An Uneasy Welcome
In so many ways, being on the ground provided a texture and feel for the crisis that is impossible to get reading or watching news reports from thousands of miles away. In particular, we learned firsthand how the crisis is reverberating in ways that will surely bring strains, conflict, and as-yet unanticipated consequences for countries throughout one of the most strategically vital regions of the world.
Jordanian officials and others reported growing tensions between Jordanians and the tens of thousands of new arrivals who come on the heels of those also fleeing strife in Iraq, Egypt, and other Middle East countries. These massive population flows are driving up rents since so many of the refugees from Syria—perhaps 80 percent—live in private homes or apartments, not in camps. They are also exacerbating conflict over access to scarce resources, like water, and adding strains to the health care system and the school system, which is running two shifts a day to accommodate the new refugees.
The Jordanian government has largely been hospitable to the new arrivals, but officials are now “managing” the border more aggressively to keep the number of refugees at lower levels. Currently several hundred refugees a day are crossing into Jordan, compared to thousands a day just a year ago.
With no end in sight, the unanswered question is how long Jordan will continue to accept large numbers of refugees and what it will do if the crisis endures. By informed estimates, there are at least a half million displaced persons in southern Syria who would cross into Jordan if possible. Lebanon, with a much weaker central government and deep sectarian divisions, is probably at even greater risk of further instability, with close to one million Syrian refugees in a country the size of Maryland.
Our conversations in Jordan revealed a deep sense of despair about the situation inside Syria. Refugees and relief officials alike agreed that Assad’s policy of targeting civilians in his campaign to retake strategic positions from the opposition appears to be “working.” Few had any faith that the diplomatic efforts in Geneva would ameliorate the situation, and—sadly—there seemed little consensus on what policy approaches from Syria’s neighbors and world powers would be effective. It was unclear how and whether Syria could be put back together, and some of those we spoke to envision the country becoming a Somalia-type failed state.