The long road to retaliation: delayed airstrikes in Syria will exacerbate the regional refugee crisis

Rapid, punitive airstrikes two and a half weeks ago, while certainly displacing some Syrians, would have been less likely to lead to larger numbers of refugees.

Steven A. Zyck
9 September 2013

As many columnists and news pieces noted this past week, US President Barack Obama has placed a great deal of emphasis on pursuing a clearer mandate and degree of legitimacy for limited airstrikes against Syria than George W Bush had for a full-fledged invasion of Iraq. His secretary of state has gone on the offensive, outlining the case for airstrikes; and most recently the Obama administration has sought congressional approval for the strikes – thus delaying military action yet again.

While many have applauded the seemingly measured approach to the use of force – hardly demonstrated by President Obama in relation to poorly justified and secretive drone strikes – it creates major complications for any military action which does come in the coming days or weeks.

Firstly, there are the obvious drawbacks to such a gradual, partial and “mother-may-I” approach to punitive strikes, which Syrian rebel leaders, Israeli officials and many American commentators have already highlighted. It hardly sends a potent message, emboldens those threatening to use non-conventional weapons elsewhere and does little to help rebel fighters battling the Assad regime. Perhaps most importantly, if the United States and broader international community are so reluctant to respond in this first instance, one might presume that they would find it even harder to take any stronger military action in the future. The back-and-forth, confused and weak-willed approach to punitive air strikes has made this clear to Syrian leaders. The Syrian government simply needs to get past whatever retribution comes and then resume those means and tactics, other than chemical weapons (perhaps), which have killed upwards of a hundred thousand people to date.

Secondly, the delays have risked exacerbating the pre-existing refugee crisis in the region. It has allowed greater numbers of Syrians to prepare to leave their homes and either become internally displaced or seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Rapid, punitive airstrikes two and a half weeks ago, while certainly displacing some Syrians, would have been less likely to lead to larger numbers of refugees. Waiting – as Syrians have done, watching the world discuss whether to bomb their country – allows for anxiety to build and for families to prepare to leave; a single day of retributive bombing would have more likely led people to seek shelter rather than head for the borders.

For instance, while variations in the figures may result from multiple factors, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, registered an additional 26,212 refugees on 27 August alone. In particular, there has been a notable uptick in refugee flows since President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, among others, began vocally pushing for military action against Syria two weeks ago. More than 98,000 more Syrian refugees have been logged by UNHCR between 21 August, when the chemical attacks took place, and 5 September. During the two-week period before the chemical attacks, fewer than half that many new refugees had been registered. Certainly some of the new refugees result from the chemical attacks themselves and concerns that they could continue or expand. But it is telling that the number of refugees did not start spiking until nearly a week after approximately 1,400 Syrian civilians were killed on 21 August. In the first five days after the attack, the rise in numbers of new Syrian refugees was below average; there were 4,000 new Syrian refugees per day vs. an average of 4,700 per day going back to early 2012). In the five days after that, when the political crescendo appeared to be reaching a climax in Washington and London, the numbers of new refugees rose to an average of nearly 12,000 per day, according to UNHCR figures.

While it is not possible based on these figures alone to claim that international discussions and threats of foreign airstrikes had led to larger numbers of Syrian refugees; however, this is certainly a dynamic which seems logical and which, if ultimately confirmed, has major humanitarian and security implications which would impact the region as a whole.

How airstrikes could shape regional refugee dynamics

While it is not possible to know exactly where airstrikes may occur and how they will affect the refugee crisis, educated guesses are feasible. For instance, we know that those in government-controlled areas and highly contested areas may feel the most at risk. Second, given that the Obama administration is already so conflicted about air strikes, it seems likely that they will be limited – as senior American officials have stated – and focused overwhelmingly on reducing the Syrian regime’s airpower, which has provided it with a major advantage over rebels. Cities, aside perhaps from targeted attacks on key government and military installations, will likely go untouched. With these criteria in mind, consider where government control is the strongest and where airbases are predominantly located (see map of territorial control and airbases in Syria on the BBC website).

Given that attacks on military bases in contested areas are likely to be most useful to the rebels, it seems that Damascus and surrounding bases could be hit the hardest (though other areas could also be targeted). Those in affected areas would likely face a choice between fleeing to Lebanon and Jordan – if they decide to flee at all. In the former they would join well over half a million Syrian refugees; in the latter the number of Syrians is estimated at closer to a million, or roughly 20% of country’s the total population.

En route to Lebanon, a new wave of refugees would probably pass through areas controlled by the government and the rebels, a risky proposition which could contribute to further violence. Once in Lebanon, they would add to sectarian tensions which have, in recent weeks, contributed to violence and renewed concerns about a renewed civil war. Recent attacks in Lebanon have been reminiscent of the previous civil war, lasted for 15 years and killed tens of thousands. Indeed, the situation in Lebanon has been so tense that the US government has pulled out non-emergency personnel; such a move would generally have to be based on credible intelligence regarding likely terrorist attacks.

In Jordan the new round of refugees would add to a dire humanitarian crisis in camps such as Za’atari – which now houses around 130,000 Syrians in harsh conditions – just as flooding during the September rainy period gives way to a months-long dry season.


Figure 1. Distribution of Syrian Refugees in Neighbouring Countries. (Click here to see larger image)

Source: Reuters, 20 August 2013, with data from UNHCR, the US State Department and news reports. Shared on Pinterest.

Regardless of which option they choose – with some also likely heading towards northern Iraq and a few towards Turkey – they will contribute to a pre-existing regional humanitarian crisis. They will also feed into complex conflict dynamics. If Lebanon, a country where sectarian balance is anxiously monitored, is destabilised by ever-increasing numbers of refugees, it would threaten to pull Israel and Iran more fully into this conflict. We would inch closer to what New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described as ‘one great big [sectarian] war’. Indeed, and while it is crucial for the international community to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, now the discussion must – after needless delays in taking military action – consider the broader implications of airstrikes.

New questions must be asked: How can international actors prevent strikes from producing large new waves of refugees (e.g., communications efforts or nuanced targeting of strikes)? What sort of new funding and logistical preparations need to be put in place before the strikes? And what can be done to prevent existing and future refugees from destabilising Jordan and Lebanon?

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