Syria in Fragments: The Politics of the Refugee Crisis

Syria in Fragments: The Politics of the Refugee Crisis

The military conflict inside Syria and the political negotiations between the government, rebels, and their respective allies are often treated as separate issues, with the refugee crisis merely a tragic outcome of the crisis inside the country. But the refugee flight, the experience of displacement, and the long-term solutions to the crisis are likely to redraw the region’s political map.

Za'atari camp, November 2013 (DFID / Flickr)

Throughout 2013 António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, seemed to be running out of ways to sound the alarm and describe the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. “Syria as a civilization is unraveling,” he declared in early June. Later that month he stated that it was the worst catastrophe since the end of the Cold War. The numbers bear out his claims. By the end of 2013 there were over 2 million registered refugees, several million others internally displaced, and estimates of 10 million in desperate need of food and shelter, out of a total population of around 23 million. An estimated 100,000 have been killed by the fighting and many more wounded and disappeared. As many or more Syrians are dying of chronic diseases due to their inability to access medicine and treatment amid the devastation of the country’s economic and health infrastructure. This prompted the UN to declare Syria a Level 3 emergency, the highest level emergency in the UN system and a top priority for funding and personnel.

The military conflict inside Syria and the political negotiations between the government, rebels, and their respective allies are often treated as separate issues, with the refugee crisis merely a tragic outcome of the crisis inside the country. However, the refugee population is not separate from the questions of politics. The refugee flight, the experience of displacement, and the long-term solutions to the crisis are likely to redraw the region’s political map.


For many outsiders, the Shatila refugee camp is linked to a single incident: the infamous massacre that took place in September 1982. Along with Sabra, Shatila camp was set up in the southern suburbs of Beirut to house Palestinians fleeing the 1948 Nakba. For its inhabitants, Shatila is their neighborhood. It certainly looks much more like a large city slum than a refugee camp. My first visit to Shatila was in mid-September 2013. Regular construction stood side by side with unpaved roads, semi-built and unfinished structures, makeshift houses, and crowded markets and streets. The vegetable and fruit market at the front of Shatila is always bustling with activity. Large banners with slogans and portraits of different political leaders reveal another side of the camp: the presence of many political and militant Lebanese and Palestinian organizations.

In Shatila I met with newly displaced Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) who felt like they survived a second Nakba: the destruction of Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, the only home they had ever known. Though not an official Palestinian camp, Yarmouk was a large Damascus neighborhood and held the highest number of Palestinians in Syria, around 150,000 of the 500,000 registered Palestinian refugees. By September 2013 the number of people remaining was down to 20,000, and they were under siege and literally starving to death.

Within the overall Syrian tragedy, theirs contains another layer of sorrow and misery. Unlike those fleeing the original Nakba, the newly displaced Palestinians find little sympathy and solidarity. Though a large number of PRS are coming to Lebanon, they are dwarfed by the number of incoming Syrians. Some villages have more Syrians than Lebanese, and tensions between refugees and host communities are high. Lebanon’s economy was already marked by high levels of poverty and inequality, especially inequality among regions. Syrian refugees are in over 1,400 sites all over Lebanon, with many of them settling in the country’s destitute north around Tripoli and Bakkar and the northern Bekaa valley. Many of those communities initially welcomed the refugees with open arms and solidarity, but as the days passed, the realization set in that the newcomers would be staying for a very long time, and tens of thousands continued to pour in. The refugees are in areas that already lack adequate health care, water, and electricity, and the overall infrastructure cannot sustain the visitors indefinitely.

The refugee flight, the experience of displacement, and the long-term solutions to the crisis are likely to redraw the region’s political map.

According to a World Bank report on the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, last year average daily electricity availability went down by two hours and solid waste went up by 40 percent due to the demand caused by the influx of refugees. The UN response plan for 2014 prioritizes economic and human development rather than humanitarianism, for two reasons. First, there is an educational crisis among Syrian children threatening to produce a “lost generation” unless massive solutions for educating them are found. More broadly, humanitarian spending is unsustainable and investing in community development so as to reduce permanent aid dependency is a must. Second, the only way to reduce host community–refugee tensions is by acknowledging that both the locals and the visitors are vulnerable. The Lebanese hosts should feel some value added from the presence of the refugees that benefits the long-term development of the community.

Back in Shatila, a Palestinian woman told me she would rather go back as soon as the fighting stops, even if it meant “pitching a tent and sleeping between the rocks and rubble of our former house,” than stay in the humiliating circumstances in which she finds herself. Palestinians are moving from Syria, where they faced the least discrimination within the Arab world, to a country where they are seen as a burden and are actively loathed by a large segment of the local population. Yet they have few other options. Most Palestinians are located in southern Syria, meaning Turkey is not a travel option by land, leaving only Jordan, Lebanon, and perhaps Iraq. They cannot go back to Iraq, from which they were recently driven out, having paid the price for the alleged generosity of Saddam Hussein. Jordan sealed off its border to Palestinians very early on. The worst option was the only option, and they came to Lebanon.

The bonds between Syrians and PRS remain strong. Palestinian political factions distribute aid to both Syrian and Palestinian newcomers, and newly established Syrian NGOs do the same. This solidarity is perhaps the only bright point in an otherwise dim tale. The UN Relief and Works Agency, created specifically to deal with Palestinian refugees, has been working overtime to accommodate the new arrivers by opening up clinics and schools, but its meager resources have been stretched to the limit. When they lived in the Yarmouk camp, the Palestinians dreamed of a return one day to their homeland in Palestine. Today they dream of returning to Syria.


In Istanbul I met up with Professor ¸Senay Özden of Koc University to discuss her research on Syrian refugees in Eastern Turkey. As an anthropologist, she is interested in comparing how Syrians are negotiating their daily lives at the micro-level in different towns in the border areas, in particular in order to access daily services and education for their children. Most observers agree that, though many Syrians are suffering inside Turkey, the humanitarian conditions there as well as the general quality of life are the best among all of Syria’s neighbors hosting large numbers of refugees. Many refugees Özden meets are aware that their situation is better than the horror stories they hear about Lebanon and the Jordanian camps. The problem, she says, is that the ruling government’s attitude is more marked by charitable benevolence toward its Syrian “brothers” than by recognition of their rights as refugees.

The Turkish government, of course, has been a key player in the Syrian conflict. After having strong relations with Syria under Bashar al-Assad, it made a radical turn shortly after the start of the March 2011 uprising. It went on to take a very advanced anti-regime position and opened up its borders for both political and armed opposition. It played a complex role as a relatively generous host for refugees, political parties, and militant groups, not to mention serving as the main conduit for anti-regime arms and fighters entering Syria. Though the funding of militant groups largely comes from the Gulf, Turkey is thought to have a large say over who gets what, though it has repeatedly denied it allows the funding of radical jihadi groups. However, the increasing strength and autonomy of the Syrian Kurdish regions—led most notably by the Democratic Union Party and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Units—and the rise of extremist jihadi groups put Turkey in a conundrum. Ordinary Turks, while no fans of the Assad regime, feel the government has dragged them into an endless mess. Resentment by local Turks at the border areas is particularly high, especially among members of the Alevi sect, who were oppressed under the Ottoman empire and have felt similar hostility since Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. In response to attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, a jihadi organization, Turkey effectively closed the Syrian border in the fall of 2013.

In fact, all Syrian refugees are in a sort of legal limbo. Neither Syria nor its neighbors, excluding Turkey and Egypt, are signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol that amended it. Even being a signatory does not necessarily mean much. After the ouster of former Egyptian president Morsi, there was a dramatic turn in the fortunes of Syrians in Egypt. Once welcomed, they have become associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is vilified by the media. Some have since been deported, new entry into Egypt has become much more difficult if not completely halted, and Syrians have been forced to keep a very low profile.

Turkey is also a signatory of both refugee conventions, but with an asterisk: they only apply to refugees from Europe. Some Syrians are managing well overall; the services in Turkish camps are considered the best in the region, and refugees are allowed to apply for renewable one-year residency permits and then enroll their children in public schools. In the town of Reyhanli near the Syrian border, there are up to 4,000 students enrolled in schools, at least two of which are run by refugee teachers who teach a Syrian curriculum without the pro-Ba’ath and pro-Assad propaganda that used to permeate Syrian textbooks in the social sciences. However, many are facing horrific conditions, living in makeshift settlements without proper hygiene or sanitation. In addition, armed Syrian groups have also made Reyhanli their home, to the fury of the local residents. They blame the AKP government for allowing their town to become a free-for-all.

Back in Istanbul a “little Syria” is emerging in the neighborhood of Aksaray. Arabic can be heard throughout the area, and cafes and restaurants are filled with Syrians striking deeper roots in Turkey. But now that several European countries have opened the doors for asylum, human smugglers have begun to come to Aksaray to meet their prey. Depending on passport and other legal status, the journey to Sweden can start at €5,000.

New Geographies

Only three years ago Syria was the “kingdom of silence.” But the upheaval has forced Syrians into the ranks of the millions of dispossessed, scattered, boat people, migrants, and asylum seekers. Most refugees express a desire to return home as soon as the fighting stops, but the prospects for a quick return or even a return at all are very dim. Throughout the region, Syrian refugees meet and interact with Palestinian, Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese, and other refugees, some of whom have lived all their lives as refugees with little prospect for repatriation.

Though civil strife in Syria will continue for many years to come, the country is increasingly being split into de facto areas of control. One runs down the coastal region and through central Syria along the Lebanese border, which is controlled by the government’s loyal troops and militias, many of which are minority Alawites and Christians. Another, in north, east, and southeast Syria, is controlled by the largely Sunni Muslim and ethnically Arab opposition, and a third, in the northeast, is controlled by Kurdish political parties.

The Geneva I conference of June 2012 marked an agreement between the United States and Russia on the broad parameters for a negotiated solution to the conflict in the absence of a decisive victor; the plan would entail a transitional government that includes members of the opposition and the current regime. The U.S.-Russian consensus held despite the fallout from the sarin gas attack in Ghouta on August 21 of this past year. Although a September UN report confirmed the attack, and a Human Rights Watch report along with several European countries and the United States determined that the rockets came from regime-controlled bases, a U.S.-led strike was averted through a last-minute deal on removing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

The deal was a seeming victory for the Syrian government and its allies. From the perspective of Russia and China, international law was upheld and the UN Security Council was not bypassed. From the Syrian regime’s perspective, a U.S. attack was avoided, the wording of the resolution did not threaten immediate severe consequences for noncompliance, and the government became seen once again as a party capable of negotiations, with a chance to demonstrate its sincerity by allowing full access to weapons inspectors. Meanwhile, the deal placed the United States at odds with its closest allies. The decision not to strike, the UN resolution, and the rapprochement with Iran have not been received with enthusiasm in Saudi Arabia or Israel even while raising the prospect that a “grand bargain” with Iran—perhaps one that includes negotiations on nuclear capabilities—may be possible.

If Geneva I ends up translating into a meaningful negotiation, it will open up the possibility for refugee return. However, as with other refugee populations that are victim to ethnic cleansing or displacement from civil wars, the question is whether the Syrian refugees will return to their “home” or their “homeland.” Peace agreements such as the Dayton Accords have included clauses that mandate refugee return to their original hometowns, and in many cases in Bosnia these orders were enforced by the NATO Implementation Force, to the displeasure of hardliners on all sides. But the political will needs to be there in the international community for this to happen, particularly at the regional level. This is highly unlikely given that the proxy nature of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is likely to continue during the “peace.”

As host countries grow weary of the refugees, they will likely demand their repatriation to areas under opposition control rather than their original villages and cities. In 2013 many Lebanese, particularly Christians wary of the increasing number of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, were arguing that the Syrian opposition should house the refugees somewhere in areas under its control. If such a repatriation occurs, it will further cement the sectarian and ethnic divide of Syria. The dream of a pluralistic, democratic state based on citizenship may then be replaced by a Lebanese-style, fragmented, and weak country.

Omar S. Dahi is associate professor of economics at Hampshire College and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center in Beirut. This research was carried out with the support of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The views are those of the author and interviewees and do not necessarily express those of ACSS or Sida. You can email him at odahi[at]hampshire[dot]edu.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: