The Syrian Refugee Crisis
Will Transform Middle East Politics
July 14, 2015
Young Syrian refugees stand around during
a visit by the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres
(not pictured), to a camp in the Zahrani area of
southern Lebanon, April 14, 2015.
By the time the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 ended, Israeli forces had expelled
about 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes. Their plight led to the
overthrow of Arab regimes as well as civil wars in Jordan in 1970 and in
Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. Israel bombed refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and
Gaza. Radicalized Palestinians staged hijackings, airport massacres and
suicide bombings that captured headlines around the world and more than
once led to dangerous American-Soviet confrontations.
The legacy of Syria’s refugee disaster awaits. The United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees, António Gutteres, has just declared that
4 million Syrians are now refugees in neighboring countries. That is almost
six times greater than the number who fled Palestine. Another 7.6 million
Syrians, he says, have also lost their homes but remain destitute within
Syria. Gutteres said, “This is the biggest refugee population from a single
conflict in a generation.”
The U.N. reports that Lebanon, a country of 4 million, has taken in 1.2
million Syrians. This figure is probably an underestimate, because not all
refugees register with the U.N. Almost all these Syrians, like the
Palestinians before them, are Sunni Muslims whose mere presence upsets
the delicate sectarian balance through which the Lebanese attempt to govern
themselves. Where the Palestinians caused fear among the Christians, the
Syrian Sunnis pose a threat to the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah. Hezbollah
depends on its Shiite plurality in Lebanon to hold power while it fights for
the regime in Syria against Sunni Muslim jihadis. In Lebanon, displaced
Syrians live where they can. Some dwell in unfinished buildings, others in
schools or farms. Lebanon does not wish to establish camps for them as it
did for the Palestinians after 1948. Jordan has taken 630,000, many of whom
languish in desert camps along the border with Syria. Another 1.8 million
Syrians have settled in Turkey, which has no intention of providing
permanent homes for either Kurds or Arabs from Syria. Astoundingly,
250,000 Syrians have fled to Iraq despite the war there.
Before the war began in 2011, Syria fed itself and provided almost all of
its medicines from flourishing pharmaceutical industries. Now it is
dependent on foreign charity that is anything but adequate. The U.N. says
that of the $4.53 billion needed for displaced Syrians to survive, it has
received only $1.06 billion in the first half of this year. Gutteres lamented
that aid falls far short of “the most basic survival needs of millions of people
over the coming six months.”
The U.N. has had to cut food supplies to 1.6 million refugees. John Owen
reported on Voice of America that the monthly food allowance for refugees
in Lebanon has been reduced from $27 last January to $13.50. Try feeding
yourself on $13.50 a month to understand the reasons behind the desire of
some Syrians to escape the region to feed their children. One 22-year-old
Syrian, Osama al-Raqa, who lost his chance to go to university because of
the war, told Agence France-Presse, “I dream of leaving to Europe. Europeans
eat and live in houses. We, on the other hand, are homeless and the whole
world treats us like a burden.”
Syrians who can flee the poverty of refugee camps and shantytowns in the
Middle East are paying smugglers to take them by land and sea to Europe. Of
the 137,000 people who attempted the perilous voyage across the
Mediterranean to Western Europe in the first six months of this year, the
U.N. says that one third were Syrians. The fact that many of them drowned
has not deterred the others, who face living death without proper sustenance
in the Middle East.
To imagine that the long-term plight of millions of Syrian refugees in the
Middle East and Europe will have no consequences is folly on a greater scale
than predicting the Palestinian refugee problem would disappear after 1948.
This is a political more than a humanitarian issue. For the refugee exodus
to stop, the war must end.
While millions of Syrians are fleeing, tens of thousands of jihadi volunteers
are coming in. They are the shock troops of the self-styled Islamic State,
which with Saudi and Turkish backing has taken control of large swathes of
Syria and Iraq that it calls its caliphate. Its oppressive rule is reminiscent,
albeit in religious garb, of the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime in
Iraq. Indeed, Ahmed S. Hashim wrote in Middle East Policy that Saddam’s
former intelligence operatives were “maintaining special detachments for
conducting assassinations, kidnappings and the collection of funds” for ISIS.
In addition, the Islamic State is gaining support among jihadis worldwide.
One private intelligence assessment, by IntelCenter, estimates that ISIS has
attracted 35 affiliates and loyalist groups in Afghanistan, the Philippines,
Mali, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. One of them murdered 38
tourists, 30 of them British, in Tunisia on June 26. The shooter trained in
Libya, where Western air power delivered the country over to a motley
collection of jihadis who have unfurled the ISIS banner as their own.
Britain is advising its citizens to avoid Tunisia, but Tunisia is unlikely
to be the last place where jihadis will strike.
A friend of mine in Aleppo, who refuses to leave despite the battles in his
once beautiful city, told me over the telephone, “You have sent hell to us.”
That is, he blames me as a Westerner for putting the jihadis in his midst.
The day cannot be far off when the jihadi militants, like the poor refugees
whom they and the regime have displaced, will bring that hell back to us.
Charles Glass, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent, recently
published Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring (OR Books).