The Syrian Diaspora: Political Palliative No More
Written by: Natalie Van Booven
(As of Sept. 30th)
How long can a month last—not in a chronological sense, but in an emotional sense? If the ado coming from Washington over how to handle Syria is any indication, then a month can seem like a cross between an eon and an eternity. Ever since pictures and reports of victims of gas attacks (mostly children) started to appear in late August, Pres. Obama and his team of functionaries have worked nonstop to thwart any further episodes of chemical warfare in Syria.
The fighting in Syria and the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq differ most in how Washington handles the ensuing challenges and dilemmas. Obama has been wary of the military’s power ever since he allowed generals and civilian policymakers to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan during his first year as president, and the situation in Syria has provided him another chance to find a solution without involving the military.
The three highest-ranking members of Obama’s team are Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey. Kerry leads the interventionist charge, while Hagel and Dempsey support the president’s reluctance to unleash the army. All have military records—Dempsey in Iraq and Kerry and Hagel in Vietnam—and they wish to restrict the Pentagon’s prominence in their plans for Syria. In particular, Hagel puts a lot of thought into when using force would be suitable. When Pres. Bush authorized the increase of troops in 2007, Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “This is a Ping-Pong game with American lives; and we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder.”
Not everyone is as loath to use the military as Hagel is, though. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S. C.) have both advocated military force, arguing that Hagel and Dempsey’s reticence has impeded any development of plans to tackle the situation in Syria. In fact, before the reports of gas attacks arrived on Aug. 21, McCain thought Dempsey’s assessments of the consequences of intervention were “beyond anything that any rational military thinker that I know would ever contemplate.” Graham, meanwhile, believes that the Pentagon should be doing more to confront what is happening in Syria and has “long since lost confidence” with their present methods.
The pokiness of the Pentagon may frustrate Graham and McCain tremendously, but their eagerness to act is not entirely groundless. Reports of the Syrian government maltreating its citizens have been circulating since Apr. 2011, about a month after the first protests began. The list of reported crimes includes door-to-door arrest campaigns; sexual violence; shots fired on unarmed civilians as well as medical personnel; and raids of clinics, hospitals and mosques. Attacks by the government have also changed in frequency and in breadth, from intermittent assaults to extensive use of cluster bombs, which are illegal in many countries—and this was all before chemicals killed just over 1400 people.
Unsurprisingly, the number of refugees has undergone a spectacular increase. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, alias the UN Refugee Agency) says that, as of May 2013, Egypt has taken in 103,000 refugees; Iraq has taken in 161,000 refugees; Turkey has taken in 418,000 refugees; Jordan has taken in 512,000 refugees; and Lebanon has taken in 561,000 refugees. Inside of Syria, 4.5 million people have been displaced.
Altogether, the situation in Syria has affected over six million people, or about 28 percent of the population; and the resulting economic strain has been colossal. In Jordan, refugees have made so many demands on local communities’ livelihoods, public services and supplies that the World Bank has had to step in. Reuters estimates that refugees comprise 10 percent of the population of Lebanon, where food has become pricier and where electricity and transportation are overloaded. Turkey’s economy can handle the influx better than Jordan and Lebanon’s economies can, but the risk of sectarian violence has snowballed. For its part, the UN has acknowledged the stress that the refugees have put on Syria’s neighbors, but it continues to urge them to keep their borders open.
Throughout the Middle East and since the beginning of Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on rebels, Syrian refugees have been crying for help. The onset of chemical warfare has only intensified that cry, and it has not been ignored. On Sept. 14, the UN unanimously agreed to implement a plan coauthored by America and Russia that would force Syria to get rid of all its chemical weapons by the middle of 2014. If the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) approves the plan, then the 2.5-year logjam over the situation in Syria will end.
There are two parts (or annexes) to the plan. The first annex defines the parameters that America and Russia believe should apply to the OPCW’s decision about destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, while the second annex describes what the elimination process should include. Initially, several countries (i.e. the Gulf Cooperation Council, made of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) were skeptical of the impact that the Russian-led proposal would have on Syria. However, many more countries (e.g. America, China, France, Iran and the United Kingdom) embraced it. Even Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem, jumped on board, saying his government was “ready to fully cooperate.” That Syria is ready to oblige the proposal could signify the beginning of a new era.