Syrian Refugee Crisis Takes Its Toll on Neighboring Countries

The major regional and international players would do good to pause and consider the future of countries neighboring Syria, given the continued influx of refugees across the border. The issue represents as much a time bomb as it is a matter with major ethical and political consequences. The tragedy of the refugees must not be seen as a byproduct of a crisis that has more precedence. For one thing, such an approach is a disastrous mistake at both the humanitarian and strategic levels. Nor should the issue of refugees be left in the hands of mandated agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), or in the hands of regional and local organizations, some of which may have a confessional flavor and may be supplying aid for narrow political ends. The issue of the Syrian refugees, as well as that of the twice-displaced Palestinian refugees, requires qualitatively different focus than current efforts by the UN Security Council or countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). To be sure, pledging to rebuild Syria after the destruction, as the recent Arab Summit in Doha did, does not compensate for the need for immediate measures to be taken, independently from reconstruction. The issue of the refugees must be dealt with as a present challenge requiring an immediate strategy before it is too late. Responsibility for this also lies with the United States and Russia in particular, as they are both capable to tackle the ordeal of refugees while they wrestle in discussing the requirements of the situation in Syria in war or in peace, and the problem of how to meet the needs of the countries hosting them, specifically Lebanon and Jordan.

There is a common ground between American and Russian goals in Syria, namely letting extremist Jihadists flock to the embattled Middle Eastern nation so that they may not have to deal with them in American or Russian cities, exactly as former US President George W. Bush did in the Iraq war. Back then, he frankly declared that this war had aimed at getting terrorists away from American cities. Russia's leadership, led by President Putin and represented by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in public forums and private sessions with the various players active in the Syrian issue, views the war in Syria as its own. It considers its battle in Syria to be in defense of Moscow. This is what Lavrov has conveyed to some of those concerned with the war in Syria, rather explicitly. Russia's leadership wants to contain al-Qaeda, its affiliates and similar groups inside Syria, so that they may not take their fight to Chechnya or Muslim republics adjacent to Russia. Lavrov, who expresses the "Putinist" ideology that leans on rising Russian nationalism, considers this Russian priority to be also worthwhile for the United States: eradicating what he calls "Salafism", "al-Qaeda" or "al-Nusra Front," and radical jihadi groups.

The war in Syria in defense of Moscow and its interests does not represent a mere passing slogan, but rather a policy weighed down by the blood of Syrians, just as the Iraq war in defense of Washington and its interests was weighed down by the blood of Iraqis. These wars did not come from a vacuum, as Islamic extremism was an essential factor in bringing them about. Yet that is one but not the only factor in the calculations of the United States and Russia in their wars, be they direct or by proxy. For instance, in the case of with Qatar and Turkey, Russia's vindictiveness is motivated by other matters, such as the natural gas pipeline project, which Moscow considers worthy of a war to bring it down, as natural gas is a vital interest for Russia.

The Russian leadership is extremely preoccupied with its battles at the Security Council to keep it away from the Syrian issue, and at the General Assembly to exclude the Syrian opposition, so that it may not take Syria's seat there as it did at the League of Arab States. Sergey Lavrov, who resolutely declares that Moscow clings to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, always asks about the alternative to Assad. Give me an alternative, please go ahead and present me with an alternative - this is how Lavrov speaks to those he meets with, justifying, defending and clinging fiercely to Assad as a red line. Some of those he speaks to reveal that Lavrov knew perfectly well who the "alternative" was - the President's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. This is what they divulge, before becoming abruptly silent, as if having realized Moscow is not serious when it evokes alternatives. Moscow, they purport, strongly clings to the regime and the President, whom it sees as acting on its behalf, especially in its battle inside Syria against extremist jihadists to keep them away from Russian soil.

Moscow and Washington know perfectly well that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into neighboring countries, not just through military and political channels, but also because of the influx of refugees fleeing battles and air raids in Syrian cities. The American side has informed Jordan that it should expect for the refugees to remain in its territory for a long time, as the battle for Syria will be a protracted one. But even if the battle had been a short one, the devastation the war has left behind in Syria will take years to rebuild and the refugees will take an equally long time to return and resettle. Figures provided by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) are shocking, and it is necessary for international and regional leaderships to seriously think of what they are to do in their regard. There are 4 million people who have been displaced within Syria, and two million refugees who have fled the country. Meanwhile, 1.2 million homes in the country have been destroyed, either completely or partially, requiring $22 billion and no less than 5 years - in the best case scenario - to rebuild.

Regarding Lebanon, which is witnessing a steady influx of Syrian refugees, the numbers of refugees flocking to the country are likely to rise dramatically if the battle of Damascus were to occur. One important question here is this: can Lebanon bear taking care of over a million refugees on its soil, providing them with shelter, food and education for 5 or even 10 years to come? Can Lebanon's economy adapt to this constant state of emergency for perhaps a decade? This is not a mental exercise, and it does not solely fall under responding to the ordeal of the refugees - and all bear witness that Lebanon and the Lebanese have been a rare example in the history of hosting refugees all over the world. The issue is a fateful one for a country as fragile as Lebanon, for economic, social and political considerations. Indeed, today there is willingness on the part of the Lebanese to bear the burden of the Syrian refugees and to host them in their own homes, but prolonging their stay will be costly for both sides and will threaten to turn hospitality and sympathy into bitterness and tension, because the effective ability to bear the burden will not be available, and because generosity has its limits when the economic situation becomes stifling for the host country.

The international community and the regional community have fallen gravely short with regard to this pressing issue and it is time for them to be afraid, to be very afraid. Infrastructure in countries like Lebanon and Jordan will not withstand continued neglect on the part of the international and regional communities, as it is in danger of collapsing. A scenario as such may entail truly terrifying and fateful consequences for Lebanon, which lives under the specter of polarization, and the country would turn into an arena of terrifying extremism if it were to experience such collapse. This is what the members of the Security Council must consider as they address - or ignore - the Syrian crisis. The discussion must not remain hostage to the Russian-Chinese veto, which suggested to the Syrian leadership that it would be able to achieve military victory in this war; nor should it remain hostage to the proxy warlords who suggest to fighters that decisive victory to their benefit is near. Both sides bear responsibility. They are both required to stop and pause at the plight of the Syrian refugees and the fate of the neighboring countries that are hosting them.

Of course, there is the need for an influx of funds so as for the host country not to collapse under the weight of its hospitality. Yet there is truly a need to stop fleeing forward every time an unconventional idea is put forward, such as the necessity of thinking about distributing the burden of hosting refugees on other countries until preparations are made to rebuild Syria, after the end of the conflict. This is an idea that might not appeal to the donors or even to the refugees themselves, yet discussing it is necessary because the infrastructure in Lebanon cannot bear the risk of collapse.

Such candidness in discussing the issue has found its way through the closed-door sessions of a certain think tank that addresses pressing challenges in the Arab region, the Beirut Institute, which has brought together international, regional and local officials to think as a group - "outside the box" or through what is in effect currently available - about the ordeal of the Syrian refugees and their hosts, and about a humane response based on a midpoint between values and politics. Indeed, discussing such matters requires frankness and immediate measures that cannot at all bear further delays.