be solved.
  • Kurds and Yazidis are another important group with similar traditional bloodlines that play a role alongside religious leaders and are often distinct from the state. The most importanrt feature of the Kurds is that they have lived across the region without ever having their own modern state. Since the Iraq Wars and Syrian Civil War, but even longer in the resistance in Turkey, Kurds have often isolated themselves from Arabic communities and worked to consolidate their own regions with a proposal to unite them in a future state. But this effort has caused the Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish governments to pressure Kurds to prevent such secession movements.
  • Other groups include minority Persians, Turks, Assyrians, Armenians, Jews, Circassians, Greeks, and even migrated Russians and Ukrainians.


Part 2: Primer on the Region’s Religions


  • Islam  |  Islam in Syria and Iraq has two major sects which have played a role in not only how communities are divided by how alliances are formed: Sunni (the mainstream majority distinct from but alongside the extremist minority) and Shia (which overlaps with Alawites and Houthis).
  • Islamic Sunni mainstream |  Muslims who identify as Sunni are the majority, but there are several schools. The mainstream Arab Muslim Sunni include Shafii, Ismaili, and other schools long traditional, and they are compatible with democratic government, modern gender roles, technology, music, and so on. This group includes political groups like the Iraq’s Sunni coalition and the early version of the Free Syrian Army. Their alliances are with the greater Sunni Islamic world ranging from the Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and through this the United States and the European Union.
  • Islamic Sunni ultra-conservative  |  At the same time, Muslim Sunni of the more conservative schools and philosophies like Wahhabism (originating in Saudi Arabia) and Salafism (the most regressive) are actually anti-democratic, anti-modernism, anti-non-Muslim, anti-music, and wish to abolish equality for women.  This second side of Sunni Islam features the more extreme political and fighting groups like Al-Qaeda, Al-Sham, and ISIS (Da’esh), although they do not necessarily work together or agree on everything. The tricky part here is that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates who symbolically promote Wahhabism are two sided with their foreign policy seeking continued alliance with the US and EU while a second social policy provides inspiration and support to more conservative Wahhabist and Salafist groups even if they are related to the more extreme fighting groups. This is the most controversial puzzle in the region.
  • Islamic Muslim Shia, Alawite, and Houthi  |  At the same time, there are Muslims who identify as Shia, and that includes the overlapping minority groups of similar philosophy of the Alawites (Syria’s ruling party and bloodlines in coastal Syria) and Houthi (not in Syria and Iraq, but in Yemen which is related). The Shia practice plays a huge role in the regional alliance linking Syria’s ruling Baathist Party featuring Assad with Iran’s ruling Shia government, Iraq’s Shia coalition, and Lebanon’s Shia party Hezbollah.
  • Christians  |  While there are Arab Christians in Syria and Iraq, the majority are ethnic minorities including the Assyrians (aka Caldeans, Syriacs), Armenians, Greeks, and others.
  • Jews  |  There are still many Jews in Syria and Iraq, but discrimination and attacks have forced many to migrate or to hide their identity.


Part 3  |  Now how did we get into this insane puzzle of overlapping wars?


  • Time of Dictatorships  |  Until 2003, Syria and Iraq were both ruled by Baathist Party dictatorships. Syria’s, run by Hafez Assad, propped up the Arab Muslim Alawite minority, keeping strong alliances with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, even playing a role in the Lebanese Civil War. Assad crushed all descent before handing over power to his son, current President Bashar Assad. At the same time, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein propped up the Arab Muslim Sunni minority, keeping strong alliances with the Gulf Arab states, and sometimes Russia and/or the United States. Iraq’s War with Iran from 1979-1987 solidified a divide between the alliance of Syria’s Alawite-dominant ruling party with Iran’s new revolutionary Shia government against Iraq’s Sunni dictatorship and Gulf backers. In this divide, the Iraqi Kurds who were massacred by Iraq’s ruling party, attempted to carve out their own three region which would rely on support from the US and EU rather than Iran, Iraq, or Syria.
  • In 2003-2013, when the US-led coalition invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, the war and occupation only succeeded in rebuilding an Iraqi coalition government which survives today, if troubled. but the Iraqi Civil War that evolved 2003-present has transformed from a broad Sunni Arab versus Shia Arab battle into a mostly unified central Arab government, a mostly autonomous Kurdish region, and a rebellion which was taken over by extremist Al Qaeda fighters who created the more erratic group, the Islamic State (Da’esh).
  • In 2011-present, Syria’s dictatorship was threatened when a general popular protest turned into a revolt. Syria’s ruling party overreacted with extreme violence, which forced protesters to form a “Free Syria” movement that sought support from outside.
  • By 2013, just as the Free Syria movement which was largely run by mainstream and moderate Sunni Muslims, as well as secularists and non-religious liberals, began to get at least symbolic support from the West, many experts believe that the Syrian ruling government actually carried out a counter-insurgency campaign to make the rebel groups look more extreme than they were by releasing extremist terror operatives from prisons and making it easier for the Islamic State to move from Iraq into Syria. With the democratic opposition painted as joining forces with the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other extremist groups, this helped Syria’s ruling government make the case to secure consistent support from Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and even Russia.


Part 4  |  Solving the Puzzle?


  • The most difficult puzzle in the world? So how would you solve it?
  • Starting with international alliances, one can see that the most powerful forces in Syria and Iraq are (1) the Shia primary coalition (Iran, Syria’s ruling Assad regime, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which sometimes gets conditional support from Russia in Syria), (2) the largely unified, moderate, and globally friendly alliance of the Kurds (although divided by the Iraq, Syria, and Turkish borders, they work together and have consistent alliances with the United States and EU), (3) the re-unifed Iraqi central government (although combining the Shia and Sunni militias which once killed each other took time, the fighting against ISIS has largely united them), and (4) the Sunni extremist mix (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and distinctly and not necessarily working together, the extreme rebel groups of Al Qaeda, Al Sham, and others, who get support from mysterious Salafi and Wahhabi donors, likely in the Gulf region but also globally), and
  • The wild cards here are (5) the Syrian democratic movement which originally co-launched the Free Syria movement was compromised and divided by extremist groups, so the more moderate, secular, and liberal of the group had to flee. That left the Syrian War with no globally-friendly authentically democratic sides to support except for the small Syrian Kurdish minority. This has been the heart of the puzzle. If Western power were to help solve the Syrian crisis, would it be better to:
    • A. Support the Syrian democrats who fled the country and no longer have much territory or capability of winning? This is the Obama/ Cameron/ Merkel strategy which failed.
    • B. Allow the civilian-killing Syrian dictatorship to win in order to focus on defeating ISIS, Al Sham, Al Qaeda, and other extremist groups? This is the Russian and early Trump strategy which may help to defeat ISIS but allows the Syrian government to slaughter even larger numbers of innocent people.
    • C. Take down the Assad regime for brutally killing civilians at the risk of an extremist group like ISIS to increase in power? This is the risk all sides are weighing now that the Trump administration switched strategies, but as Assad is still supported by Iran and Russia, this could lead to an even broader escalation.
    • Or D. What else can be done?


Discussion, Debate, Questions, and Answers! 


  • Good links to documentaries, reports, and maps will be included.



Reading List Syria/Iraq and whom to follow online
by Benjamin Hiller for the Webinar on Syria/Iraq
Preface: Of course there is nothing like unbiased reporting in regards to Syria and Iraq.
Almost every journalist has a political angle and/or just believes that he/she is right.
But the following writers and journalists try at least to work as thorough and fact
based as possible. For a “perfect” image in regard to these two conflicts you
essentially need to stay always up to date and keep an open mind in regards of sources
and whom to follow – and extract the knowledge you need out of all of that.
To stay up to date on the Syrian conflict (for example) I suggest visiting on a regular
basis the following webpage – it shows the conflict lines, who controls what and adds
also the articles/reports belonging to the information:
1. Twitter handles to follow (some are a little bit politically biased but try to avoid it
in their tweets and articles) on Syria (and partially Iraq):
– Aron Lund: @aronlund
– Sam Heller: @AbuJamajem
– Joshua Landis: @joshua_landis
2. Online resources for Iraq:
– Niqash: and @niqash on Twitter
3. Books:
In regards to books: There are of course a ton of books out there. I will focus on
books covering the rise of ISIS (and all the implication that had), the geopolitics
surrounding it and generally the rise of modern day terrorism:
1. Michael Weiss: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (
2. Fred H. Lawson: Demystifying Syria (SOAS Middle East Issues) – great book
released just before the start of the civil war, thus great as a “prequel” as well as to get
a more “naive” look onto the country before the war:
3. Fred Kaplan: The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American
Way of War: Important reading in regards to the US policy shift in Iraq and Syria and
who was behind it and what that meant:
4. David Kilcullen: Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror –
all books from this author are great and written with a deep knowledge and insight:
5. David Kilcullen: Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism
6. David Kilcullen: Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla
7. David Kilcullen: Accidental Guerrilla (Conflict Classics)
A bit older but also still viable and good readings:
1. Jon Lee Anderson: The Fall of Baghdad
2. Nir Rosen: The Triumph of the Martyrs: A Reporter’s Journey Into Occupied Iraq
3. Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 AND The
Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State
In general on the topic of Terrorism, the way it has changed and what that means in
various countries I suggest this academic regular magazine – you can download it as
PDF for free on their webpage:

Meet Our Trainer ===>

Benjamin Hiller  |  Founding member and curator of the War Zone Freelance Exhibition. Hiller is a German-American freelance writer and photographer (RISC trained) currently based in Berlin, Germany. In 2008 he started his freelance career, focusing on the conflict zones in the Near-/Middle East as well as the Kurdish conflict in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. He brings into each job his experience of conflict zones, his technical expertise as well as his university studies of ethnology, enabling him to create in-depth, close up and critical reportages. See his work and contact at

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