Syria’s humanitarian crisis threatens to stretch the region to breaking point

For Jordan, saddled with a failing economy and home to some 650,000 Syrian refugees, the pressure is intense.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Face of desperation. An internally displaced elderly woman gestures during a protest in Quneitra near the Golan Heights, on July 4.(Reuters)
Face of desperation. An internally displaced elderly woman gestures during a protest in Quneitra near the Golan Heights, on July 4.(Reuters)

TUNIS - As Syria’s pro-regime forces advance into south-western Syria, they push thousands of the displaced people, propelling the conflict’s horrors to the frontiers of Jordan and Israel.

For planners in Damascus and Moscow, the hope was that the offensive would be a swift one, keeping their forces somewhat rested for an assault on the rebel enclave of Idlib in northern Syria. Regime media announced on July 6 that rebels along the Jordanian border had surrendered. However, the determination of rebel troops, tribal elders and civilian councils towards the Israeli border to fight Damascus to the negotiating table remains as fierce as ever.

The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in south-western Syria continues to escalate. A UN statement released July 3 stated that more than 330,000 people had been displaced by the regime’s offensive.

Many of those fleeing flocked to the closed borders of Jordan and Israel. For Jordan, saddled with a failing economy and home to some 650,000 Syrian refugees, the pressure is intense. For Israel, fearful of Iran-aligned militias hiding among the refugees, the situation is more complex. It will provide aid and relief to people gathering along the borders of the Golan Heights and hope the numbers stop growing.

Agence France-Presse reported that refugees were in dilapidated cars stacked with mattresses and suitcases to join the thousands camped out near Jordan. The Jordanian Army has been delivering what relief it can in the face of rising popular opinion to open the border.

The situation is more nebulous for Israel. “From the start, Israel had two overriding policy aims in Syria,” Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity, said. “They wanted to minimise the risk Syria’s war presented to their borders and they wanted to keep Iran off the goal line. Neither of those things has happened.

“According to some of the reports I’ve seen, there are around 160,000 displaced people heading to the Golan. Israel can feed them, provide them with relief, give them anything they need but that doesn’t solve the problem.”

As far as Tel Aviv is concerned, Damascus is an outpost of Tehran and is unlikely to be trusted. While Israel may be willing to ally with Moscow for now, that alliance has its limits. Israeli thinking was crystallised in a statement last week by a senior defence official, who said: “Our demand is that the Iranian forces will go out or withdraw from Syria as a whole and in it specifically south-west Syria.”

Despite the rhetoric from Moscow and Damascus, many rebel groups in south-western Syria are not the hard-line jihadist groups the regime has encountered elsewhere but more moderate forces previously backed by the West and Jordan. Though their reasons for taking up arms are varied, they are united by a hatred of Damascus and Tehran.

Much of that reality is reflected in terms offered to the towns and villages. Under current proposals, some rebels would be allowed to remain in their homes and retain their light weaponry under regime rule, while others would be afforded the opportunity to leave for Idlib in the north. Syrian state institutions would repair infrastructure and do other work in the disputed areas.

Displaced families could return with their safety guaranteed by Russian military police. Those who defected from Syria’s armed forces or who did not complete compulsory military service could regularise their status with the regime within six months, Agence France-Presse reported.

However, as much as rebel intransience, the terms reflect the regime’s determination to speed its offensive towards an inexpensive end and, with every day the south-west resists, the more stretched the regime’s negotiators become.

“This was never meant to go on this long,” Heras said. “This was supposed to be over by now. [Syrian President Bashar] Assad wanted a quick end so he could show the world he was able to control his country, take Jordan out of the equation and deal with Tel Aviv on his own terms and in his own time.

“Right now, he’s not doing that. He’s brought the war to Israel’s door. Tel Aviv can’t send the refugees back to Assad, neither can they take them in. They need to do something and the Trump administration’s unlikely to ignore that.”

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