Letter from America: The Catastrophe in Syria
By David Fedo
One might have thought that the political situation in the Middle East, almost always a mess, couldn't get any worse, but the last three years have proven us all wrong. First, there has been more trouble between the Sunnis and Hezbollah in Lebanon, with tit-for-tat assassinations playing out in the mean streets of Beirut. Second, the slaughter of innocents continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. Third, American Secretary of State John Kerry's dogged efforts to negotiate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians are for a noble cause, but most observers say there is little hope for a resolution of the historic enmity between the two parties in the near future. Fourth, President Obama's outreach to Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme, so promising at the beginning, faces formidable obstacles in both countries.
But by far the worst current "trouble" – the word catastrophe is not an overstatement – is taking place on a stage of blood and death in Syria, where the military of President Bashar al-Assad continues to massacre the often defenceless citizens of his own country. (The ragtag opposition Free Syrian Army and other unknown anti-government volunteers are also responsible for the deaths of many Syrians as well.) The carnage after nearly three years has decimated the population and the infrastructure of the country. It's hard to comprehend, from the security and comfort of the United States and Singapore, how horrible the situation now is, and what the long-term effects of such devastation will be, not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East. We – you and I – need to care about this.
The supposed end in Syria to the dangers of chemical weapons, a plan brokered by the United Nations with strong support from the United States and Russia, seemed to be a positive step, but it hasn't stopped the killings and dislocations that have affected many thousands of people. As is now well known, well over 120,000 Syrians, including many children, have already died in the violence, and neither side seems willing to stop the bloodshed. There are now more than four million Syrian refugees who have made it out of this ravaged country, most ending up in Lebanon and Jordan, whose borders connect with Syria. (More on this follows below.) And the refugees continue to stream out of the country, at times over 4,000 a day, again most of them going to Lebanon and Jordan. The sad stampede has continued for months.
A bit of history here might be in order: For hundreds of years, the transcontinental Ottoman Empire controlled the land that is now known as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, among its many other states and territories, but all that ended soon after World War I. Syria was then established as a French mandate, and became independent in 1946, after World War II. But independence didn't bring peace and tranquillity; there were periodic coups as one shaky government replaced another.
Then in the year 1970, Hafez al-Assad became President of Syria, and his notoriously brutal presidency lasted until his death in 2000. He was followed shortly after by the presidency of his son, Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist, whose election, unsurprisingly, was unopposed. The son seems to have become just as brutal as his father. Syria's current population, not counting the refugees who have left the country since 2011, but which includes long-time Palestinian refugees, numbers 22.5 million. The majority of them are Sunni Muslims – the rest are mostly Christians and Arab Alawites, the latter the religion of Assad and his Ba'ath party. (The Alawites, a branch of the Shiite Muslims, date back to the eighth century AD.)
I should point out that the theological differences between the Sunnis, who constitute about 75 per cent of Muslims around the globe, and the Shias, are too complicated to go into in this article, but in part they have something to do with the differing beliefs of both groups regarding the legitimacy of the caliphs (the supreme leaders) who followed Prophet Muhammad. ("Shias" or "Shia" is the noun, by the way; Shiite is normally the adjective.) It was Muhammad, of course, who founded the first Islamic state in 622 AD, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Jordan is now 95 per cent Sunni, with some Christians and a sprinkling of others; and Lebanon is split between Sunnis and Shias, with a sizable number of Christians and Druze citizens adding to the mix. From Lebanon, Hezbollah, who are Shiite followers and the sworn enemies of Israel, have sent their militias to fight alongside Assad's troops in the Syrian conflict. Iran, like Russia, also has been a strong supporter of President Assad.
The thousands of refugees now in Jordan and Lebanon, and many others who have sought safety in Turkey, Egypt and even further in France and elsewhere, face an uncertain and perilous future. They are likely doomed never to be able to make it back to their homes. If the war ended tomorrow, which it won't, it would take years, not weeks or months, for rebuilding and reconciliation.
By chance, I happened to visit Lebanon in April 2013 and Jordan in October 2013, as part of a university accreditation assignment in both countries. As an observer on the ground, the first point I would make about the refugees is that, despite their own stresses and pressures, the people of Jordan and Lebanon have made extraordinary efforts to accommodate these displaced Syrians, whose lives had been so cruelly altered, perhaps forever. The Jordanians and its Hashemite monarch, King Abdullah II, as well as the Lebanese, are generous people, who view most Syrians as brothers and sisters. But the task ahead is a daunting one.
I was unable myself to get into any of the Jordanian refugee camps (it's very difficult for a foreigner to do so), but the head of the academic programme I was visiting lives a short distance from Za'atari, a village north of Amman and located close to the dangerous Syrian border, and situated next to the largest refugee camp in Jordan, also named Za'atari. (The rebellion of March 2011 is said to have been triggered by young teenagers spray-painting anti-government graffiti on buildings in the nearby Syrian town of Dara'a, which led to a ferocious and lethal crackdown by Assad's troops.) My Jordanian colleague reported that he and his family hear sounds of shelling across the Syrian border nearly every night.
The Za'atari refugee camp, one of a number in Jordan, opened in July of 2012, and was originally built collectively by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Jordanians and other international aid organisations. It originally housed only a limited number – some hundreds – of refugees. Now, incredibly, the population has grown to over 150,000; it is not uncommon to see 20 people crowded into a single room in a trailer, shack or tent. Some say it is among the largest refugee camps in the world. In the searing heat, amid the sand and wind, and now in the cold, living in Za'atari, my Jordanian colleague says, can be unbearable.
David Remnick, the gifted editor of The New Yorker magazine, has been one of the very few credentialed Western correspondents who, to my knowledge, have been permitted to visit the Za'atari camp. His article about the camp is written by someone who has seen a vision of what hell must look like – something at least as devastating as the experiences of the victims of the Haiti earthquake, or even to some extent approximating life for the survivors of the recent horrific typhoon in the Philippines.
"In Za'atari," Remnick writes in The New Yorker, "the dispossession is absolute. Everyone has lost his country, his home, his equilibrium. Most have lost a family member or a close friend to the war. What is left is a kind of theatrical pride, the necessary performance of will." "This place is a graveyard for camels," a refugee in his 30s told Remnick. "Camels can't even live here. But Syrians can." And also, according to Remnick, scorpions and snakes.
Remnick further notes that "the scale of the influx [into Jordan] is equivalent to 33 million Canadians or Mexicans entering the United States." That equivalency is almost incomprehensible to me and to other Americans – and, I expect, to Singaporeans as well.
But such numbers can be overwhelming, leaving out the individual and painful narratives. "In every tent and trailer," Remnick observes, "there are stories of personal horror." One story is of a middle-aged Syrian woman named Fatima, a refugee who lives in her "boiling caravan" in Za'atari with her two daughters, the youngest having lost "most of her right leg" and the oldest having been badly wounded by shrapnel. Her two young sons were killed by government soldiers in Syria. The husband remains in Syria – his wellbeing is not clear. What will happen to Fatima and her family is unknown. What is known is that, as more and more Syrians struggle to cross the border, it has become necessary to build yet another large refugee camp. So Jordan is now constructing, once again in the north, another camp which is projected to hold some 130,000 Syrians.
Keep in mind that, since 1948, the Jordanians also have been host to thousands of Palestinian refugees and also, concurrent with the war in Iraq, to displaced Iraqis who have flooded into the country. Jordan's burden is thus an increasingly heavy one.
In the Za'atari camp, a joint medical clinic has been set up by Morocco and Italy, and observers there report that doctors and other medical personnel are performing heroically under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. And the widely-admired organisation, Doctors without Borders, based in France, is even continuing, under dangerous conditions, to do its courageous work in hospitals and health centres in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon and throughout the region.
Lebanon, like Jordan, is a physically beautiful country, but it has a far more complicated and problematic government, with a combination of Sunni, Hezbollah (or Shia), Christian and Druze representatives and leaders often in conflict, sometimes deadly, with one another. I was in Beirut just weeks before a fatal firefight between Hezbollah and the Sunnis in the Hezbollah-controlled southern district of the city. Still, I felt perfectly safe in most of Lebanon, and I even travelled well east out of Beirut to visit a branch university campus in the mountainous region in what is called the Shouf. But I was warned not to try to get close to the Syrian border. And with the Beirut bombing late in December, which killed an important anti-Hezbollah official who was the former Lebanese Ambassador to the United States, who knows what's ahead?
After years of its own devastating civil wars, Beirut has been steadily rebuilding, and the city, sloping down gracefully to the blue Mediterranean from the green hills, is recapturing some of its old beauty and vitality. The Syrian refugees in Beirut and elsewhere in the country live either in rented housing (for those fortunate enough to have the resources) or nomadic catch-as-catch-can camps, or through the generosity of Lebanese families and various supportive local communities. Unlike Jordan, however, the fractured Lebanese government, with all of its intentions to be a good neighbour, remains intimidated because of its history with Assad and his regime – until December, it has refused to set up officially-sponsored camps because, according to Lebanese Professor Hafal Naufal, it is "worried about the signals it could send to the Syrian government." On the streets of Beirut, I can thus bear witness to the sight of Syrians, individually and in families, seeking help and looking more than a little bedraggled. The official camps, if they can be put into place quickly, will help the refugees in Lebanon enormously.
Money to help, of course, is always an issue. According to the Boston Globe (December 25, 2013), the UN has asked for a record $6.5 billion dollars for humanitarian aid to support the internally displaced and external refugee Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and the region, but so far the UN has only raised some 60 per cent of the amount it requires. This simply won't do.
Yet the Boston Globe is right when it says that, "in the long run, the best chance for Syria's survival lies not in aid groups or the United Nations, but in an agreement between the regime and its opponents." Let us hope that, despite the current horrors, such an agreement comes sooner rather than later, perhaps beginning with a scheduled meeting this month in Geneva between the two sides. Somehow, the suffering must stop.
– D.F., January 2014QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014