In the hillside town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the mid-December storm named Alexa blanketed Syrian refugee camps in heavy snow. The normal population of Arsal is eighteen thousand. It has more than doubled since November 15 as fighting continues along the road that parallels the Syria-Lebanon border. The refugees have taken shelter in more than two hundred informal camps. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has partnered with the Lebanese Army to assist the tens of thousands of Syrians who walked the 17 km that divides this town from Syria. Lisa Abou Khaled of the UNHCR said the refugees are in dire straits because the “makeshift shelters are really substandard”. The United Nations supplied many residents with thermal blankets, but these are insufficient.
On December 2, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres visited Arsal before the storm dispatched a foot of snow across the valley. “Let’s be honest. We’re not doing enough,” he said. “Here in Arsal, we are seeing an emergency within an emergency. We’re in a town that has more Syrians than Lebanese. Beyond that there is a gap of human capacity, clinics, schools that are not there.”
Over the course of the past month, the Syrian Army and its proxy forces have moved north from Damascus toward the town of Homs. They have largely cleared the strategic Qalamoun Mountains, shutting off many of the strategic access points for the resupply of the rebels. It is from these towns along the border that the Syrians have fled to Lebanon. The fighting has been lethal, with the Syrian government hitting the towns with airstrikes and artillery. The rebel forces have retaliated not only inside Syria, but, as on December 17, inside Lebanese territory too, with rockets and artillery striking Hezbollah targets in the town of Hermel. Syrians from Nabk and Yabroud attest to the peril of remaining behind. This is the reason why the flood of refugees into the snowy mountains of Lebanon has continued unabated. Their choices are unfathomable.
Those who remain behind in Syria are not only targets of violence, but are stalked by hunger. Two-and-a-half million Syrian civilians inside the country are out of the reach of humanitarian agencies (including the United Nations). “Words, despite their ability to shock, cannot really paint a picture of the grim and gruesome reality of Syria today,” said UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos. Those who get away are the lucky ones.
As the Syrian government forces a move to close off the Lebanon-Syria border, the Turkish authorities have already shut their crossing point at Azaz. Turkey, which had been one of the more vocal countries for the rebellion, has now held its tongue. Two factors have silenced the Turks. First, the growing independence of Syria’s Kurdish population — which announced the formation of Western Kurdistan on the Turkish border — has threatened to reinvigorate the Kurdish resistance inside Turkey. Last year, the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)’s field commander Murad Karayilan said, “Let me state clearly: if the Turkish state intervenes against our people in western Kurdistan [in Syria], all of Kurdistan [including in western Turkey] will turn into a war zone.” The message has been absorbed. Second, in-fighting between the various Islamist units along the border had spilled into Turkey — something that the Turkish government does not want to encourage. They shut the Azaz border post when the Islamic state in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham fought pitched battles for its control. As the UN’s Valerie Amos noted, “clashes among the [two thousand armed] groups are increasingly common and key humanitarian routes have been cut off by the fighting”.
Jordan’s monarchy had already tightened its control over its long sprawling border with Syria. In December last year, the Al-Hayat reported: “The Jordanian Kingdom fears the continued rise of Brotherhood groups in the Arab world and it dreads that once the current regime is overthrown, Syria would join this new Islamist alliance.” The King had once called for the removal of the government of Bashar al-Assad, but he no longer makes such unequivocal statements. Over the summer, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham took a military post along the Damascus-Amman highway and threatened to use the Jordanian border as their main supply route. In November, Bashar al-Assad said the southern Syrian city of Daraa has “become a Jordanian problem”. Mohammed Shalabi (Abu Sayyaf), head of the Islamist fighters in Jordan, said that his men continue to cross the border, although Jordan’s Interior Minister Hussein al-Majali has denied this and has pushed back against Saudi pressure to open the border to the Islamists. These are “decisions of sovereignty”, he said. The weight of the refugee crisis, combined with the dangers of political violence, has stayed his hand, and has forced the Jordanian authorities to be stricter along the border.
The Iraqi-Syrian border is by far the most porous, with the threats running between Baghdad and northern Syria. At a security conference in Bahrain in early December, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that the ISIS fighters — numbering over twelve thousand — travel across the border with impunity. Over the past month, ISIS has bombed four bridges that link the Iraqi city of Ramadi to the border town of al-Qa’im.
This prevents the already beleaguered Iraqi military from gaining easy access to the border. ISIS, meanwhile, has set itself up along the length of the Syrian-Iraqi desert. “This is toxic,” said Mr. Zebari, “and the day will come, God forbid, when they will have another Islamic Emirate outside control.” Iraq has been unable to contain the threats posed by ISIS, which are part of the legion of groups conducting as many as sixty bombings per month in the country.
The enormity of the Islamist challenge within Syria and around it has alerted Western governments to be even less chary to support the rebels. As the Free Syrian Army (FSA) collapses, the rebellion’s military aspect is now clearly in the hands of the Islamists — whether Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, or the newly created Islamic Front (among whom the most significant military force is the salafi Ahrar es-Sham). From the standpoint of Western intelligence, the distinctions between these groups — such as whether they welcome foreign fighters — are moot. In early December, the Islamic Front seized the Turkish border post of Bab al-Hawa (Gate of the Wind), west of Aleppo, from the FSA — taking their cache of arms. The FSA’s General Salim Idris fled Syria for Turkey. It is a major setback for the FSA, on whom the West pinned its thinning hopes. The creation of the Syrian Rebel Front out of detachments of the FSA and its allies to counter the Islamic Front is not impressive. Col. Abdel-Jabbar Ukaidi, a leading rebel commander, resigned his post out of frustration with the infighting. “When we rose up in rebellion we had only one enemy,” he notes. Now the enemies are legion. The United Kingdom and the United States hastened to announce that they had “suspended all further deliveries of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria.” Such supplies will continue to come through Jordan, but geography means that they will not reach the areas in northern Syria where the Western-backed FSA is being wiped out by the Islamists.
With access to supply routes through Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey becoming closed off to the Islamic Front and the FSA, it is only the ISIS through Iraq that is able to bring in more material and men to the battlefield. It is the emergence of ISIS that has forced the hand of the West and Syria’s neighbours to push for the restart of a political process. But when the main powers meet in Geneva on January 22, will they be able to make decisions on behalf of the rebels? The Islamists remain outside the process, having rejected not only Geneva II, but most significantly the Supreme Military Command of the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition, the political opposition. Neither the rebel armies on the ground nor the backers of the Syrian National Coalition — mainly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — are eager for the entente that might emerge out of Geneva II. It means that expectations for its outcome are not very high. The best that can emerge is a procedure by which the Syrian government acknowledges that it will constrain its hand once it takes back most of the country, avoiding revenge and building a political process. The deal around chemical weapons is an indicator that the West is now eager to constrain the Assad government rather than to overthrow it. That was the precursor to the kind of political deal that is expected in Geneva.
The rebellious spirit continues through protests, across Syria, against the siege-like conditions in which people are being forced to live, and against both the Islamists and the Syrian government. If the Syrian government’s heavy-handed violence had turned sections of the population toward the rebellion, the cruel tactics of the Islamists, such as public beheadings, has repulsed ordinary people. Their hopes of a dignified future recede. When politics is determined by guns, the civil rebellion — howsoever intense — is no longer significant. It will have no role at Geneva. Neither will the Syrian refugees who are frozen in the hillside town of Arsal and in the Jordanian desert camp of Za’atari.
(The writer is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut)