For Syria’s millions of refugees, no future and no hope
For nearly six years, heart-wrenching reports of Syria’s multitudes of war refugees made world headlines. Horrifying tales of families torn apart or drowned in the Mediterranean have reached millions, especially after the body of toddler Aylan Kurdi, dressed in a red shirt and blue shorts, washed up on a Turkish beach in late 2015.
The iconic image of his lifeless body epitomised the refugees’ plight and triggered massive pressure on world capitals, forcing them to give succour — some of them reluctantly — to the last major wave of refugees that landed on Europe’s shores in 2016.
That raised the number of Syrian refugees in the European Union to 110,000. Another 4.8 million are living in countries neighbouring Syria and 8 million are internally displaced within Syria itself — more than half Syria’s pre-war population.
This human tidal wave of misery has been described as the worst human tragedy since the second world war and the catastrophe is getting worse.
Although many would not admit it, the Syrian refugee crisis is starting to take a back seat in international affairs, with world governments more focused on providing the basic necessities for refugees, such as shelter and schooling, than solving the root problem of why they fled their country in the first place.
Inside Syria itself, the swelling refugee problem has been effectively sidelined. It was not mentioned at a recent conference in Moscow, attended by Turkey, Russia and Iran, and was not on the table at the Astana talks in late January.
Syrians are preparing for a new round of talks in Geneva in late February, aimed at discussing a political transition and a Russian-authored constitution — but not, it seems, the refugees.
These destitute Syrians and their families have become the forgotten ones of the Middle East, just like the Palestinians who were driven from their homes or fled during the war of 1948-49 that resulted in the creation of a Jewish state. They have been living in limbo in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan for nearly seven decades and are likely to remain so whatever happens to the Syrians.
There is no clear end in sight for the Syrian war. Nor is it clear to what the refugees might return, if they could. The destruction has been immense across the country. Many of those who fled are on the regime’s wanted list.
Those who packed up and left in the early years of the war were expecting the regime to fall — a hope shattered when the Russian Air Force entered the conflict in September 2015 and rescued Syrian President Bashar Assad from certain defeat.
Those who fled to Turkey from northern Syria, escaping regime attacks in eastern Aleppo or the Islamic State (ISIS) in Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Al-Bukamal, may be a little luckier, as they might find new homes in a quasi-safe zone that the Turks are trying to set up on their border with Syria.
The Turks started on this project last August, when they invaded and occupied the border town of Jarabulus. Now they plan to create an island for Syrian refugees on 4,000 sq. km, an area half the size of neighbouring Lebanon.
Among the objectives is to destroy any prospect of an emerging Kurdish state in northern Syria and find a place to divert 2.5 million Syrian refugees now huddled in Turkey, a severe drain on its resources and a security problem.
The truth is that the Syrian war is still creating refugees, who are fleeing into Idlib province in the north-west, rather than endure the hazards of heading to Europe or elsewhere.
Idlib is becoming an incubator for terrorism and jihadist rule. After the rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo finally fell in December, after months of Russian bombing, the rebels who surrendered were shipped to Idlib, along with those from besieged localities in the Damascus countryside such as Wadi Barada and Zabadani.
Christians, Alawites, Ismailis, Druze and Shias were all sent to other areas retaken by the regime — not to find them shelter but to break the domination of the majority Sunnis in these areas and diminish opposition to a regime dominated by minority Alawites.
Long before Donald Trump made it to the White House, 27 US governors closed their states’ borders to Syrian refugees. Now Trump’s controversial ban on Muslims completely bars Syrians from the United States.
While some world leaders lecture Trump on human rights and the Geneva Convention, however, some might follow his lead and impose similar bans on Syrians. All it takes is another major terrorist attack that can be blamed on the Syrian war.