Syrian refugee crisis is sparking populist reactions in the Middle East

Caught between Middle Eastern and Western forms of populism, Syrian refugees can’t find enough arguments to convince the world of the need to end their crisis.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Syrian men work in their bakery shop in Istanbul’s working-class district of Kucukcekmece on July 5, 2019. (AFP)
Caught in crossfire. Syrian men work in their bakery shop in Istanbul’s working-class district of Kucukcekmece on July 5, 2019. (AFP)

When a host country shamefully uses the question of Syrian refugees to settle political scores internally or externally, it lends itself to being the target of criticism and its humanitarian act of hosting refugees is voided of its content.

It is true that the Syrian crisis has lasted longer than most pessimistic observers expected but assistance to refugees cannot be discontinued before the end of the reasons that led to their flight from their homeland.

What is happening in Turkey and Lebanon, and to a lesser extent in Jordan and Egypt, is that attitudes towards Syrian refugees are changing through the international shifts in the Syrian crisis and emerging trends in host countries.

The most notable change in the host countries is the rise of populism. When it is exploited politically and in the media, this mounting populist trend can quickly swell into a powerful force.

Populism was one of the reasons behind the victory of the Turkish opposition in the recent mayoral elections in Istanbul. The issue had grown to a point that the ruling party could no longer ignore it. So, it joined the bandwagon and started harassing Syrian refugees in Turkey to push them to return to their homeland.

It is true that the ruling party led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the issue of the Syrian refugees in Turkey in various ways right from the beginning but pushing them out of major Turkish cities seems to have become an election necessity for the party.

In Lebanon, where the holder of political power is an ally of Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus, populism with respect to the question of the Syrian refugees has acquired an uglier face as populist demands to deport Syrian refugees have conveniently converged with Hezbollah’s efforts to send them home to serve Assad’s hunger for restoring his defunct legitimacy.

In such a deleterious environment, the media scene is dominated by high-profile figures such as Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and artist Adel Karam. The populists are exerting their influence on the ground with brutal and extreme vengeance.

Middle Eastern populism seems to be motivated by economic misgivings. This is why demands for the deportation of Syrian refugees are based primarily on material reasons. Sometimes it is argued the refugees’ presence burdens the state budget. Other times it is argued that the refugees have seized control of the local labour market.

Of course, such populist discourse cannot withstand the test of proof. Data show the beneficial economic fallout of the refugees’ presence. This is essentially an emotional discourse not based on fact. Whoever buys it is not willing to accept others under any circumstances.

In certain regards, Middle Eastern populism is uglier than its counterpart in the West. It is perhaps best described as deaf and blind but not mute. It rejects the other even if this other shares the same culture and does not constitute an ideological threat to the host society. Remember that, in the West, populism finds it easy to rally support by claiming resistance to Muslim and Arab “invasions” of “Christian lands,” as they say.

Syrians are intellectually, religiously and culturally in no way different from their Arab neighbours, except perhaps in some details that work in their favour. Before the tragic Syrian crisis, Syria used to be virtually a second home for many Arabs and neighbouring populations. Populism did not rear its ugly head then or when Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian refugees fled to Syria at one time or another.

Caught between Middle Eastern and Western forms of populism, Syrian refugees can’t find enough arguments to convince the world of the need to end their crisis. What’s worse, they cannot rely on the Syrian opposition or on the Assad regime.

The opposition has failed to offer a better alternative to the regime in areas under its control. The regime, meanwhile, is chasing young men both inside and outside the country, to draft them in the Syrian Army or to exact a service charge on them to replenish the state’s dilapidated coffers.

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