Rising Syrian refugee outflow could incite sectarian violence across Middle East
BAALBEK, Lebanon — Lebanese soldiers saturated this city north of Damascus last month, posting armored vehicles at checkpoints after a firefight between Hezbollah gunmen and Sunnis killed four people.
Lebanon’s show of force appeared intended to convey, in part, that Syria’s war, in which Shiite Hezbollah fighters support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces battling Sunni-led rebels, wasn’t spilling across the border.
Yet humanitarian workers say the rising outflow of Syrian refugees – so far more than 2 million, a number expected to double next year – may incite sectarian violence across the entire region.
Already, host countries including Lebanon and Jordan are becoming overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of refugees who tip delicate political balances, consume resources, crowd schools and raise rents, provoking resentment. In Lebanon, one in five people is a Syrian refugee.
“The longer the humanitarian crisis goes on, and if it grows, it has the potential to blow up in terms of meeting immediate needs” of refugees, said Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive officer of Portland-based Mercy Corps. “Everyone’s greatest fear is that it will accelerate those tensions and risk igniting a wider conflict.”
Mercy Corps is mounting one of its biggest-ever operations, supplying water for tens of thousands, winterizing shelters, providing clothes and mattresses and helping children cope with trauma. Tigard-based Medical Teams International is sending doctors, nurses and other medical volunteers. World Vision, of Federal Way, Wash., is distributing food vouchers, heaters and blankets and getting children into schools.
As the civil war reaches a stalemate, with the government and insurgents each holding half of Syria, Oxfam and other relief organizations are calling for a cease-fire and a halt to arms supplies. Russia and the United States are promoting peace talks in Geneva next month on the war that has killed more than 100,000 since starting in the spring of 2011.
But some members of the fractured opposition forces refuse to participate, and Assad refuses to consider a scenario in which he would step down.
“The reality on the ground in Syria is that the crisis remains out of control,” said an Oxfam report released Monday. “With the conflict continuing to intensify … fueled by supplies of arms and ammunition from abroad, there remains the real possibility of violence consuming the region.”
In some respects, the conflict already has widened. There have been bombings and cross-border clashes in Turkey, links between armed opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, Iranian troops fighting alongside Assad’s forces and Israeli air strikes in Syria.
Lebanon vulnerable to violence
If violence did spread, Lebanon, with more than 750,000 refugees, would be a likely flashpoint. The tiny Mediterranean country, still healing from its own civil war, has a population made up of all the sectarian groups involved in the Syrian conflict. It has a history in which wider Middle East issues play out on its soil. Its transitional government is weak, and Hezbollah is more powerful than Lebanon’s Army.
The World Bank predicts unemployment in Lebanon will double next year to 20 percent as refugees flood the labor market. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, appealing for more aid, argues for U.N.-protected refugee camps inside Syria.
Lebanon has adopted a markedly different strategy than Jordan and other countries. Instead of building refugee camps, such as the giant Zaatari settlement that holds as many as 130,000 in Jordan, Lebanon has left Syrians largely to fend for themselves. Many end up in homemade tent villages on the corners of farmers’ fields or renting space in garages, attics or unfinished buildings.
The idea is to make the refugees’ presence seem less permanent. But it also complicates work for aid organizations, which have a harder time reaching dispersed populations. That’s a problem as winter advances, with cold and snow, and as seasonal agricultural and construction jobs dry up.
“Winter is going to be awful,” in both Lebanon and Jordan, said Kate Washington, a CARE refugee response coordinator in Amman. “It’s actually very cold here in winter. And Syrians are living in the cheapest accommodations, often unheated, unventilated and damp.” In many cases, family savings are running out, leading to evictions.
In response, the United Nations has launched its largest-ever humanitarian appeal, for $5 billion, in part to shore up support for countries receiving refugees. But the appeal is only 51 percent funded.
In its report, Oxfam praised Kuwait, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom for generosity. It singled out countries that could give much more, such as Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Aid organizations are also having trouble raising private donations.
“This is the global crisis that nobody wants to give to or hear about,” said Rich Stearns, president of World Vision. “This is six times as big as the Haiti earthquake in terms of displacement of people, and our efforts to raise private donations for this have been really disappointing.”
Natural disasters tend to appeal more to donors than politically generated crises, especially one as complex and confusing as Syria. Stearns says U.S. donors are fatigued after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There’s a general sense in America that Muslims in the Middle East don’t like us,” Stearns said. “And when you have a sense that people don’t like you, you tend to be less compassionate.”
Mercy Corps has raised $1.2 million in private funds for the Syrian refugee crisis. That compares to more than $20 million for Haiti, more than $15 million for Japan’s earthquake response and $8 million for the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.
Some international humanitarian organizations including World Vision are distributing aid inside Syria, but few managers will talk about their operations for fear of endangering relief workers. Oxfam, for example, aims to reach 250,000 Syrians by March in both rebel-held and government-controlled areas. The organization is working with the Syrian government in Damascus to repair damaged water systems and to distribute water where pipelines cannot be fixed.
“The politics of working inside Syria are very complex,” said Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy advisor for Oxfam America. “We told them we’re impartial but not neutral. We call out human rights violations wherever we see them.”
Reports of torture
Violations abound in this particularly nasty war.
In Mafraq, Jordan, a 35-year-old clothing salesman from Homs, Syria, described being apprehended last year as a suspected opposition member. “I was on my way into a grocery store and a police officer shot me in the knee and elbow,” said Marwan, whose last name is being withheld to protect him from retribution.
Officers hung him daily from the ceiling by his wrists, beat him with sticks and tried for a month and a half to get him to confess to fighting for the opposition, he said. He was blindfolded and transferred to Damascus, where he spent nights in a 3-foot-square cell for more than three months with four other prisoners.
Again, he said, torturers hung him by his wrists, overnight every third day. A judge finally released him, but gave him no documentation proving his innocence. He and his wife fled to Jordan.
“We used to live in harmony in Syria,” Marwan said. “I lived in a community with people from different religious origins. Christians, Alawites, Druzes, Sunnis. Suddenly because Bashar wanted to force his authority, everyone is not one family anymore and everybody is fighting everybody.”
That’s an apt description of the military situation inside Syria. Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says rebel factions are fighting one another as a thousand militias merge into a few big coalitions.
Two main alliances emerged in September, Landis said: the Islamic Alliance, in the north around Aleppo, and the Army of Islam, in the south including Damascus suburbs. “They’re both quite Salafist,” he said. “They want sharia law. The southern one carries the black flag of jihad, not the Syrian flag. They’ve denounced the American-backed Syrian National Coalition, so effectively the U.S.-backed coalition is being pushed out as the power on the ground.”
Syria breaking in two
Landis sees Syria moving toward a de facto partition, with Assad controlling the west of the country and the south, including three of the country’s four biggest cities.
The rebels control the north and the east, and the Kurds hold a small zone in the northeast. Militias try to grab oil wells or border crossings, which generate fees. As many as 10,000 foreign jihadists have joined the fight, Landis said.
“The liberated areas are living a very Hobbesian world of militia infighting, growing criminality and kidnapping, with state services not provided in any way, so life has become very desperate,” Landis said. “The militias realize they’ve got to get wheat to the bakeries and provide food, water, electricity and schools as well as defense, so there’s a mad scramble to do that.”
But farming is declining as fertilizer and financing dry up and diesel prices soar. Therefore Landis expects the next wave of refugees will be primarily economic migrants. “They just can’t feed themselves,” he said.
The United Nations expects another 2 million Syrians to become refugees in 2014. Another 2.25 million could be displaced within the country. The speed of the exodus is the highest since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The U.N. is building a second giant refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, called Al Azraq, that could accommodate 130,000. Yet at the same time, Jordan appears to be limiting the flow of refugees crossing its border to about 300 a day.
Given the outlook, relief agencies are launching longer-term programs, realizing that refugees won’t return to Syria for years, perhaps. Mercy Corps and World Vision, for example, work on water-supply projects, upgrading systems that benefit both refugees and host communities as a way of diminishing tensions.
Oxfam’s Gottschalk sees needs in Lebanon for road construction, health centers and support for crowded schools. He points out that many refugees bring skills and resources that can contribute to a host country’s economy, as Iraqis did upon fleeing to Jordan after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
“We’ve got to shift our thinking from just a pure humanitarian response to a longer-term approach,” said Keny-Guyer, of Mercy Corps. His organization looks for opportunities to run programs that involve more than one religious or ethnic group, so people can collaborate and envision a common future.
Keny-Guyer wants to offer job-training programs and perhaps some job creation, if that can be done without antagonizing host communities. “It’s equipping the population that’s impacted so that when they go home, or wherever they end up, they’re more resilient and they’ve got greater chances.”