Syria’s Refugees: When did the West become so heartless?

Recently I went to see Miss Saigon at the West End, a tragic musical set in the years after the Vietnam War. In one scene, the lead characters flee on a crowded boat full of migrants from dictatorship and violence in their homeland, risking their lives in search of safety. This suddenly began to look familiar. For those who have followed the Syrian civil war since its outbreak in 2011 the story is sadly well known: millions have fled, thousands by boat, but without the singing, dancing and comic relief. My interest piqued: how was the Indochina refugee crisis dealt with and what might we learn for Syria? Even a cursory investigation showed there was one standout difference between then and now: the western governments of that era put today’s leaders to shame.

(Syrian migrants rescued - Image from UNHCR)

(Syrian migrants rescued – Image from UNHCR)

The late 1970s saw a massive refugee crisis in Indochina. Communist takeovers in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, along with Vietnam’s wars with its neighbours created millions of refugees. By 1979 over a million had fled, mostly to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, who housed them in camps. In the first six months of 1979 alone 209,000 refugees had arrived, including many ‘boat people’ that died making the perilous journey. Malaysia and Thailand, both overwhelmed, declared they would take no more. At the invitation of the UN Secretary General in July 1979, 65 countries came together at a conference where Western states agreed to accept 260,000 refugees a year. In the space of 18 months, more than 450,000 Indochinese refugees were resettled from camps to new homes in the west, mostly in the US, Canada, France and Australia.

The scale of the Syria refugee crisis dwarfs that of Indochina. There are currently over 4 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR who, like the Indochinese have fled a vicious conflict and brutal dictatorship (whether Assad or ISIS) mostly to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. As these countries have become overwhelmed and increased restrictions on the refugees, thousands have resorted to boats across the Mediterranean hoping to make it to the EU. In a sad retelling of the Indochinese tragedy , today Europe has its own ‘boat people’ risking their lives to flee. According to UNHCR Syrians make up by far the largest number of the boat people, with the number crossing to the Greek islands close to Turkey peaking this summer. 160,000 migrants have crossed to Greece since January, 20,843 alone. In contrast 27,000 were arriving by boat per month at the height of the Indochinese crisis.

So where is the UN Secretary General and the conference to resettle Syria’s refugees the way western countries so admirably did in 1979? In December last year UNHCR asked members to pledge resettlement for 130,000 Syrians – half that asked for (and met) in the Indochina crisis. Yet the response was lukewarm at best. As of August 2015 73,863 places had been promised by western countries. A handful of states shouldered most, with Germany promising 35,000 places, Canada taking 10,000 and Norway 9,000. The US has offered a separate ‘open-ended resettlement’ to 16,286. Sweden’s relatively low 2,700 should not mask that it with Germany has so far hugely outstripped other EU members’ efforts (Sweden has 40,000, Germany 100,000). The most shameful figures came from France and Britain, two states that have been heavily involved in the Syria conflict, with France offering only 1000 places and Britain only 197 in its Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. While many Syrians have come to Britain and France independently and then successfully claimed asylum, these are mostly the wealthy and/or educated and not the same as resettling refugees. This does little to ease the burden on those states hosting the most in need.

So what has changed? Why were western states willing to resettle four times as many Indochinese refugees a year in 1979 as they have been willing to house in total from Syria? Westerners are no worse off or less capable of hosting refugees than they were in the late 70s. Taking arguably the worst offender, Britain, as an example, the economic situation then was not dissimilar to now. In 1979-82 Britain suffered a recession, far worse than the sluggish growth it has faced during the height of the Syria refugee crisis (2012-15). GDP per capita averaged $9k, comparable in today’s prices to the $40k it averaged in 2012-15, while unemployment averaged 7.5%, compared to 7.3% in 2012-15. In another parallel, in May 1979 a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power on a platform of rolling back the state, one seemingly emulated by David Cameron and George Osbourne today. Yet that government accepted nearly 25,000 Indochinese refugees, compared to 197 from Syria now.

Two things stand out when comparing government attitudes to Syria’s refugees and those of Indochina. Firstly, there was a greater recognition of the refugees’ victim status. States with few historical ties to Indochina such as Canada (and indeed Britain) were willing to provide refuge (and relief for the overwhelmed host countries) out of a sense of moral duty. Today, that moral duty extends only to funding the host countries – Britain points to its generosity in this regard when deflecting from its poor resettling record. Yet politicians including the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary don’t hesitate to use dehumanizing language about asylum seekers approaching their shores.

Secondly, the western sense of responsibility for the refugees’ plight that drove proceedings in 1979 seems absent today. The US, which had a military presence in Vietnam for decades and bombed Cambodia and Laos, eventually took over 1 million Indochinese from 1979-97, while another combatant, Australia, took 185,000 and the former colonial master, France, over 100,000. Each seemed to implicitly accept some responsibility for the mess. Today, the US, Britain and France have all contributed to Syria’s civil war, providing political, economic, lethal and non-lethal support for the rebels. They may claim this was the morally right thing to do against Assad’s onslaughts, yet won’t extend the same morality to resettling the conflict’s refugees. Moreover, many of the destabilizing forces driving violence in Syria today – Jihadism, sectarianism, regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were the product of or greatly exacerbated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.

Of course many of the other states who have helped fuel the war in Syria are just as bad, with Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, having resettled barely any refugees (the Gulf states house many Syrians but, like Britain and France, mostly wealthier and skilled workers who have arrived independently). Yet this is not an excuse for a lack of leadership from western states and it would be much easier to pressure those states to accept more refugees once the west has done likewise. After years of refusing to deal with the problem, it is high time western leaders rediscovered the spirit of 1979 and took the lead.

 

The Plight of Syria’s Refugees is Another Security Crisis in the Making

Chatham House Expert Comment

By Christopher Phillips and Neil Quilliam

If the objective of Western policy is to prevent fall-out from the Syrian conflict leading to a direct terrorist threat to their countries, then policy-makers would do well to consider the significant economic, social, educational and security challenges a refugee crisis presents, to both the host nations and the international community. 

Although Syria’s civil war remains in the headlines, largely thanks to Islamic State (IS), Syrian refugees have dropped on the policy priority list. Given the protracted nature of the Syria conflict, refugee communities will likely remain a fixture in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Host governments, communities, international donors and refugees themselves need to move from short-term emergency planning to long-term development. However, neglecting the needs of Syria’s refugees and failing to help neighbouring host countries and communities accommodate their long term presence will store problems for the future.

While most Turks, Jordanians and Lebanese initially welcomed the refugees, the number of refugees (3.1 million and counting) and the long-term nature of the crisis means that, unless addressed, tensions between host and refugee communities will rise, as competition over resources intensifies.

The longer the refugees stay the more Ankara and Amman will be pressured by their own populations to move all Syrians into camps; a move believed by host communities to remove the threat to local jobs. However, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) warn against this strongly, discourage further camp building and urge that refugees be given the right to work. They argue that experience from other long-term crises has taught that integrating refugees into host economies not only helps retain critical skills and experience, but over time improves relations with hosts, as their contribution is viewed an asset rather than a burden.

In 2013 UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimated that up to 80 per cent of Syrian refugees of school age in Lebanon were not in school, and many INGOs fear of a ‘lost generation’ of refugees growing up across the region without access to education. Not only will this limit their ability to help rebuild Syria if and when they return after the war, it also increases the chances of radicalization by militant groups. Again, INGOs cite other examples, including amongst Palestinian and Afghani refugees, where the neglect of pressing education, social and economic issues over time has led to a permissive environment that supports militarization. With jihadism and sectarianism on the rise, it is a serious security risk, as well as a neglect of basic rights to leave so many young men and women disenfranchised.

A sustained international effort is required if Syria’s refugees are to be given the chance to contribute towards host communities and eventually prepare for return. In the immediate term, donors should increase their support for UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP). The under-funded WFP recently cut support for Syria’s refugees. Cash payments for refugees in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq have been halved and the calorific value of food bundles reduced to 825 calories a day. In the meantime, UNHCR has reported receipt of only 51 per cent of the $3.7 billion needed to support Syria’s 3.1 million refugees this year.

Saudi Arabia, a regional economic giant that has sent funds and weapons into the civil war, has contributed only $2.9 million to UNHCR in 2014. While the UK and US have spent more than most, their outlay in 2014 still pales compared to the $1.1 billion the Pentagon has spent on ‘destroying and degrading’ IS since June. Similarly, Western states need to revisit their policies on taking Syrian refugees. 100,000 have declared asylum in EU countries and a handful have been resettled, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to Syria’s neighbours. Unless Europe revises its approach, the number of refugees seeking illegal entry will continue; already 3,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.

The failure to address these problems could leave Syria’s refugee communities posing not only a threat to regional stability, but also Western capitals. Few Western policy-makers saw the Arab Spring coming, nor were they prepared for the emergence of IS. This time, there can be no excuse for not seeing it coming.

The Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative is a major multi-year research and convening project focusing on the long-term impact of the conflict on Syria’s immediate neighbours, which aims to support a coordinated and holistic policy response.

 

The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.

Everyday Arab Identity – First Review

In International Affairs, Vol 89 Issue 1, pp220-221, by Alan George, University of Oxford, author of Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom and Jordan: Living in the Crossfire

Everyday Arab identity: the daily reproduction of the Arab world. By Christopher Phillips. London and New York: Routledge. 2013. 224pp. £85.00. isbn 978 0 41568 488 0. Available as e-book.

Identity—and, too often, fantasies about identity—lie close to the heart of almost all conflicts, not least in the Middle East. Whether at the level of family, tribe, ethnic or religious group, state or subregion, it is almost always at least partly about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Periodically, dictators—actual and putative—often with distinctly maniacal tendencies, have sought to hijack identity-related sentiment to suit their ends. With Arabism, there were Nasser, Assad (senior and junior), Saddam and Gaddafi; with Islam there were Khomeini and Bin Laden.

Especially in the dying years of Ottoman rule and during the colonial period, the Arab peoples of the Middle East developed a range of Arab identities. By the time of independence these had evolved into organized political movements centred on Arabist sentiment and demanding the unification of the region’s disparate states. Syria’s Ba’ath Party and Egypt’s Nasserism became the lead types of this ‘Old Arabism’, as Christopher Phillips terms it.

Alas, Old Arabism had scant room for Kurds, Berbers and other non-Arabs; and scant room for the multiple varieties of ‘Arab nationalist’ programmes. The autocrats’ solution was straightforward: dissenters within their grasp had to fall into line, on pain of torture and other horrors. However idealistic these nationalist currents might have been at their outset, they became corrupted by the exigencies of power. Many of these difficulties arose from a fundamental problem: the notion of a homogenous Arab ‘nation’ extending from Morocco to Iraq was a myth—not a complete myth, perhaps, but enough of one to divorce nationalist programmes from reality. The humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel struck Old Arabism a fatal blow. But then the same urges that had led to this nationalism found a new outlet in religion. Suddenly, and starting with the Iranian revolution, it was the region’s Islamist identity that was going to triumph—never mind that there were Shi’a and Sunni, Druse and Alawi, Ismaili and Yazidi (and that is far from all); never mind, too, the significant Christian communities, especially in the Levant, Iraq and Egypt. To date, Islamist grand designs have succeeded no more than their Old Arabist equivalents.

Phillips’s central contention is that, beyond the fanfare of these pan-regional political movements, a variant of Arab nationalist sentiment that he terms ‘Everyday Arabism’ has persisted and is now dominant. It is a form of Arabism—closely akin to the original nationalist sentiments—that poses no threat to individual ‘nation’ states or their regimes, in the way that the old pan-Arab projects did. It is an identity that is much less contrived and much more attuned to realities. People in Damascus and Cairo see themselves as having characteristics and interests in common; but not to an extent that there is any pressing need to unify their states. It is analogous, as Phillips points out, to the growing sense of a European common identity that transcends states but does not demand their abolition. At the same time, though, Phillips stresses that this Everyday Arabism is flexible—and tolerant—enough to coexist with other identities. He argues correctly that individuals’ sense of themselves is complex, and identities are multi-layered: at one and the same time one might be a Kurd, a Sunni Muslim and a resident of Aleppo; or an Arab, an Alawi and a resident of Lattakia.

Placing his fascinating work firmly in the context of nationalism theory, Phillips probes, via original research in Syria and Jordan, how identities are reinforced: via the discourses and personality cults of the ruling regimes, and via state-controlled television stations. He then examines the impact of transnational satellite television, and goes on to examine, by conducting over 50 interviews, the extent to which ‘everyday’ Jordanians and Syrians have absorbed the multiple and often subtle identity-related messages directed at them. Phillips’s broad conclusion is that ‘it is through the everyday, routine reproduction of identity in Syria and Jordan that a strong supra-national Arab identity has been sustained despite the failure of Nasserite Arab nationalism. At the same time, state identity is gradually strengthening in the same manner and evolving into a nationalism that encompasses, not opposes, this supra-national Arabism’ (p. 7).

This book originated as Phillips’s doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics, and it shows. At times, especially when dealing with the theoretical background, it is heavy-going. But the heaviness stems from the sheer weight of the subject-matter, rather than from a turgid style. In places, this book demands concentration, and it is worth the effort. Indisputably, however, this is a work for specialists rather than for the general reader.

The research was undertaken in 2009, when no one imagined the tumultuous changes just around the corner. The Arab Spring has opened a Pandora’s Box of identity issues: just how much might the identity sentiments of a Libyan militiaman in Misrata overlap with those of a middle-class Egyptian pro-democracy activist, a Syrian Alawi shabih from the mountains behind Lattakia or a jihadist fighter in Aleppo? But Phillips’s key findings hold: not for nothing is it termed the Arab Spring. From Tunisia, it spread like wildfire precisely because of the vitality of Everyday Arabism.

Phillips’s first thesis supervisor was the late Fred Halliday, who died in Barcelona shortly before the work was completed. In his introduction, Phillips hails him as ‘a fantastic teacher whose imprint can be seen throughout this work’; he expresses the hope that Fred ‘would be proud of what follows’. In his last years, I came to know Fred well. I have no doubt that he would indeed have been proud.

Alan George, University of Oxford, UK

The impact of Syrian refugees on Turkey and Jordan

My latest article, appearing in The World Today, October 2012

Syria’s refugee crisis is getting worse – for those who flee and for those who take them in. Christopher Phillips reports

As Syria’s uprising descends into a increasingly bloody civil war, the number of refugees fleeing the fighting has rocketed. In August alone 100,000 Syrians headed for the relative safety of neighbouring states, almost doubling the number seeking refuge since the unrest began to 235,000, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Unregistered refugees mean the numbers are far higher.

Though they might have escaped the civil war, when they cross the border refugees face a host of new challenges. Syria’s Arab neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – are poorly equipped to handle the crisis and most refugees find themselves in hastily put together camps, or with families struggling to support themselves. Even Turkey, wealthier and better equipped than most, has struggled. Resources, shelter and work are all scarce for the refugees, and the international community has been slow to respond.

Yet the rapidly expanding crisis poses problems not only for refugees. The host states themselves are wary of the social, economic and political pressures their new guests have brought. Here we look at the effects on Jordan and Turkey.

Jordan under strain

Jordan has taken in Syrian refugees since the beginning of the uprising. Deraa, where protesters first clashed with the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, is barely 6 kilometres from the border and shares familial and tribal links with the neighbouring Jordanian Houran region.

The first refugees were mostly people from Deraa seeking refuge with extended family, but as the violence spread Syrians from further afield – Damascus, Homs and Hama – headed south. Most arrive with shocking stories of Assad’s brutality. Ahmed, a farmer from the Deraa coun-tryside, speaks of his reluctance to leave Syria. ‘They killed my son,’ he said. ‘He wasn’t involved in any demonstrations, just working the fields, when a sniper shot him in the head. Even then, though, I didn’t want to leave. But then we heard stories of Assad’s men, the shabbiha, raping women in Deraa, systematically using sexual violence as a weapon. I was scared for my daughters so we fled.’ Crossing the border is no easy task. The Jordanian army has clashed with Syrian troops to prevent them firing on fleeing refugees. ‘We hid in the forests for three months, preparing to cross,’ said Ahmed. ‘We managed to avoid any Syrian troops, and climbed over the border at night. Then we were stopped by a Jordanian soldier and I was scared he might send us back as we had no papers. He just said ‘alf ahla’ [a thousand welcomes]. I wept.’

Ahmed, his wife and their five children are being looked after by a charity in a private home in Turah, a few miles outside Ramtha in the Houran. While wealthier refugees find their own accommodation, these officially sanctioned charities have been essential over the past year in finding homes for poorer Syrians, given Jordan’s reluctance to build refugee camps. But things are rapidly changing with refugee numbers mushrooming this summer to more than 180,000, according to the Jordanian government. It opened a camp in Zaatari in late July 2012, and a new law declared that any future Syrian refugees would have to live in organized camps. Conditions in this tent city are grim. Located on windswept barren land, where temperatures have regularly been above 40C, Zaatari witnessed a riot by refugees complaining about living conditions within weeks of opening. By then, the camp’s population was already 25,000, forcing Jordan to plan new camps.

Jordan is struggling to cope. Already a poor country relying heavily on money from the US and the Gulf to balance its budget, Jordan is worried about the economic impact of the refugee crisis. In August, together with the UNHCR, it made an urgent appeal for $429 million, revising this to $700 million within a week. While the US pledged $100 million, the international community as a whole has been slow to react.

Many refugees, fearing the reach of Syria’s intelligence service even in exile, choose not to register for a camp and live outside, adding to Jordan’s financial burden. One such refugee from Homs, Mustafa, spoke of the medical treatment he was receiving. ‘My eardrums were blown out when a government shell exploded next to my furniture shop,’ he said, ‘Thankfully the [Jordanian] government paid for the hospital.’ His six-year-old son, was attending a course over the summer to catch up on missed school work. While this was paid for by the UNHCR, he will now join a Jordanian school that already packs more than 40 children into each class. Mustafa himself said he will look for casual work, but with unemployment in Jordan at 14 per cent, the economy cannot absorb him or the many more like him.

So far Jordanians remain sympathetic to their Syrian guests. But there are worries that economic problems could mutate into political tension. Competition for resources such as jobs, education and health services may test the Jordanians’ hospitality, especially if refugee numbers continue to grow. Memories of the 1970 Black September civil war between militia drawn from Palestinian refugees and the Jordanian government will also make author-ities wary of any political activity among Syrian refugees. Already the government have reportedly denied entry to Syrians of Palestinian origin, fearing it may upset Jordan’s delicate political balance, although the government has denied this. Any link between Syrian refugees and Islamists will similarly worry Amman. The potential for the destabilization of Jordan grows with every refugee crossing its border.

Spillover in Turkey

Turkey’s response to the Syria crisis has been better organized than Jordan’s, being wealthier and better placed to cope with the 80,000 refugees that had arrived by late August. As in Jordan, Syrians are allowed to rent private accommodation, though they are denied the right to work. As most are from poor backgrounds, they live in official camps, unlike the dispersed refugees in Jordan. Turkey sought to control the situation early on, building four refugee camps in Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis and Urfa. Until now, Turkey has largely been able to fund its response to the crisis itself; with the government controlled Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD disaster agency taking the lead rather than UNHCR. Foreign journalists are barred from entering the camps, although independent observers from Turkish charities attest to the good conditions inside.

Some refugees, who are free to travel around Turkey and speak to foreigners outside the camps, are more ambivalent about camp life. ‘It is our prison!’ says Mohammad, a teenager from Aleppo outside Kilis camp, ‘The guards treat us badly and life is too expensive.’ The Turkish government gives each refugee 20 Turkish Lira (£7) a week but, says Mohammad, this is barely enough for food. A few of the younger refugees risk their lives crossing back into Syria to buy subsidized cigarettes to sell in Turkey, but most are unemployed. As in Jordan, these frustrations have led to rioting. Kilis camp residents spoke of a demonstration in late July when they demanded better conditions, prompting the Turkish guards to fire tear gas at the crowd. ‘Women and children were hurt and fell down,’ explains Nawar, another Kilis resident. ‘There may be some bad people in this camp, but they have been oppressed [in Syria] for a long time. They are desperate and need money and food. I think they just reached breaking point.’

Kilis is the only camp with solid container homes, the rest being tented cities. Older heads complain of youthful ingratitude. ‘This is by far the best camp in Turkey, the rioters are just trouble-makers,’ says Karim, a middle-aged teacher from Hama. ‘I was first in Urfa camp but it was far too hot, which was unhealthy for my baby daughter. My wife and I crossed back into Syria, risking attacks from the regime army, just to get to Kilis and have a container home.’

While Turkey has avoided the economic difficulties faced by Jordan, social and political costs are emerging. Worryingly, Syria’s sectarian problems could be exported. In Syria members of Assad’s Alawis sect, who have backed the president, are blamed by many from the Sunni Muslim majority for the regime’s violence. However, Antakya, the Turkish city in Hatay where many Syrian refugees have fled, is dominated by Turkish Alawis who are sympathetic to Assad and their co-religionists in Syria. There is little sympathy for the refugees.

‘They are all terrorists,’ said Mehmet, an Alawi businessman, ‘we hate them.’ Like many in the city, he equates all the refugees with the armed rebels given sanctuary by the Turkish government to fight Assad. Such rebels, many of whom are Islamist, have caused fear in this secular city. ‘They walk around with their long beards looking like al-Qaeda,’ said Olgun, an Alawi doctor, ‘I’ve heard they have told some Turkish Alawis, ‘after Bashar, you’re next!’’

Many Antakyan Sunnis agree that the refugees could destabilise the city. ‘Antakya has always been safe for all sects: Alawis, Christians, Sunnis,’ explains Ahmet, a Sunni business student, ‘Now I hear people are buying guns to protect themselves. This used to be unheard of.’

Despite Antakyans’ complaints, there are signs that the Turkish government is responding, trying in late August to move refugees out of Hatay. Similarly, new camps are being built further away from the border. Yet this may not undo the damage done, or ensure that Turkey’s different ethnic groups stay above the unfolding civil war in Syria. Already the dynamics of Kurdish politics in Turkey have been affected, with the secessionist Kurdish militants the PKK emboldened both by renewed support from Assad’s government and by recent gains by Syria’s Kurds.

The Syrian crisis is hurting Turkey far more than expected and, as more refugees flood over the border, new solutions are being sought to take the pressure off Turkey’s resources and calm its own population.

One option discussed by Ankara is to establish a safe zone inside Syria itself to house the refugees. This, however, would effectively require Turkey and Assad to go to war, a decision that will not be taken lightly.

The surge of refugees fleeing Syria’s violence seems to have caught the Jordanian, Turkish and other neighbouring governments by surprise. In many ways it says a lot for the determination of the Syrian people that they, like Ahmed from Deraa, resisted fleeing for so long. At the same time, the sudden surge seen in the summer suggests a major increase in violence and a loss of hope that the war will be over soon.

Their flight should not surprise us, however. Syria is in civil war and, as seen in Iraq and Lebanon in the 2000s and 1970s and 80s, that creates refugees. What is important now is that the refugee crisis does not become too great a burden on the host states, already under strain.

Recent Jordanian, Pakistani and Rwandan history shows us the dangers for host societies of a highly politicized and desperate refugee community if handled badly. While the international community have been unable to prevent Assad’s brutality, they can cushion the fallout for the hosts and improve the lot of Syria’s refugees soon to face a long winter in tent cities.

Everyday Arab Identity – Available now

I’m delighted to announce that my first book, Everyday Arab Identity: The Daily Reproduction of the Arab World was published last week by Routledge.

Please see HERE to order a copy for yourself or your university library

Whether through government propaganda or popular transnational satellite television channels, Arab citizens encounter a discourse that reinforces a sense of belonging to their own state and a broader Arab world on a daily basis. Looking through the lens of nationalism theory, this book examines how and why Arab identity continues to be reproduced in today’s Middle East, and how that Arab identity interacts with strengthening ties to religion and the state.

Drawing on case studies of two ideologically different Arab regimes, Syria and Jordan, Christopher Phillips explores both the implications this everyday Arab identity will have on western policy towards the Middle East and its real life impact on international relations.

Offering an original perspective on this topical issue, this book will be of interest to academics and practitioners working on the Arab world and political affairs, as well as students of International Relations, Political Science and the Middle East, notably Syria and Jordan, and policymakers in the region

Notes from Jordan: Amman and Ramtha

In response to the Arab Spring, Abdullah’s personality cult has grown even more

There is always something reassuring about Amman. Despite lacking the ancient charm of Damascus, the nightlife of Beirut and the overpopulated pandemonium of Cairo, it’s tame concrete neighbourhoods and sprawling urban centres offer a certain stability lacking elsewhere. Jordan has for decades built an image for itself as a bastion of calm in a sea of instability, attracting much-needed western and Gulf patronage as a result. On my first visit to Amman in 2 years I find Jordan once again surrounded by uncertainty: although the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quiet for now and Iraq appears to be stabilizing, to the south Egypt remains mired in post-revolutionary political contestation and, of course, to the north overspill from the Syrian uprising prays on the minds of politicians and citizens alike. The Arab Spring has thus far only rattled but not seriously threatened, the easy-on-the-western-eye autocracy of King Abdullah II, with regular protests calling for reform, rather than regime change, and rarely attracting numbers much higher than 10,000. However, with long-standing tensions between its underrepresented majority of Palestinians and the privileged minority of Transjordanians, and a parallel but not unrelated clash between the ruling secular elite and Jordan’s popular Islamist opposition, some fear that instability caused by the Syria crisis could push the desert kingdom over the edge.

Hiding @ Ramadan

I arrived in Jordan on the first day of Ramadan, about which I am always ambivalent when in the Arab world. On the one hand, it is a fantastic festival, which visibly brings communities together. During my stay I have the privilege of sharing Iftar (the breaking of the day’s fast) in private homes and in communal cafes and restaurants and the sense of togetherness on breaking the fast is genuinely impressive and an honour to be a part of. On the other hand, throughout my trip to Jordan, the temperature average is between 35-38 degrees Celsius. Unlike many Jordanians, who tend to slow down during the day while they’re fasting – often sleeping late and leading a more nocturnal life – I still have to work: walking around the city in the sweltering heat. As a good visitor, even though I am not fasting myself, I know its rude to eat and drink in front of fasters, and yet struggled to find anywhere in Amman that would serve me food before 7.45pm. Most cafes simply close and almost all are deserted until Iftar. My salvation comes in the form of ‘Books@Café’, a trendy western-style eatery in the up market district of Rainbow Street in Jebel Amman.

Yet each day when I come to work and eat, I am not alone. Interestingly the café is full, not of westerners, but of Jordanians in desperate search of a place to eat, drink and, seemingly most importantly, smoke. Despite ‘Books’ – as it is known – having several floors and an impressive covered balcony overlooking Amman’s citadel, patrons are instead directed into an internal-facing room, far from the disapproving glare of the rest of Amman’s observant population. This social, almost institutionalized, pressure to fast is common across the Arab world, and I have seen it in Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo previously. Sometimes it actually is institutionalized, from minor laws such as the sale of alcohol being forbidden after 10 o’clock in Jordan, to the excesses of the religious police in Saudi Arabia forcibly enforcing the fast. Returning to Turkey, I discovered that no such practice exists. In Gaziantep – which I will discuss next week – cafes remain full of local patrons eating, drinking beer and smoking throughout the day. I am later told by more experienced voices that this social pressure in Jordan is a relatively recent phenomena, coinciding – not surprisingly – with the general shift towards greater religiosity over the last twenty or so years. Yet, whatever its origin, I can’t help feeling that this takes away some of the purpose of the festival. Surely the communality of fasting, and the shared moment of Iftar only has true meaning if its voluntarily entered into for religious reasons rather than due to social pressure?

The refugees of Ramtha

AP image of Ramtha refugees

The main purpose of my trip to Jordan was to interview some of the Syrian refugees that have recently fled the violence. UNHCR estimates that there are currently 35,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, while the Jordanian government says that there are an additional 160,000 who have not registered, still fearing the reach of the Syrian secret police (the Muhkabarat) even when abroad. Jordan, for the most part, has done the decent thing regarding the refugees. While there were some stories of the authorities turning back Syrians of Palestinian origin – presumably not wanting to swell the numbers of Palestinians in Jordan even further – most Syrians have been welcomed. One farmer we spoke to from Deraa, the neighbouring city in southern Syria where the uprising started, said he was scared of crossing the border with his family illegally because he was worried how the Jordanian army would react. Eventually, after spending 3 months living in the forests outside Deraa, he and his family crossed. When the Jordanian army saw them, the man said he feared the worst, but instead the first soldier approached them and shouted ‘alf ahla’ (a thousand welcomes)! The man wept as he told the story.

The refugee’s stories were harrowing. All who we spoke to had come from either Deraa or Homs, which have seen some of the worst violence in the regime’s crackdown. One girl from Homs told us how the ‘Shabiha’, the militia formed by the Assad regime responsible for some of the worst atrocities so far, had ‘occupied’ the house of her friend’s family for a week, repeatedly raping the women before killing all but one of the inhabitants and looting the homestead. Sexual violence and torture, against both men and women, were prominent in the stories of all that we spoke to, although none of my interviewees were victims themselves. Indeed, it was fear for the safety of his daughters that eventually prompted the farmer from Deraa to leave after a year of escalating violence. “I love my country,” he said, “but it was no longer safe.” He had been in Jordan for 12 days.

This desert life

The Jordanian government is doing its best to accommodate the refugees. In Ramtha itself there is a UNHCR camp hosting several thousand, but most live with relatives or in rented accommodation. The refugees we spoke to were being hosted in the town of Turah, a few miles outside of Ramtha, and it was local charities that were taking the lead in providing homes and support. Abu Nabil, the man who took us from home to home to meet the Syrian refugees was a retiree charity volunteer from the town rather than a government official. The government recently received a $100m grant from the US to help with the costs of helping the refugees. The eldest son of one man we spoke to, Abu Mohammad, was taking a catch up course so that he could start the school year in a Jordanian school in September. Another man from Homs had had his hearing severely damaged when shells had exploded in his furniture shop. He was being treated free of charge at the local hospital. Grants will cover these costs for the time being, but one must question whether Jordan’s already stretched infrastructure can cope with much more. Following clashes between Jordanian residents and refugees in Ramtha last week, a new law was passed stating that future refugees must live in the camps rather than where they wish, acknowledging the problems of this over-stretch. The real fear is that numbers will jump suddenly as the violence worsens: while 100,000 is just about manageable, 500,000 may not be.

Syrian overspill in Jordan

As well as the numbers of refugees overburdening the Jordanian state, there are two other serious concerns. Firstly, that the fighting might spill onto Jordanian soil. On my final night in Jordan Al-Arabiya was reporting that the Jordanian army had clashed with the Syrian army who were pursuing refugees headed for the border. A four-year-old Syrian boy was reportedly killed. It is difficult to verify some of these clashes. On the one hand the Saudi-owned media such as Al-Arabiya opposes Assad and seeks to play up any events, while at the same time the Jordanian government has been careful not to become too embroiled in the Syria conflict and seeks to downplay things. Even so, whatever the truth behind this incident, clashes are likely given the ruthlessness with which the Syrian regime pursues refugees along with Jordan’s commitment to protect them. But King Abdullah is carefully walking a fine line. Much to the chagrin of the refugees we spoke to, despite publically calling on Assad to step down, the King has not shown outright support for the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA). This is quite unlike Turkey, which hosts the FSA and is, allegedly, funneling Saudi and Qatari funds and weapons to them. Even more than Turkey Jordan fears a long-lasting civil war in Syria which could provide a base for anti-regime Jordanian groups and destabilize the whole region. Faced with this prospect, the King’s line appears to be to publically toe the line of its allies Saudi and the US regarding Assad, but practically pursuing a damage limitation exercise: protecting the refugees and defending his borders but avoiding anything that could encourage more fighting. The FSA thus have a weaker base in the Hawran district that sprawls over southern Syria and northern Jordan, than it does in the southern Turkey / northern Syria Idleb region – primarily due to a lack of support from Jordan.

3 Kings? Abdullah’s image makers prepare a cult for his son, Hussein, as well. The ‘Hafez plan’ if you will…

The second major issue is not unrelated to this, which is divided opinion within Jordanian society itself. While the vast majority of Jordanians I spoke to were adamantly against Assad, a few voiced concerns. Some Jordanian Christians were worried of the fate of the Christians in Syria if Assad fell, aware of the exodus of Iraqi Christians when Saddam Hussein fell. There was a general fear, not unlike that found among some Turkish secularists, that if Assad fell, Syrian Islamists would take over, increasing the pressure on the Jordanian government to embrace the Islamic Action Front (Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). I was even told that several pro-Assad voices can still be read in Jordan’s newspaper columns, something I saw for myself on reading an op-ed in the Jordan Times stating that, despite all of Assad’s faults, he was better than a repeat of Iraq in Syria. While this pro-Assad (or at least, anti-Syrian opposition) group is evidently a small minority, it is potentially important given most come from the King’s core support. After all, it is the Liberals and Islamists that are most actively anti-Assad – the same groups who are calling on the King to reform. It would not be surprising if, deep down, despite repulsion at Assad’s behaviour, King Abdullah himself might fear what will come next.