As the US Government debates missile strikes and how best to enforce international law, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there is a humanitarian crisis on the other side of Syria’s borders. Over the past two and half years of atrocious civil war, many Syrian citizens have been unfairly displaced into their country’s Arab neighbors, namely Jordan and Lebanon. The humanitarian abnormalities occurring in these destitute camps are under-reported, highly unusual, but sadly unsurprising. BPR Editor Lauren Sukin’s article delves into these deplorable conditions deeply. This article will instead focus on the events and institutions that have put the Syrian refugees in this position in the first place.
Before the civil war, no one would have ever imagined the words “Syrian” and “refugee” could be placed in the same sentence. In the past, Syria was always known in the Arab world for its political stability, economic normalcy, and peaceful autonomy. But almost overnight the way of life for millions of people transformed from relative peace and quiet, to a treacherous nightmare with no way out. More than two years ago, the Syrian people were fighting for an end to autocratic rule. Now they are fighting for survival.
As refugees in Lebanon, a country with limited resources for its own poverty stricken citizens, living conditions are at best classified as third world. Families are forced to survive on limited UN and NGO aid packages. They are subjugated to shoddy electricity, which is poorly supplied by Electricite du Liban, a cash strapped state owned electricity monopoly. Hospitals are only open to people that come in with money in hand. Hard currency is increasingly becoming difficult to come by, because steady work is unavailable; a life without tangible currency is nearly impossible in a country with almost no social safety net.
However, such conditions are not new to Lebanon. It’s own lower class citizens have been chained to even worse circumstances for years. The same levels of poverty, the same lack of basic human goods and services, and the same blind eye from the government are known all too well by those that cannot afford the luxuries of the “Paris of the Middle East”. Lebanese sectarian politics has allowed this rampant, yet ignored, poverty to flourish. After the end of the vicious Lebanese civil war – one that was, ironically, ended in part due to former president Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad’s father – Lebanon was seemingly at peace. That is to say foreign powers played a balancing act with the various sectarian groups in Lebanon, namely the Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians. However, the system put in place rests on how well the leaders of these sects want to play well with each other. Even while some claim that these elites represent the true interests of the populace, such politics has only caused painful heartache for most Lebanese citizens. These deep-seated sectarian divisions explain how the Lebanese have been so entirely involved in this conflict, without officially being players in this struggle. They are the politics that have created states within a state; states that have taken sides in the Syrian civil war, where their support is the cause of death on both sides.
Important to remember is that currently it is the Shiite lead coalition that is openly aiding Assad in his battle to maintain his power. Only some twenty odd years ago it was the father Assad that was fighting the same Shiite forces for dominance of the region. This highlights the brutal realpolitik underlying this conflict. Trying to twist this war into a simple religious feud is a fool’s errand. Such a reality only makes the suffering of the Syrian refugees even more dreadful, as they increasingly begin to see this war as one between those on the top of the political pyramid. The days of grassroots organization of the FSA are long gone. The people of Syria seem to have become disposable pawns of the awful Middle East chessboard.
And with the continuation of the war, the competing poles of the Lebanese elite have ensured that Syrian refugees have inherited the poverty usually reserved to Lebanon’s lower classes. People who before the civil war had homes, had jobs, and enjoyed a standard of living that was considered reasonable are now festering in disease-ridden tents. The greatest testament to this fact is that some refugees refuse to accept UN handouts because they “do not want to feel like beggars,” a very human phenomenon that could only be imagined by those who have lived their whole lives comfortably and independently. Their lives were ripped out by the roots and then implanted into the unforgiving soil of Lebanese camps. For even the most politically idealistic Syrian refugee right now, it is fair to say that the worst form of tyranny is not the lack of self rule, but rather the lack of self-sustenance.
Today the world is watching the United States to see how they will punish Assad for his supposed use of chemical weapons. The Obama administration is showing a level a hesitance in the face of popular war-weariness, an uncooperative Congress and a competing, supposedly peaceful plan offered by Vladimir Putin. But beyond the relatively esoteric concern of enforcing international law in civil war where neither side is ‘the good guy’, the real question is: how should the international community focus on the horrendous refugee crisis that’s affecting innocent civilians?
Professor Beshara Doumani of Middle East Studies here at Brown University states that the war is not “going anywhere anytime soon.” That means the refugees will not be going anywhere either – and we have to deal with that situation. Military action in this case would not be helpful. The most effective, albeit highly expensive, solution is to simply accommodate the refugees with supplies and goods, mainly: non-perishables, medical supplies, and tents. Additionally, the Lebanese army should be better trained and supplied to protect and control the Syrian refugees. The country’s weak internal police force isn’t capable of handling a humanitarian crisis of this scale. In this way the Syrian refugees can at least live decently, without over-straining Lebanese resources, and without inflaming continuous sectarian tensions that already exist in the region. Many Lebanese politicians argue that this will incentivize the refugees to stay in the country indefinitely. Part of this paranoia is likely due to the current refugee situation of the various Palestinian groups still in the country since the days of the PLO. But the Syrian crisis and the Israeli/Palestinian one are different, and the concern that refugees will stay in a foreign tent-city because they can get basic medical care, even as they are refusing some emergency rations out of pride, seems unfounded.
It is fair to say that the Syrian people have been suffering because the world has made Syria into a battle zone. Assad, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the Americans, the Russians, the Al Nusra Front, the Turks – there are numerous outside groups that aren’t sincerely trying to end the war. Instead, they are feeding into this oppressive system. The Syrian people are engaged in a war of which they have little say in its outcome. The depressing irony is palpable in the refugee camps filled with innocent civilians thrown out of a country doomed to perpetual war, and into a country that is fueling the conflict. As the life of the Lebanese poor becomes the lot of many of those used to the peace and security of pre-war Syria, it seems that those who lost the most in this struggle, are also those who have gained the least.