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.

 

Notes from Lebanon: Beirut (Part 2) and Tyre

Syrian Spillover

The flow of refugees has inevitably raised fears that Lebanon will be sucked into Syria’s civil war. Yet while resentments against the refugees may increase in the future – as they did against the Palestinians – for now, aside from a few snooty looks towards beggars and worries at the increasing crime rate, Lebanon’s latest migrants are not actively creating tensions. That cannot be said of Lebanon’s own domestic actors, however.

Since 2005 Lebanon’s politicians have been divided according to their views towards Syria. Those that successfully pushed for an end to Syria’s post civil war military presence are known as ‘March 14’. They are led by the parties representing Sunni Muslims in Lebanon’s complex sectarian political system, and have substantial support from half of the parties representing the Christians. The other half of the Christian parties back the pro-Syria grouping, ‘March 8’, which is led by the groups representing Lebanon’s Shia: Amal and, the dominant partner, Hezbollah. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has regularly switched sides, seeking to stay on the winning side.

Beirut's Martyr's Square - All together now?

Beirut’s Martyr’s Square – All together now?

The uprising against Assad has intensified some of these divisions. Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition movement has most sympathy from Lebanon’s Sunnis (estimated at 27% of the population). The Sunni leaders voice their opposition to Assad but, as the Syria conflict has become increasingly sectarian, they face pressure from their base to do more. As in Syria, frustrations at the traditional leadership have pushed some Sunnis in a more radical direction, and militant Salafism is rising. On the other side, Hezbollah sees the Syria crisis as an existential conflict. If Assad falls, Hezbollah’s supply line from its patron Iran would disappear, making its position hard to sustain. Consequently, as has been widely publicized, Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to help Assad, playing a decisive role in the regime’s recent recapture of the rebel town of Qusayr.

Lebanon’s Sunnis have been outraged by this. Its has shattered Hezbollah’s general popularity among the Lebanese, won by pushing Israel to end its 18-year occupation of the south in 2000 and then fighting it to a stalemate in 2006. Moreover, it has raised sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon to a new level. In June a radical Sunni preacher, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, and his supporters clashed with the Lebanese army, who were supported (some say encouraged) by Hezbollah in the Sunni coastal city of Sidon. In July a car bomb wounded 53 in Hezbollah’s Shia Beirut stronghold of Dahia, and a second bomb in August killed 20. Groups linked to Lebanese and Syrian Sunni radicals were blamed. A retaliatory car bomb the following week in the Sunni city of Tripoli killed at least 42 was similarly blamed on militant Shia groups, though Hezbollah denied any involvement. Indeed, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has urged Lebanon’s different sectarian groups to keep their fight outside of Lebanon, insisting that Sunni Takfiris (radicals) are doing the bidding of the US and Israel by creating divisions between Muslims.

Another civil war?

However, while tit-for-tat sectarian bombings may well increase as the violence in Syria worsens, the return to civil war that many Lebanese fear seems unlikely. Firstly, at a military level, the forces are hugely imbalanced. Hezbollah is a professional military, structured, battle-hardened, well-armed and disciplined. In contrast, Sunni forces are disorganized and poorly armed. In 2008 when the Sunni Future Movement fought Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut, they were comprehensively defeated within hours. Even with Hezbollah’s forces stretched by deployment in Syria, it would require a major overhaul of Sunni militant forces and a massive injection of arms from abroad for them to reach a point where they could sustain a prolonged challenge.

Beirut's Place de l'Etoile - Quiet, for now.

Beirut’s Place de l’Etoile – Quiet, for now.

Secondly, the army, Lebanon’s only other professional well-armed group, is effectively on Hezbollah’s side, despite claims to be neutral. The Shia, being Lebanon’s largest and poorest sectarian group (roughly 41% of the population), make up the majority of the army’s soldiers. As such the army is unlikely to be deployed against Hezbollah for fear its soldiers wouldn’t fire on their co-religionists. Lebanon’s Christians  (roughly 27% of the population) are fervent supporters of the army and many of its commanders and, indeed the President and commander and chief, Michel Suleiman, are Christian. Despite being split politically between March 8 and March 14, no Christian wants to see the victory of Sunni radicals in either Syria or Lebanon. While they may not like Hezbollah, the Shia militia has effectively left their way of life alone, unlike the Sunni radicals that have persecuted Christians in Iraq, Egypt and now Syria. As seen with the clash in Sidon when the army worked alongside Hezbollah, the institution is now a defender of the status quo: and that includes Hezbollah’s position as the only powerful non-state militia. Some Christians may not admit it but, as the region again descends into instability, this actually suits them better than the alternative.

Sunni radicalism against Shias in general and Hezbollah in particular is therefore likely to increase but in the form of sporadic violence and terror attacks rather than a genuine military challenge. The real danger will come if Assad actually falls from power in Damascus as Hezbollah might feel its position threatened in Lebanon. In such circumstances it might seek to extend its power over the whole state rather than just to dominate it – something that the Christians and the army would be unlikely to accept.

The South remembers

A trip to the southern city of Tyre serves as a useful explanation for the general support that Assad and Hezbollah retain among Lebanon’s Shia. The press sometimes crudely characterizes the Syrian civil war as part of a regional Sunni-Shia conflict, part of a wider confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this narrative Lebanese Shia back Assad for primordial reasons: because he is an Alawite, itself an offshoot of Shia Islam, and because his principle ally is Shia Iran. Yet the reality is more complex.

Tyre - Seaside life, a short missile strike from Israel

Tyre – Seaside life, a short missile strike from Israel

This is my first trip to the south since before the 2006 war with Israel. My first experience of Lebanon was teaching at a summer school in the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Bass in Tyre in 2003, with the British charity Unipal. Some things have stayed the same: Hezbollah and Amal posters and banners are still hung all over the town. The blank faces of their ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting Israel still stare back hauntingly while smiling children play non-plussed underneath. Other things have changed. For one thing, Tyre feels wealthier. Impressive new structures have been built, including a new highway from Sidon, and there are a lot more visitors from Beirut – both Lebanese and western NGO workers – stretched out on the beach in bikinis in what remains a conservative town. The sun is shining and locals and visitors are enjoying the beach, the seafood, Nargilah and Arak.

People I speak to are strong supporters of Assad. Although they are Shia, sectarianism isn’t mentioned once. Instead one word comes up repeatedly: Israel. For the residents of South Lebanon the modern day Sparta south of the border is their real enemy. It is easy for outsiders to forget, but the 18-year occupation by the IDF, and the brief but brutal 2006 war are imprinted on the memory of the South Lebanese.  One Shia I speak to, a secularist with no love of Hezbollah, was among the estimated 15,000 men his age to spend several years in Israeli prisons in the 1980s and 90s. Though it was (deliberately) destroyed by the IDF in the 2006, Hezbollah used to have a ‘museum of occupation’ in Israel’s notorious Ansar detention facility near the border that catalogued the grim conditions Lebanese prisoners faced. Hezbollah, though founded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards during Lebanon’s civil war, earned its spurs fighting Israel and pushing them out of the country, something for which most southerners remain eternally grateful. Assad, as Hezbollah’s ally and fellow enemy of Israel, has a similar level of support. Indeed, some supporters of Assad I spoke to, both in Tyre and Beirut, simply didn’t believe that the Syrian regime had committed the atrocities it is accused of. The idea that Israel and the US are leading a global conspiracy against Syria, spreading lies and propaganda against Damascus is widely believed.

Incredulous though this blind support sounds, a visit to the south helps to partly explain it. The physical and psychological scars of the occupation and 2006 war are deep, and the hatred towards the enemy that committed it strong. The average southern Lebanese has not experienced Assad’s atrocities, not been subject to his torture machine. They have, however, been subject to Israel’s aggression, losing homes and family in the process, and they are grateful to Assad, Hezbollah and Iran for defending and protecting them. Moreover, after the destruction wrought in 2006, it was Iran, not the fractured government in Beirut, that paid for the rebuilding. The new highway south, for example, is covered in Iranian flags to emphasize its role in financing. The traditionally poor and Shia south has been neglected and discriminated against by Lebanon’s leaders, both Christian and Sunni, for generations. In a region where conspiracy theories flourish, perhaps it is understandable that many of the South Lebanese are now reluctant to believe what those same leaders (in the case of the Sunnis) are now saying about the only people they feel have protected and stood up for them. Of course, a counter argument would be that, in reality, these ‘patrons’ have been manipulative of the south’s suffering – indeed often exacerbating it – to command loyalty in just the kind of crisis they currently face.

Notes from Lebanon: Beirut (Part 1)

Old Beirut - the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Old Beirut – the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Land of the Free?

My latest research trip has brought me to Beirut, to which i have been a regular visitor for a decade now. The city has long marketed itself as a meeting point between East and West: the self-declared ‘Paris of the Middle East’, with a Mediterranean café culture and bar scene that contrasts sharply with the more conservative society found elsewhere in the region. Beirut is certainly the most open Arab city, having long enjoyed the kind of free press and free speech that (some) opposition activists in Syria and Cairo are today struggling to obtain. This freedom is, however, primarily the bi-product of decades of instability. A complex political system established by French imperialists, giving different religious sects each a slice of power, has produced a weak confessional state that has led to regular stalemates, armed stand offs, and two civil wars. Furthermore Lebanon’s location, caught between Syria and Israel, has seen it sucked into Israel’s various conflicts with the Arabs and, more recently, Iran. Since gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon has been attacked by Israel in 1948, 1978, 1982 (an occupation of the south that lasted until 2000), 1993, 1996 and 2006, seen civil wars in 1958 and 1975-90 and a sizeable Syrian military presence from 1976-2005. In short, this is a city and a country that has known almost as much conflict as peace. For all its ostensible openness, the scars, both physical and psychological, are never hard to find.

Today Lebanon faces yet another crisis, in the form of the Syrian civil war to the east, prompting fears of yet more political instability at home and a wave of 1.2 million refugees flooding over the border. However, for all those fears, to me central Beirut looks and feels more settled than at any time I have known. When I first visited in 2003, with the Iraq war increasing regional tensions, the Lebanese army was deployed to protect western businesses like McDonalds and Starbucks. On multiple visits in 2004-5 tensions were again high due to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive car bomb that ripped through buildings near Beirut’s corniche. The subsequent pro and anti-Syrian demonstrations that led to Syria’s military withdrawal in 2005 and the wave of assassinations of other political figures that followed was also unsettling. Then, during regular trips from Damascus in 2007-8, Hezbollah and its allies had closed the whole of Beirut’s downtown district down following a yearlong sit-in.

New Beirut - the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

New Beirut – the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

In contrast, today’s Beirut feels more comfortable with itself. The centre remains divided into three clear parts based on civil war demarcations – the Christian East, Muslim West, and the rebuilt, slightly vacuous ‘Downtown’ area between them. However, aside from the odd Christian taxi driver refusing to drive East to West, there appears more harmony between the three segments. They seem increasingly glued together by a thriving westernized young artsy class that open pop up galleries, host music gigs and launched creative shops all over Hamra, the hub of West Beirut, and the Eastern hotspots of Gemayzeh and Mar Mikhael. Indeed, these youth have given central Beirut a more western feel, helped by a noticeable increase in European and American commercial franchises, the second generation Lebanese returning from the US and Australia, the massive growth in western NGO workers and journalists dealing with the Syria crisis living in Lebanon, and the decline in Gulf tourists, deterred by the Syrian crisis from visiting. Indeed, the previously common sight of Gulf men cruising through Gemeyzeh in their Hummers whilst ogling Lebanese girls was a welcome rarity this summer.

Beirut’s latest migrants

For all its hedonism, however, Beirut has always had a darker side. The waves of Palestinian refugees from the 1940s, and internal migrants from the Shia south in the 1970s and 80s created a belt of poverty in the city’s southern suburbs, out of sight from the revelers in Hamra and Gemeyzeh. The weak and fractured state offers little safety net, with flashy reconstruction projects aimed at the elite and foreign tourists taking precedence over infrastructure, schools and hospitals. Indeed, despite boasting restaurants with reclining roofs, most of Beirut experiences blackouts for several hours each day. Yet today this poverty is visible even in wealthy areas, in the form of the vast numbers of Syrian refugees flooding over the border every day. 1.2 million Syrians are now estimated to live in Lebanon, a state with a population of only 4 million, and they are rapidly changing the face of Beirut. Almost every street in wealthy Hamra has multiple Syrian beggars, usually veiled mothers cradling hungry children. Similarly gangs of shoeshine boys chase every passerby in the hope of a thousand lire tip ($0.66). At night the hipsters in Mar Mikhael (Beirut’s Shoreditch) fend off beggar boys, sometimes aggressively.

Officially the Syrians are allowed to reside where they wish (or can afford to), as the government refuses to permit the kind of fixed refugee camps found in Jordan and Turkey. This is partly due to political divisions at the top but mostly from fears that permanent Syrian camps could become bases for destabilizing militants, as the Palestinian camps did in the past, contributing to Lebanon’s civil war. Instead, Syria’s poorest refugees face an acute housing shortage that local and international NGOs and UNHCR are struggling to deal with. With winter approaching, many Syrians lack adequate shelter, medicine, education and winter clothing, but funds are low and coordination is lacking. (If you want to donate, please do so here).

Cool Beirut - the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut's 'Shoreditch'

Cool Beirut – the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut’s ‘Shoreditch’

While the poorest refugees have flocked to the area David Hirst describes as the capital’s ‘misery belt’ (the Shia suburbs of Dahia and the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla) the middle classes have settled in Beirut’s centre. In some cases this is subtly challenging Beirut’s old sectarian appearance. Veiled women, a rarity in East Beirut since the civil war saw Muslims expelled, are now regularly seen in Christian neighbourhoods like Achrafiyeh and Bourj Hammoud. In other places the Syrians have more of a political presence.  Hamra particularly has become a hub for young educated Syrians, and certain cafes and bars overflow with Damascenes and Aleppans engaged in heated political debates over Arak and Nargilah (Shisha). Perhaps inevitably, given they are refugees, most oppose Assad and engage in a range of opposition activity: whether simple acts of defiance via Facebook or organizing small demonstrations in Beirut. Others are involved in humanitarian work for their poorer countrymen in Lebanon. Many travel back into Syria regularly to check on family members and return with the latest news. Not surprisingly, these cafes also attract a fair number of western journalists and NGO workers, all engaged in the ‘Syria industry’ that is, rather depressingly but necessarily, emerging in Lebanon.

One wonders what impact the departure of these educated youth will have on Syria in the future. Though most are outwardly passionately against Assad, many privately express a degree of cynicism and resignation at the situation, acknowledging the opposition’s many faults and the reality that Assad may not fall and some kind of negotiation might eventually be necessary. Moreover, most expect the war to last a long time and are making plans for their own future: either settling into careers in Lebanon or seeking emigration abroad. This is understandable given the miserable fate of their homeland. That said, whatever is left in Syria will be without these moderate and educated voices, possibly increasing the descent into radicalism on both sides. Having spent money educating them, the state’s remorseless violence has now pushed these youth into taking their skills and talents elsewhere. A depressing irony.

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.

Christians in new Exodus from the Middle East?

Interesting comments by Robert Fisk in The Independent about departure of Christians in the Middle East:

In the centre of the rebuilt Beirut, the massive old Maronite Cathedral of St George stands beside the even larger mass of the new Mohammad al-Amin mosque.

The mosque’s minarets tower over the cathedral, but the Maronites were built a spanking new archbishop’s house between the two buildings as compensation. Yet every day, the two calls to prayer – the clanging of church bells and the wailing of the muezzin – beat an infernal percussion across the city. Both bells and wails are tape recordings, but they have been turned up to the highest decibel pitch to outdo each other, louder than an aircraft’s roar, almost as crazed as the nightclub music from Gemmayzeh across the square. But the Christians are leaving.

Across the Middle East, it is the same story of despairing – sometimes frightened – Christian minorities, and of an exodus that reaches almost Biblical proportions. Almost half of Iraq’s Christians have fled their country since the first Gulf War in 1991, most of them after the 2004 invasion – a weird tribute to the self-proclaimed Christian faith of the two Bush presidents who went to war with Iraq – and stand now at 550,000, scarcely 3 per cent of the population.

More than half of Lebanon’s Christians now live outside their country. Once a majority, the nation’s one and a half million Christians, most of them Maronite Catholics, comprise perhaps 35 per cent of the Lebanese. Egypt’s Coptic Christians – there are at most around eight million – now represent less than 10 per cent of the population.

This is, however, not so much a flight of fear, more a chronicle of a death foretold. Christians are being outbred by the majority Muslim populations in their countries and they are almost hopelessly divided. In Jerusalem, there are 13 different Christian churches and three patriarchs. A Muslim holds the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to prevent Armenian and Orthodox priests fighting each other at Easter.

When more than 200 members of 14 different churches – some of them divided – gathered in Rome last week for a papal synod on the loss of Christian populations in the lands where Christianity began, it was greeted with boredom or ignored altogether by most of the West’s press.

Yet nowhere is the Christian fate sadder than in the territories around Jerusalem. As Monsignor Fouad Twal, the ninth Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the second to be an Arab, put it bleakly, “the Israelis regard us as 100 per cent Palestinian Arabs and we are oppressed in the same way as the Muslims. But Muslim fundamentalists identify us with the Christian West – which is not always true – and want us to pay the price.” With Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem cut off from Jerusalem by the same Israeli wall which imprisons their Muslim brothers, there is now, Twal says, “a young generation of Christians who do not know or visit the Holy Sepulchre”.

The Jordanian royal family have always protected their Christian population – at 350,000, it is around 6 per cent of the population – but this is perhaps the only flame of hope in the region. The divisions within Christianity proved even more dangerous to their community than the great Sunni-Shia divide did to the Muslims of the Middle East. Even the Crusaders were divided in their 100-year occupation of Palestine, or “Outremer”, as they called it. The Lebanese journalist Fady Noun, a Christian, wrote a profound article from Rome last week in which he spoke of the Christian loss as “a great wound haemorrhaging blood”, and bemoaned both Christian division and “egoism” for what he saw as a spiritual as well as a physical emigration. “There are those Christians who reach a kind of indifference… in Western countries who, swayed by the culture of these countries and the media, persuade eastern Christians to forget their identity,” he wrote.

Pope Benedict, whose mournful visit to the Holy Land last year prompted him to call the special synod which ended in the Vatican at the weekend, has adopted his usual perspective – that, despite their difficulties, Christians of the “Holy Land” must reinvigorate their feelings as “living stones” of the Middle Eastern Church. “To live in dignity in your own nation is before everything a fundamental human right,” he said. “That is why you must support conditions of peace and justice, which are indispensable for the harmonious development of all the inhabitants of the region.” But the Pope’s words sometimes suggested that real peace and justice lay in salvation rather than historical renewal.

Patriarch Twal believes that the Pope understood during his trip to Israel and the West Bank last year “the disastrous consequences of the conflict between Jews and Palestinian Arabs” and has stated openly that one of the principal causes of Christian emigration is “the Israeli occupation, the Christians’ lack of freedom of movement, and the economic circumstances in which they live”. But he does not see the total disappearance of the Christian faith in the Middle East. “We must have the courage to accept that we are Arabs and Christians and be faithful to this identity. Our wonderful mission is to be a bridge between East and West.”

One anonymous prelate at the Rome synod, quoted in one of the synod’s working papers, took a more pragmatic view. “Let’s stop saying there is no problem with Muslims; this isn’t true,” he said. “The problem doesn’t only come from fundamentalists, but from constitutions. In all the countries of the region except Lebanon, Christians are second-class citizens.” If religious freedom is guaranteed in these countries, “it is limited by specific laws and practices”. In Egypt, this has certainly been the case since President Sadat referred to himself as “the Muslim president of a Muslim country”.

The Lebanese Maronite Church – its priests, by the way, can marry – understands all too well how Christians can become aligned with political groups. The Lebanese writer Sami Khalife wrote last week in the French-language newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour – the francophone voice of Lebanon’s Christians – that a loss of moral authority had turned churches in his country into “political actors” which were beginning to sound like political parties. An open letter to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, warning him to try to turn Lebanon into a “front line” against Israel, was signed by 250 Lebanese. Most of them were from the minority Christian community.

Nor can the church ignore Saudi Arabia, where Christianity is banned as a religion just as much as the building of churches. Christians cannot visit the Islamic holy cities of Mecca or Medina – the doors of the Vatican and Canterbury Cathedral are at least open to Muslims – and 12 Filipinos and a priest were arrested in Saudi Arabia only this month for “proselytism” for holding a secret mass. There is, perhaps, a certain irony in the fact that the only balance to Christian emigration has been the arrival in the Middle East of perhaps a quarter of a million Christian Filipino guest workers – especially in the Gulf region – while Patriarch Twal reckons that around 40,000 of them now work and live in Israel and “Palestine”.

Needless to say, it is violence against Christians that occupies the West, a phenomenon nowhere better, or more bloodily, illustrated than by al-Qa’ida’s kidnapping of Archbishop Faraj Rahho in Mosul – an incident recorded in the US military archives revealed on Saturday – and his subsequent murder. When the Iraqi authorities later passed death sentences on two men for the killing, the church asked for them to be reprieved. In Egypt, there has been a gloomy increase in Christian-Muslim violence, especially in ancient villages in the far south of the country; in Cairo, Christian churches are now cordoned off by day-and-night police checkpoints.

And while Western Christians routinely deplore the falling Christian populations of the Middle East, their visits to the region tend to concentrate on pilgrimages to Biblical sites rather than meetings with their Christian opposite numbers.

Americans, so obsessed by the myths of East-West “clashes of civilisation” since 11 September 2001, often seem to regard Christianity as a “Western” rather than an Eastern religion, neatly separating the Middle East roots of their own religion from the lands of Islam. That in itself is a loss of faith.

Lebanon: Blair’s other Middle East mistake

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian, 9th September 2010

A Journey presents Blair’s actions during the 2006 Lebanon war as those of a committed ideologue, not simply Bush’s poodle

When Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was released last week, columnists and reviewers focused on his fairly unrevealing comments about the Iraq war. Less widely reported is Blair’s account of his other major misjudgment in the Middle East: his stubborn refusal to call for a ceasefire during the 2006 Lebanon war.

The conflict, fought for a month between the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah, was estimated to have cost the lives of 1,191 Lebanese citizens and 159 Israelis (including 43 civilians). As the Shia militia fired rockets at Israeli cities and the IDF responded with massive bombings in Lebanon, Blair was urged by a huge swell of public opinion, the media, his cabinet and foreign policy advisers to join European leaders in calling for an immediate unconditional ceasefire.

Yet the prime minister stubbornly defied this advice and endorsed the Bush administration’s approach of foot-dragging on a UN ceasefire, allegedly to allow Israel more time to “knock out” Hezbollah.

Previous biographies, such as Anthony Seldon’s excellent Blair Unbound, suggested Blair told aides that his attitude in summer 2006 was to retain “leverage” with both the US and Israel, fearing that to openly criticise them would lose him clout. Indeed, this was a reason often given for sticking with Bush in Iraq: to earn the right to guide and influence. Yet his memoir reveals no such pragmatic concerns, misguided as they proved to be. Instead, Blair declares a deep ideological motivation for opposing a ceasefire. He states: “If I had condemned Israel, it would have been more than dishonest; it would have undermined the world view I had come to hold passionately.”

It is this world view that is most alarming about Blair’s account. Through this lens, Blair believed: “Lebanon was embroiled in something far bigger and more portentous than a temporary fight with Israel.” Instead, he sees it as a “wider struggle between the strain of religious extremism in Islam and the rest of us”. He was thus willing to delay a ceasefire in order to win victory in this wider struggle, of which he saw Hezbollah as a key combatant, and Israel as one of “us”.

From Blair’s perspective this religious struggle defines the Middle East. He states: “To me, you can’t understand Hezbollah unless you understand the role of Iran; or understand Lebanon unless you understand Syria … or understand either country in its present state unless you understand the history not just of the region but of the religion, how it saw itself, how it had developed its own narrative, how it saw its own predicament.”

This includes a remarkable simplification of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he claims “is used as a potent source of friction and war because of religious difference”. The impact of other significant forces, notably nationalism and imperialism, are conveniently sidelined.

Blair hints that the civilians caught up in this struggle are regrettably expendable. Echoing Condoleezza Rice’s own distasteful remarks that the 2006 violence was the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”, Blair remarks that “just because we were shocked by the TV footage of the consequences of war, this could not blind us to the consequences of peace on the wrong terms”.

Yet his peace on the “right” terms seemed to include a form of collective punishment of the Lebanese. He articulates: “They [Hezbollah] had to understand that if they tried doing it again, there was a price to be paid that the people of Lebanon would not allow them to pay, at least not with the lives of their civilians.”

One wonders if Blair would have been willing to expend the lives of a thousand Israeli, or even British, civilians in order to make Hezbollah understand.

The use of force to achieve his goals is a further strand of his world view. He states: “The solution to me lay in neither the sole use of hard power nor the sole use of soft power but in the combination of the two.” Moreover, he was willing to overrule all advice and his public to achieve this. He remarks: “It wasn’t that I didn’t get public opinion on Lebanon, nor that I couldn’t have articulated it. My difficulty was that I didn’t agree with it.”

Yet there was a high cost to this ideological stubbornness. Blair’s book dwells on the domestic consequence of his actions, claiming they led to his departure from office, but the costs to Lebanon and the Middle East in general were far greater. When Hezbollah was still standing after the war it claimed a “divine victory” boosting its power and influence. At the same time, the Lebanese government that had come to power trying to reorientate Beirut into a more western orbit was hugely undermined, as its supposed new allies seemed powerless to defend its infrastructure and civilians from Israeli attacks. This caused more internal strife before a Syrian-Saudi-backed stability emerged in 2008.

The reverse of what Blair intended had occurred: Hezbollah and its allies were boosted, Israel was demoralised, the US and Britain were further discredited in Arab eyes, and an excessive number of civilians had died in the pursuit of an unobtainable ideological goal.

A Journey thus presents Blair’s actions in summer 2006 as those of a committed ideologue, not simply Bush’s poodle as previously charged. Blair seems driven by a world view that, though not explicitly neoconservative, certainly has similarities. He sees the Middle East through a largely religious lens, frames its complex conflicts though a simplified struggle between radical and moderate Islam and is willing to use force and sacrifice lives to achieve its aims, irrespective of public and expert opinion.

However, what is most alarming about this is not necessarily the ideology behind the misjudgment in Lebanon four years ago. It is that Blair retains this misguided zeal today and somehow expects to use it to deliver the “right peace” between Israelis and Palestinians in his role as quartet envoy.