The BRICS states can emerge as a mediator for a political process only if they view the crisis from the perspective of those fleeing the conflict
Syrian refugees stalk Beirut’s commercial districts such as Hamra and Achrafieh. Shoeshine boys walk up and down the avenues, including the beachfront, the Corniche, asking to clean your shoes. A group of them say that they are from Dara’a, the southwestern city of Syria where the rebellion began in 2011. One of them draws his fingers across his throat to say that his parents were killed in the violence. He now sleeps on Beirut’s streets with his brother and friends, trying to eke out a living. Women sit on the sidewalks, cradling children, begging. A Beiruti says that some poor Lebanese have taken advantage of the goodwill to masquerade as Syrians. That is perhaps why a Syrian woman on Hamra stands with her passport in hand — I am an authentic Syrian refugee, she says.
The total population of Lebanon is only 4.2 million. UNHCR estimates put the Syrian refugees at about 1.5 million. All the refugees are not as impoverished as the women and the shoeshine boys. Wealthier Syrians, or those who are willing to use up their desultory savings, have given life to the rental market in Beirut, where rental fees have risen by 20 per cent as a result of this new influx. Renters now ask refugees for a year’s rent in advance, knocking the middle class Syrians to seek assistance from international humanitarian agencies. These agencies are now stretched to the limit. On May 11, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati said: “The Lebanese government has so far received limited support at a time when the number of the displaced is rising.” In fact, financial pledges have not been converted into financial resources. The situation is dire and without end; evidence of permanent construction in refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley reveals that the international agencies have no faith that the political process will result in any proximate solution.
Lebanon’s crisis of refugees is not unique. Jordan, south of Syria and closest to the troubled governorate of Dara’a, has also had its crisis. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said in early May that the Syrian refugees form 10 per cent of Jordan’s current population, but by next year are expected to rise to about 40 per cent of the Kingdom’s population. Adding the Iraqis (five per cent of Jordan’s population) and the Palestinians (a third of the Kingdom’s population), it is plain that Jordan is simply the caravanserai for refugees of conflict in the Arab world.
Patience runs thin. In Beirut, grumbles of discontent about the Syrian influx are evident on the streets and in the drawing rooms. The weakened Lebanese state is in the midst of a constitutional crisis over its electoral law, heightened by the geopolitical advantages given to the anti-Syria bloc (the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, currently domiciled in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) and the geopolitical constraints to the pro-Syria bloc (the March 8 movement, led by the Hizbollah, whose own future as the leader of the Lebanese Resistance has been delimited by its need for Iranian and Syrian support).
Little can be done either to settle the refugees away from the major urban centres, where there is danger that they might import the fissures of Syria, or to broker a peace agreement inside Syria that might stem the flow of refugees.
In Jordan, the northern towns bristle with anger as more refugees cross the border. In March, near the Za’atari refugee camp, some Jordanians demonstrated after they had been evicted in favour of Syrians with U.N. vouchers and Gulf resettlement money. Rent in the northern towns has doubled over the past year. Setting up U.N. tents, the protesting Jordanians put up a sign, “Jordanian Displaced Peoples Camp.” It is a sign of the times. The political tussles of refugees have threatened Jordan’s monarchy previously, most spectacularly when the war against the PLO in the 1960s turned into the Black September expulsion of the Palestinian group to Beirut in 1971. Syria’s Assad knows this well. Last month he said: “The fire will not stop at our borders. All the world knows Jordan is just as exposed as Syria.”
Conversations about Syria devolve into the geopolitics of the conflict. Lines are hastily drawn up based on affiliations that are only tangentially related to the Syrian imbroglio that broke out into the public domain in 2011. There is no question that there is a bloc led by the Gulf Arab states that wants to assert its hegemony over the Arab Spring, and sees in the Syrian crisis an opportunity. The Qataris and the Saudis are the first to have started funding their preferred political agents in Syria, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or far more nefarious entities (including Jabhat al-Nusra). This bloc has been given sustenance from the West, with the Europeans less worried than the U.S. and the Israelis about the character of the powerful forces of political Islam. The Gulf Arabs, Israel and the West, including Lebanon’s March 14 Alliance, recognise that a weak Syria would prevent Iran from rearming the Hizbollah — and so strengthening the West’s preferred pillars of stability for the region. The West, as is well known, easily accommodates its language of human rights with friendly dictators, including the Gulf Arab rulers, who have a penchant for the market. They are not standing on principle here.
Since it is plainly the case that the West, Israel and the Gulf Arabs are eager for a geo-strategic shift in the Levant, the government in Iran and the Hizbollah are trapped into supporting the Assad regime. They have little choice. It is why those who oppose western imperialism find themselves in the camp of the Assad regime, holding their noses no doubt but yet willing to defend a dictatorship whose history begins in the dungeons of Damascus’ Far-Filastin prison. It is also the reason the Russians (who have a historic tie to the Assad regime) and the Chinese, chary of a revision of power in the region, are willing to give Assad the benefit of doubt.
Histories of distrust
Matters in Syria are not as simple as these two blocs make them out to be. Both the Assad regime and the various sects of the rebellion command the allegiance of sections of the population. Long histories of distrust with reform processes in the country have been sharpened by the financial and military backing by external powers, leading both the regime and the rebels to refuse an actual political process. They remain with the gun, chasing out more and more Syrians to seek shelter in more remote parts of the country or in a neighbourhood rapidly being drawn into the conflict. The Syrian conflict is complex, and it is only through a precise sense of the complexity that a path ahead can be traced. Simplifying matters into the two blocs helps neither an analysis of what is occurring nor does it provide a path ahead to peace. The West, the Gulf Arabs, the Turks, the Israelis, the Russians, and the Iranians have picked sides. They are not going to be fitting actors to bring pressure on both sides — this is a major opportunity for the BRICS bloc.
To date, only Russia among the BRICS power has taken an active role in Syria. This has had nothing to do with its role in the BRICS and far more to do with its Cold War past. The positions of Brazil, India, China and South Africa have been anodyne — calling for a “Syria-led political process leading to a transition” that “meets the legitimate aspirations of all sections of Syrian society and respect for Syrian independence” (declaration from the 5th BRICS meeting of March 2013). There has been no talk from the BRICS about ending arms sales into Syria, or about opening the borders to humanitarian aid — indeed, there has been no attempt by the BRICS countries to coordinate delivery of humanitarian relief from the BRICS itself. BRICS might be able to assert itself as a reliable humanitarian actor and a sound mediator for a political process. If the BRICS states see the Syrian conflict less as a geopolitical chessboard and more through the eyes of a Syrian refugee, they will be able to involve themselves sincerely into this seemingly intractable and dangerous conflict.
(Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South — LeftWord, 2013)