Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East
By Deborah Amos
(Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs, 2010), p. 220

Reviewed by Wyndham Whynot, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History,Livingstone College

Only the future will show whether President George W. Bush made the proper/right decision to invade Iraq in 2003; however, current events clearly indicate his administration’s failure to adequately plan for the aftermath of the invasion and the impact of war on Iraq and its neighbors. Deborah Amos focuses on these issues, primarily as they relate to Iraqi refugees, and their impact on the national policy in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran, as well as on future U.S.policy.

Amos, currently a foreign correspondent working for the National Public Radio, has long worked as a producer, director, documentarian, and journalist. Previously based in Jordan, she has covered numerous stories from various Southwestern Asian nations, and, most recently, she is focusing on Iraqi refugees. She argues that the sectarian aspect of the refugee crisis, 60 percent Sunni and 15 percent Christian, “is a huge loss to Iraq, a vast problem to neighboring governments … and a significant indicator of the health, stability, and viability of Iraq and theMiddle East.”(x-xi) Sunnis represented a strong percentage of Iraq’s middle class and held a significant number of management and skilled positions in the country; their flight resulted in a significant brain drain for Iraq.

Although Amos examines the plight of Iraqi Christians, Mandeans, and other Iraqi minorities, her primary focus is Sunni refugees. On the micro level, she presents a series of individual vignettes to highlight the specific themes of each chapter. She interviews and presents the stories of a cross-section of Iraqi refugees, including actors and intellectuals, former government officials, and those who worked with the Americans, both men and women from differing religious and ethnic background. Many expressed a desire to return home, yet some realize that decisions they made to survive, such as engaging in prostitution, make it impossible for them to ever return; while others generally believe that the past religious tolerance in Iraq will never return thus making third country migrations more viable. However, until the sectarian violence disappears, most refugees will not go back.

On the macro level, Amos shows how sectarian violence and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki policies discouraged many Sunni exiles from returning and how massive numbers of Iraqi refugees have, at the same time, complicated the economic, political, and religious systems of some neighboring countries. Recent Iraqi attempts to encourage refugees have generally failed, primarily because of the government’s failure to first deal with sectarian violence aimed at the Sunnis and its ability to protect them in the future. Other obstacles involve lack of employment opportunities and questions about forced or illegal property seizures, primarily of houses.

Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan saw their social and economic infrastructure swamped by the overflow of Iraqi refugees. Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has occasionally reversed his country’s policies vis-à-vis Iraq’s refugees; he has enabled his country to mostly avoid sectarian violence within Syria, thereby improving his nation’s status within the international community. Although Jordan has also avoided significant sectarian violence, the influx of refugees has dramatically impacted life in the country, as basic resources such as housing, water, and electricity are strained to capacity and sometimes over capacity. The influx of Iraqi refugees into Lebanon has partially destabilized the political balance in Lebanon and resulted in increased sectarian violence in the country.

Overall, this book is an important contribution to Middle East studies as it discusses an important issue, i.e. the Iraqi refugees and their impact on the region, both positive and negative. The interweaving of refugees’ personal stories combined with her interviews of various politicians and officials from theU.S., United Nations organizations, Iraq, and neighboring countries presents an overarching picture of the problems faced by the Middle East. Furthermore, Amos argues that unless the US and Europe can convince and encourage Iraq and other countries affected by Iraqi refugees to deal with the underlying issues, the Middle East will likely remain unstable. Despite a couple of minor typographical errors, the book is well-written and is easily accessible to specialists and non-specialist alike. It should definitely be read by anyone interested in Iraqi affairs and current affairs in the Middle East.