Two million refugees from Syria. The figure was announced last week and easily missed amid headlines about the Tomahawks that would or would not be fired at targets dear to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Refugees are less dramatic than cruise missiles, less dramatic even than wrangling about a Security Council resolution on Syria's poison-gas arsenal.
Yet the exodus from the civil war-torn country represents a humanitarian crisis no less stark, a moral demand no less pressing, than the use of chemical weapons. It is a crisis which has policy responses that do not involve bombs, that do not require a debate about America and Europe re-entering the Middle East's wars. They do, however, demand spending money and a willingness to take in refugees on a new and much larger scale. In the end, these costs pale in comparison to the costs of war.
Two million refugees, in truth, is a careful understatement. It's the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), or whom the UNHCR has counted as "awaiting registration." The agency only uses the term refugee for people who left their country. It acknowledges its tally may be low. For instance, UNHCR lists 730,00 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese government's estimate is 1 million. And then, to the refugee figures, add 4.25 million Syrians described by the United Nations as "displaced"—people who have fled their homes but are still inside Syria. Let's make this simpler: Think of a country, your own country perhaps, and then think about more than a quarter of its people uprooted by civil war to another town or another country.
Uprooted, or expelled? News reports from Syria regularly refer to sectarian cleansing: the regime forcing Sunnis from the land that it still holds or rebels expelling Alawites and Christians from territory they have taken. Those reports need to be read with care. "Most of the fighting is sectarian," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. But if rebels control a neighborhood and the regime "bombs the hell out of it, and a lot of [people] leave," that's an attempt to crush the rebellion, not necessarily deliberate ethnic cleansing. The same is true when rebels conquer Alawite enclaves in majority-Sunni areas: The goal is military, the effect may be flight. The large picture, in Salem's evaluation, is that "neither the rebels nor the regime" is trying to create ethnically pure areas."
But even without a deliberate strategy, the pattern is gradual separation on sectarian lines. A consequence is that even if the war were to end today, a large number of Syrians would not be able to return to where they once lived.Refugees in neighboring countries might be repatriated to Syria. But that would not mean returning to their pre-war neighborhoods or towns. The social fabric of some mixed areas has been ripped apart; stitching it together would be more difficult than physical rebuilding.
And the war is not miraculously ending today. The Assessment Capacities Project in Geneva, which helps aid organizations make strategic plans for their work, says that the least likely development for the coming months is negotiations between the government and opposition groups. The most likely scenario is ongoing conflict, "with increased political and military fragmentation," with farms producing less food, and with whatever is left of the rest of the economy shrinking. This means more people leaving their homes and more people looking for refuge beyond Syria's borders.
Of Syria's neighbors, the one most overflowing with refugees is Lebanon. Even before the war, there were several hundred-thousand Syrian guest workers in the country. Now, the number of Syrians in Lebanon may be a third the number of Lebanese. Unlike Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon hasn't set up camps—partly, says Salem, because pro-Syrian elements in the government "didn't want to admit that civilians were streaming out" of Syria. And partly, he says, Lebanon feared a repeat of what happened with the Palestinian refugee camps created in 1948: "You set up a camp and it gets guns," becoming an armed enclave. Instead, Syrians have moved into cities and towns, have rented apartments, or are housed in schools and empty buildings.
So far, Lebanon hasn't collapsed under the weight of its new residents. Some middle- and upper-class Syrians have arrived with money and are "renting apartments and buying cars and putting their kids in school," says Elias Muhanna, a Brown University professor and commentator on Middle East politics. But "when you walk around Beirut and elsewhere, there's a lot more evidence of poverty, people begging on the streets, a lot of young men milling around who are looking for work." At the low end of the economy, wages are dropping. There are not enough schools; the country's electric grid and water system are strained. Hanging over it all is the inevitable anxiety that refugees—most assumed to be Sunni—could mobilize politically and then militarily, pulling Lebanon itself back into civil war.
Meanwhile, says Muhanna, most Lebanese assume that the war will end and refugees will go home. There hasn't been "a national conversation," he says, about the possibility that some will have nowhere to return to. Yet that's a necessary conversation, internationally as well as in Lebanon.
In June, the UNHCR appealed for $4.4 billion from donors for pressing needs; at last report, it had raised just 40 percent of that. The costs of a massive economic-development plan for Syria's neighbors would be higher. In the United Nation's 343-page list of emergency measures needed this year—from providing food to preventing sexual violence—resettlement of refugees in Western countries plays a small part. That's realistic, in that neither the United States nor other Western countries will easily volunteer to take in hundreds of thousands of people. It's woefully unrealistic if the goal is to prevent the collapse of other Middle Eastern states and the spread of Syria's chaos.
None of this will make much difference to those Americans who see America's interests and moral obligations as stopping at the shore. Those with a more progressive view of the world could pause in the debate about military invention in Syria. If you oppose the use of arms, surely providing aid and refugee visas on a new scale are a necessary alternative. If you support the use of force, surely much larger humanitarian intervention must complement it.
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