The plight of Syrian refugees and the disintegration of Lebanon

Syrian refugees have found temporary safety in Kafar Kahel informal settlement

LEBANON, December 1, 2014 —There are now more than 3 million officially registered Syrian refugees spread across the Middle East. Half of Syria’s population of 20 million has fled its homes or is internally displaced; that is almost double the population of the state of Maryland. Cornered between Assad loyalists, the rebel armies, the al-Nusra front and the growing Islamic State presence in Syria, and largely abandoned by the West, the only option left for millions has been to quit the country and head for safety in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The heartbreaking human dimension of the “Syraq” war (Syria/Iraq deserve their own neologism) simply cannot be captured by bland statistics. But the worrying spillover effects in the region can.

The Turkish government has largely welcomed Syrians on the run, setting up camps on its border from the civil war’s early stages back in 2011. Over time, the diaspora has grown to 1.6 million putting a significant strain on Ankara’s resources. Moreover, as the clashes inside the Aleppo region have intensified in recent months, the Turkish Foreign Minister fears that the number of refugees could easily triple if the city falls. He also requested more help from the international community to tackle the challenge.

Meanwhile, the fate of Syrians in Jordan is more fragile. According to reports published by Human Rights Watch, the country, which currently hosts 619,000 refugees, has started deporting “vulnerable Syrian refugees,” including wounded men and unaccompanied children. Due to the considerable financial burden posed by the influx of Syrians, Jordan is no longer able to receive refugees, severely limiting the access into the country in recent months. “Foreign aid to Jordan and to the U.N. refugee agency reached only 29 percent of what is needed this year, and the rest of burden will fall onto our shoulders,” King Abdullah II was quoted saying in the New York Times. He, too, called for more help.

Nevertheless, both situations pale in comparison to the disastrous backlash the unstoppable flow of refugees has had on Lebanon. The weight of the 1.1 million Syrians has pushed the frail Middle Eastern country to the brink of civil war. Refugees have repeatedly been attacked in scenes of mob violence, burning of camps and lethal Lebanese-Syrian attacks. For the first time in its history, the ethnic puzzle that is Lebanon has a firm majority – Sunnis, of which more than half are Syrian. And the significance of this is hard to understate, as the Syraq war is on the verge of drawing yet another country into the fold, as militants have started clashing with each other in Lebanon as well.

Lebanon had long been touted as a shining example of multicultural policies that should serve as a model for others. A functioning and prosperous state made out of an ethnical pell-mell of Sunnis, Shias and Christians is quite a feat. But with no end in sight for the Syrian war, and with many combatants crossing the border to strengthen either the ranks of Assad loyalists or those of the multiple rebel factions, the internal balance of Lebanon has come under heavy strain.

The bottom line is that as long as the Syrian civil war wages on, the entire region will sink deeper and deeper into a quagmire that would be impossible to reverse. But the West has a new plan to stop the demographic hemorrhaging of Syria.

Assad can stay…for now

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, announced earlier this month a new initiative that has gathered the support of the international community. Reversing the previous trend, set under the framework of the Geneva conferences, de Mistura indirectly acknowledged that forcing Assad to step down and installing a transitional government is no longer possible. Instead, he argued that “the solution in the short term is not a transitional phase or a political quota but a freeze to the war and admitting that Syria has become decentralized,” meaning that the relative power of the rebels has grown too great for Assad to “turn back the clock”.

What this means is that short of a massive boots on the ground operation, negotiations are the only way to stop the growing influx of refugees and reverse the growing spiral of violence. The U.S. will need the help of its regional Arab partners to bring the rebels to the negotiating table if any meaningful progress is to be achieved. Fortunately, thanks to a series of cunning diplomatic moves, Qatar arguably holds now the enviable position of main intermediary between the West and the rebels.

Qatar and international mediation

Shortly after the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Doha closed down the regime’s embassy in favor of a new opposition-staffed villa. Since then, it has pumped more than $117 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians ravaged by the conflict and has launched several partnerships with the Turkish authorities to enhance the living conditions of refugees. The Emirate has a long track record of brokering peace agreements in the region, including solving an 18-month long political crisis in Lebanon in 2008, or a delicate mediation process with Taliban that led to the release of U.S. sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. With this network of contacts in place and with its feet firmly placed in the Western alliance against ISIL, Qatar is indispensable to the West in the solving of the Syrian civil war.

After years of political dithering, there is no easy way out. But as the tidal wave of refugees shows, the conflict has an escalatory potential in the region that must not be ignored. Lebanon is teetering on the edge, Turkey’s resources are strained and ISIL is growing. If there is a diplomatic opportunity, even if suboptimal, now would be a good time for the West to take it.

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