UN peace envoy Kofi Annan is attempting to secure international agreement on a transition plan for Syria ahead of talks in Geneva tomorrow. The conflict has escalated sharply in recent months, causing a significant increase in the number of Syrians who are internally displaced or have fled the country. With a political settlement currently unlikely, the country is heading towards an extended civil conflict. The number of Syrians leaving their homes is set to grow as rebel fighters establish operations in Damascus and other major urban centres. This has serious implications for regional security and raises the prospect of a new refugee crisis in the Middle East.
- International aid organisations will need to plan for a large-scale humanitarian crisis in Syria and regional countries.
- Lebanon and Jordan's already fragile economies will be further destabilised as refugees put further pressure on prices and resources.
- The risk of a regional war involving Lebanon, and possibly Turkey and Jordan, will increase.
Full-blown civil war and sectarian violence will worsen already alarming levels of displacement, causing a humanitarian crisis that regional countries and the international community are woefully ill-prepared for. The presence of increasing numbers of anti-Assad refugees in neighbouring countries also raises the likelihood of the conflict spilling over.
In the first few months of the uprising, refugees were small in number and mainly consisted of relatives of protesters and defecting soldiers. They were soon accompanied by ordinary citizens, largely from Idlib and Homs, as they fled the regime's indiscriminate shelling of opposition areas. The violence has escalated rapidly since last February, with heightening sectarian tensions culminating in the massacres that took place in al-Houla last month. Few Syrians now remain unaffected by the conflict.
Estimates of internal displacement vary greatly, with humanitarian organisations putting the number at anything between 300,000 and one million. Most are fleeing from the areas hardest hit by the violence (Dera'a, Homs, Deir al-Zour and Idlib). They are believed to be seeking refuge in less restive areas such as Damascus and Aleppo, but many end up in areas similarly affected by the conflict.
Earlier this month the Syrian authorities promised humanitarian access to international organizations including the UN, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Working through its Syrian counterpart, the ICRC has had unique access to many conflict areas. The WFP has distributed food parcels reaching over 250,000 Syrians and plans to step up its handouts significantly.
However, entire towns and cities lack basic medical services in what amounts to a regime-imposed siege. The scale of human suffering is likely to surpass aid agencies' current capacities and the regime's readiness to grant access. Urgent needs include:
- heating fuel, blankets and stoves;
- medical assistance;
- food parcels; and
Housing is becoming particularly scarce. Relatives and individuals have so far provided most of the accommodation, but the growing number of displaced persons is beginning to exceed their capacity. Significantly, housing prices in areas of refuge have shot up. Due to loss of employment and the modest financial means available to most of the displaced, they may soon become unable to cope.
Neighbouring countries have seen a rapidly growing influx of Syrian refugees, currently approaching 100,000. Over 33,000 have been registered in Turkey, with many hosted in large camps on the border. Jordan and Lebanon have also seen large influxes, with 27,344 and 24,024 registering in each country respectively. However, Jordanian officials claim the real number in Jordan approaches 122,000.
Refugees are living in hardship, with thousands seeking shelter in refugee camps in Turkey. Government-sponsored camps in Jordan, northern Lebanon and northern Iraq have a far less adequate provision of services. High costs of basic consumer items and medical treatment in these countries exceed the means of most refugees. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and WFP have stepped in, while in Jordan and Lebanon non-governmental organizations such as Caritas and the Medical Corps have initiated small-scale projects.
However, a funding shortfall means that many refugees lack assistance. In the wake of the 2006 Iraqi refugee crisis, donor fatigue is palpable while the region's host countries are reluctant to once again bear the brunt of next door's armed conflicts. Host countries and international aid agencies will struggle to meet resulting humanitarian needs.
More generally, the influx is likely to cause resentment among locals, especially in Jordan, as their labour implies stiff market competition for locals and contributes to the depletion of already scarce resources such as water.
Their presence is also likely to invite intense cross-border reprisals by the Syrian regime or its allies. Opposition activists, defecting soldiers and members of armed anti-regime groups have mixed with ordinary refugees, and seem determined to continue their activities from their places of refuge with the partial consent of host governments (Turkey), without it (Jordan), or by taking advantage of weak government control (Lebanon).
Arms supplies to rebels inside Syria -- announced by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and reportedly facilitated by the United States -- are channelled into Syria with the help of refugee networks. Government troops have already clashed repeatedly with activists in cross-border raids into northern Lebanon and, albeit to a lesser extent, Turkey.
Regional war risk
This activity risks embroiling entire refugee populations and their hosts into a regionalised armed conflict:
Lebanon is particularly at risk. If the Assad regime feels its survival is in imminent danger, it is likely to draw on its many support groups in Lebanon to draw neighbouring countries into its downfall. Sharp divisions on what position to take on the uprising have already caused longstanding disputes to flare up between Lebanese supporters and opponents of the regime, while armed clashes involving Syrian opposition gunmen have been reported in Tripoli, Dinniyeh and Akkar.
The Jordanian government has been anxiously discouraging Syrian refugees from engaging in cross-border activities, even placing some under house arrest. Its security forces and intelligence service appear to be in full control. However, a domestic outcry over atrocities in Syria may pressure the authorities to ease their restrictions.
Turkey has reinforced its border with Syria and ordered the military to deal with any Syrian military elements approaching the frontier as a target. Ankara is keen to avoid any kind of military intervention in Syria, but could be forced to respond if the Syrian regime launches a major cross-border attack. Such a scenario would likely involve fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which the Assad regime would use to retaliate against Turkey and to keep Syrian Kurdish anti-regime forces in check.
- Oxford Analytica
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