The Middle East faces a faceless threat, bigger and more challenging than ISIL

Syrian refugees walk between tents at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi. The Syrian refugee crisis will reshape the Middle East, argues Faisal Al Yafai (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Syrian refugees walk between tents at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi. The Syrian refugee crisis will reshape the Middle East, argues Faisal Al Yafai (REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

Who or what has had the most influence on the Middle East this year? As 2014 draws to a close, this is the reflective question many analysts and journalists are drawn to answering.

That question, in fact, was the premise of a television show that gathered together opinion-formers from across the Middle East (including this columnist) in Dubai last week.

In a year that made a household name of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, saw the re-election of Bashar Al Assad and the end (for now) of Nouri Al Maliki’s prime ministership, it is natural that a review of the year should focus on a single face.

Yet with so much happening in the Middle East and so many personalities contributing to those events, it strikes me that just as the problems of the Middle East are too big to have been caused by any one person, so the problems are too big to be solved by any one person.

The Middle East’s most influential figure is faceless, a challenge for the region bigger than the threat of ISIL or the rise of Iran. It is the refugee crisis in Syria, a nameless, faceless threat that, nonetheless, is creating new challenges daily.

The scale of the Syrian refugee crisis is almost unfathomable. The UN says three million Syrians have fled the country, with at least another six million displaced within the country. That is more than the population of New York.

Homeless, and fleeing war, at least half of those refugees are children, most of whom have had their education severely disrupted. Many have lost family members, too many are orphans – with all the vulnerability that brings – and all are severely traumatised.

Numbers on that scale are more than a crisis, more than a catastrophe. Syria’s refugee crisis is a cataclysm.

No one should be in any doubt about the seriousness of the Syrian refugee crisis. Nothing – not extremism, not climate change – has the potential to reshape the Middle East’s politics and society as much as the Syrian crisis.

Already it is having an effect on the politics of neighbouring countries. In Turkey, there is rising feeling against the refugees and the country’s policy towards Syria.

Lebanon last month halted the entry of refugees apart from exceptional cases. Both there and in Jordan, the change in the populations have been vast. Lebanon’s population has swelled by as much as 25 per cent, while in Jordan, as much as 15 per cent of its population are now Syrian refugees. Both are barely able to cope, struggling to find sufficient water, electricity and schooling for the arrivals.

We have been here before. The Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled in 1948 and again in 1967 reshaped the politics of the region, in particular in Jordan.

There is no reason to imagine this much greater exodus will not have a similar or greater effect, if the issue is not resolved and the war is not ended.

And yet even the basics are not being done. The UN’s World Food Programme has suspended its programmes in five countries because of a lack of funds – and just as winter begins to bite across the Levant. The shortfall in funding is $64m (Dh235m) a month – a relatively small sum when spread across governments in the rich world.

Despite the scale of the problem, it is largely hidden, a problem that exists in the shadows of neighbouring countries and in Syria itself.

This is partly because, like an iceberg, the majority of the problem is submerged. Most of Syria’s refugees are hidden: they are displaced within Syria itself, or are surviving at the margins of other countries. Many of those that can have left to build new lives in other countries.

But those who remain are faceless simply because there are so many of them. The emotional impact of all these people dissipates once it reaches our screens. It is always easier and more powerful to focus on individuals. Without personalising the problem, we cannot conceive of it. And because we cannot conceive of it, it is easy to ignore it.

But Syria’s refugee crisis is real and growing. The lessons of the last few years, first in the Arab Spring and later in the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq that allowed ISIL to grow, is clear: states have a capacity to absorb problems within their borders, but that capacity is finite. Push too much unemployment, instability, sectarianism or corruption (or a mix of all) into the state and it will eventually collapse or explode. The problems of states, the tensions within them, have to be addressed early.

That is precisely what is happening now with Syria’s refugees. The exodus is filling neighbouring countries and stretching them. An unforeseen crisis could make them burst.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: December 2, 2014 04:00 AM


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