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Syria’s Refugees: The Catastrophe

Lynsey Addario/VII
Syrian refugees crossing into northern Iraq near Dohuk, Iraq, August 21, 2013


In early June 2011, some three months into the uprising against the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Syrian government forces began preparing for a large-scale assault on Jisr al-Shughour, a rebellious border town sixty-five miles southwest of Aleppo. The events that led to this operation are a matter of some dispute. Residents of the town said that Assad’s security forces shot and killed an unarmed man during a protest after Friday prayers. At his funeral the next day, thousands of mourners marched to a post office where security forces were gathered.

According to eyewitnesses, government snipers on top of the building began shooting at the crowd, while more troops arrived to back them up. But numerous accounts also describe soldiers defecting and joining with the mourners, a number of whom had brought guns, to attack the regime forces; Syrian state media later claimed that 120 soldiers had been massacred by “armed gangs.”

What is certain is that an exceptionally violent confrontation took place. As the regime sent reinforcements to retake control, most of the town’s 44,000 inhabitants and many from the surrounding area fled. “They were burning houses and fields and killing animals. They started shooting. And killed two families,” a woman who called herself Lajia told us when, reporting for a public radio story, we met her in a tiny Turkish village two weeks later. With her six children, then aged six to seventeen, she had escaped from her farm near Jisr al-Shughour across the border to Turkey, where she was staying with relatives. “Villages were increasingly empty from around forty kilometers away,” a United Nations official reported after a fact-finding mission later that month. “Jisr al-Shughour itself was almost deserted.” Like Lajia and her family, much of the population had crossed into Turkey’s Hatay province—the first refugees in a conflict that has since produced more than two million of them.

In more than one way, what happened in Jisr al-Shughour is unusually revealing about the course of Syria’s civil war: it was the first well-documented case of protesters arming themselves and fighting back against Syrian troops. It was also one of the first occasions that large numbers of Syrians were forced to flee to a neighboring country. At the time, the Turkish government had not yet endorsed the Syrian opposition; it had spent the previous decade building economic and political ties with the Assad regime and still hoped for a negotiated solution to the uprising. But Turkey is a Sunni country whose current leadership has Islamist sympathies. Jisr al-Shughour was a Sunni town with a history of Islamist activism and violent repression by Syria’s ruling Baath regime, which is dominated by the Alawite sect. The refugees who left for Turkey soon became the first links in a crucial supply chain for the rebel cause. In July 2011, a few weeks after we met Lajia and other Syrians in the border region of Hatay province, a group of military defectors among them announced the founding of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), dedicated to the armed overthrow of Assad.

Since the summer of 2011, what happened in Jisr al-Shughour has been repeated in villages and towns all over Syria, with far-reaching consequences on almost every side of its 1,400-mile-long perimeter. The country had a population of 22.5 million when the war began; about 10 percent have now left. With nearly a half-million Syrians now in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actively supporting the Syrian opposition and has turned his country into a primary conduit of arms to rebel groups. Along with the FSA, which is favored by the US and its allies, these include other militias, some of them associated with aggressive Islamism. Notably, the Turkish government has not impeded the activity of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the UN Security Council.

In Jordan, a far smaller and more fragile country, the arrival of an even greater number of Syrians has raised fears that refugees could bring instability or encourage jihadism among Jordanians themselves. In recent months, the Jordanian government has clamped down on its refugee population while quietly allowing the United States to build up a military presence to protect its border with Syria. In northern Iraq, a rapidly growing population of some 200,000 Syrian Kurds is drawing Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government into a violent new war between Kurds and Islamists in northeastern Syria. Iraq’s Kurdish leaders are meanwhile locked in conflict with Syria’s main Kurdish party over the future of Syrian Kurdistan.

And then there is Lebanon. A tiny, fractious country of about four million people when the Syrian uprising began, the Lebanese Republic has large populations of Sunnis, Shias, and Christians, and especially intricate ties to Syria, which surrounds all of its northern and most of its long eastern borders. According to the government, it has now received well over a million Syrians, most of them within the last twelve months; soon, nearly one in four people in Lebanon will be Syrian. A large majority of the refugees are Sunni Muslims and many Lebanese Sunnis strongly support the Syrian opposition. Yet Hezbollah, the powerful Shia group that controls significant parts of Lebanon, has been fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime.

Since early June, when Hezbollah fighters vanquished rebel forces in the Syrian border town of al-Qusayr, there have been a series of bombings and kidnappings targeting Shia areas of Lebanon, including in Beirut itself. “What is happening now is a growing mass fear about the situation,” Makram Malaeb, an official with Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs who coordinates refugee policy, told us in Beirut in late July. “We have to reassure the population that this will not mean the end of Lebanon as we know it.”

About all this, the US and its allies have been largely silent. By contrast, the US response to the alleged chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21 has been swift and dramatic. Even as UN inspectors were visiting a site of the attacks for the first time, the Obama administration began planning a retaliatory strike against the Syrian regime, which was presumed responsible. On September 10, a day after the Russian government gave support to a call to put Syria’s chemical weapons program under international supervision, President Obama said he would allow the UN Security Council a chance to pursue the idea before asking Congress to approve strikes; but he declared it was his “judgment as commander in chief” that the US should if necessary intervene militarily.

In a statement following the attacks, however, the International Crisis Group observed that if the US, with or without its allies, goes ahead with such strikes,

it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people. The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons—a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defence.

In fact, well before the August attacks, the daily violence of the war had produced a humanitarian crisis of almost unprecedented scale. One reason many nations have been slow to recognize this—despite the steady accumulation of more than 100,000 fatalities—is that the conflict came relatively late to Syria’s largest cities. A full year into the uprising, which began in March 2011, the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) had only registered some 30,000 refugees from Syria overall; as late as December 2012, some political leaders in Lebanon, whose borders with Syria are largely uncontrolled and which has for years had large seasonal migrations of Syrian laborers, denied that a refugee problem existed at all.

Mike King

As fighting reached parts of Aleppo and Damascus in the summer and fall of 2012, however, all predictions were upended. By last September, the number of those fleeing abroad had grown tenfold, to more than 300,000, a figure that doubled again over the following three months. In March of this year, it reached one million. At the beginning of September, more than two million Syrians had left the country, while the average pace had reached five thousand people a day. The UN projects there will be 3.5 million refugees by the end of the year.

After months under siege by both rebels and government forces, some neighborhoods of Aleppo have been abandoned; tens of thousands of Aleppines can now be found in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey that locals have begun referring to as “Little Aleppo.” Egypt, a country that had hardly any Syrian refugees a year ago, now has more than 100,000; many are middle-class professionals who view Cairo, for all its upheaval, as preferable to expensive Beirut.

This is to say nothing of the more than four million Syrians who, according to the UN and other aid groups, have been uprooted by the conflict but remain inside Syria; overall, nearly one third of the country’s population have been forced to abandon their homes. Many of those within Syria have taken refuge in schools and mosques in large cities. Tens of thousands of others now occupy makeshift encampments near the border and still hope to leave the country. By April of this year, there were more than a million displaced people in the single northern governorate of Aleppo, many of them subsisting without adequate food, clean water, or medical care, and at continued risk of violence. This summer, in northeastern Syria, Islamist rebel militias have reportedly threatened Kurdish villages with beheadings, kidnappings, and other atrocities, driving tens of thousands toward the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. When a single border crossing opened in August, more than 46,000 Syrians flooded across in ten days, forcing the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to set a three-thousand-per-day limit.

“We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost twenty years ago,” António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, told the UN Security Council in July. Analysts with the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU)—the humanitarian arm of the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition’s main governing body—say that still-larger waves of refugees cannot be ruled out. “We are preparing for three contingencies involving the major population centers,” explained Samer Araabi, who runs the ACU’s office in southern Turkey. “A massive movement out of Aleppo—significantly larger than we’ve seen until now; a large-scale migration out of Damascus, if the war came directly to the central parts of the capital; and a movement out of Deir ez-Zor”—a large city in eastern Syria where there has been fierce fighting in recent weeks. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps all at once.”


Among the many effects of the Syrian war, the collapse of one of the Arab world’s most diverse societies may be the most consequential. The Syrian Arab Republic was long known for its authoritarian government and brutal security apparatus; but it had also been an unusually mixed country for decades. As has been widely reported, Sunni Muslims make up a clear majority (some 74 percent) and Alawites, the sect of the Assad family and many of its supporters, a minority (12 percent). Yet before the war, there were nearly as many Christians as Alawites, as well as the world’s largest population of Druze (700,000) and smaller populations of Ismailis, Sufis, Yezidis, and Shias, among other sects. Though predominantly Arab, Syria also had some 2.5 million Kurds, as many as a million Turkmen, and tens of thousands of Armenians, Assyrians, and other groups.

Owing to its relative stability, Syria had actually been a haven for people escaping persecution elsewhere, from Armenians fleeing the genocide in 1915 and Palestinians chased out of Palestine in 1948—there were some 500,000 Palestinians in Syria in 2011—to both Christian and Muslim Iraqis escaping the recent war in Iraq. In 2006, the Syrian government took in more than 120,000 Lebanese whose homes had been damaged or destroyed in Israel’s war with Hezbollah. When the uprising against the Assad regime began, Syria also had sizable numbers of Somali, Sudanese, and Afghan refugees.

And yet this complicated ethnic and sectarian mosaic made Syria particularly susceptible to large population movements once the uprising turned violent. To a degree, these movements followed basic geography. Punishing attacks by regime forces in the southern governorate of Daraa, where the protests began, drove many of its inhabitants to Jordan, which abuts it in the south. Fighting between rebels and government troops in the northern governorate of Idlib, and—beginning in the summer of 2012—around Aleppo, drove many north into Turkey. And the incessant battles over Homs, in the western part of the country, forced many to seek refuge in nearby Lebanon. (Others remained trapped in the old city of Homs, where they make up one of the most desperate displaced populations in Syria today.)

But at the same time these upheavals led to a new sectarian consciousness. In Turkey and Jordan, a very large majority of the arriving Syrians were Sunnis from areas of Syria contested by the Assad regime, and they were going to Sunni countries that increasingly supported the opposition. (Though Turkey’s Arab Alevi minority has links to Syria’s Alawites, a cause of tension in some Turkish border villages.) Moreover, while not party to the conflict, Syrian Christians have been attacked by Islamist rebels—most recently in the assault on Maaloula, an Aramaic-speaking village north of Damascus, in early September. Many have fled to Christian areas of Lebanon, like Zahlé, a large town in the Beqaa valley where we encountered them; and thousands of Armenian Christians have gone to Armenia. Jordan, meanwhile, fearful of upsetting its precarious demographic balance, has largely denied entry to Syrian Palestinians; more than 90,000 of them have instead taken refuge in Palestinian communities in Lebanon.

In northern Iraq, we met many Syrian Kurds who, though they had been living in mixed cities in western Syria, had nonetheless moved all the way to Syria’s Kurdish-dominated northeast, before crossing the eastern border. “In the beginning, we were all together,” recalled Ahmed, a Kurd and engineering student at the University of Damascus who joined with fellow Arab students in the initial protests. Arrested by the authorities for anti-regime statements he posted on Facebook, he fled to Erbil, in Iraq, where he now watches with dismay the violent war playing out between Kurds and Islamists, who also oppose Assad, in Syria’s Kurdish region.

In some areas, particularly in Lebanon, the Syrian influx is so large that sectarian divisions become blurred. We met non-Palestinian Syrians who had made their way to Shatila, the historic Palestinian refugee camp in South Beirut, despite its reputation for overcrowding and lawlessness. “Lebanon is like Europe, with the [rent] prices,” said Wafa Hamakurdi, a housewife from Aleppo with a family of six. “Shatila was the cheapest thing.” Still more remarkable, many Sunnis have taken refuge in Shia towns controlled by Hezbollah. One local official in Hermel, a Hezbollah town on Lebanon’s Syrian border, said, “We have Syrians living alongside our own families here, and the sons of both are meanwhile killing each other in Syria.”*

The refugee situation has created daunting problems for Hezbollah. The militant Shia organization is terrified that a Sunni-led opposition might defeat its ally, the Assad regime, thus cutting off a vital source of support. Such a loss could also embolden hard-line Lebanese Sunni groups to take on Hezbollah inside Lebanon itself. On the other hand, the more Hezbollah fighters help the Syrian army, the more Sunni refugees will come to Lebanon, perhaps decisively tipping the country’s sectarian balance against the Shias.

And yet in Hermel, as in many other border towns in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, cross-border ties run deep. One Lebanese farmer, who carried an image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on his keychain, had taken in an extended family of eighteen because their own farm in Syria had been destroyed. A critical question facing the entire region is what happens when people like him—many quite poor—can no longer support the newcomers, and public opinion turns against the Syrians.

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Syrian children in a makeshift tent at al-Jarrah in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, June 7, 2013
  1. *

    See Hugh Eakin, “ Hezbollah’s Refugee Problem,” NYRblog, August 12, 2013. 

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