Blurred Borders: The Consequences of Over-Spill from Conflict in Syria
On Thursday 6 February at the Frontline Club, Dan Smith, secretary general of International Alert, chaired a panel which discussed the impact of the war in Syria on the surrounding states.
Smith asked the panel what could be done to improve the situation in the region?
Julien Barnes-Dacey, who was based in Syria as a journalist from 2007 to 2010, said:
“Clearly the only solution is a Syrian solution. Syria is sucking the life out of the region. It’s Syria that is promoting a refugee crisis and until that situation is resolved you’re not going to get a regional resolution to all of the accompanying issues.”
Lebanon is absorbing many of Syria’s six million displaced people but the country has many of its own existing problems. An audience member asked if these problems had got worse since the influx of refugees.
Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham, said:
“. . . You would consider it as a failed 20th century state as compared to Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Libya who were successful. These components that we thought were the failure of Lebanon are what’s holding it together now. . . . Lebanon as a society can live without a state because it never had any.”
But the influx of people, while being supported by Lebanon’s ability for self-preservation without the structure of a state, is not sustainable, said Victoria Stamadianou, Lebanon country manager for International Alert:
“It’s important to remember that resilience is depletable. . . . We’ve seen a lot of refugees being hosted by communities, everyone expected that there would be massive conflict across the country and that hasn’t happened . . . they’ve managed to be resilient but that’s something that can be depleted and needs to be strengthened.”
From the audience, Sarah Williams, who spent six months in Jordan last year, asked how the country has been stabilised by the Syrian conflict.
“[In 2011-2012] things were really rough. . . . There was a lot of unprecedented domestic pressure against the king . . . you had unrest in the south . . . I think that what Syria has done is to quell that. . . . In a general sense in Jordan at the moment, ‘This is better than what’s happening in Syria at the moment and we don’t want to risk that.’
“It’s worth saying that this is a short-term thing. Long term you’ve got the refugees, you’ve got Islamists . . . the king [still] has huge economic problems.”
The panel agreed that the battle lines may seem to be drawn along religious and ideological lines but they are in fact political.
“I think the Shia–Sunni rift is overplayed, when Erdogan of Turkey and Hamad of Qatar and also Abdullah of Saudi Arabia were supporting Assad, it was not because he was Shia or because he was Sunni, it was because they thought they could do business with him.”
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent for The Guardian, said that they do however sustain the conflict:
“While I agree with that analysis and the cause of this conflict wasn’t sectarian, what’s sustains it in part certainly is.”
“Very deliberately. . . . [It’s about] regional power play and regional alliances but those alliances are using sectarian networks to achieve their political ambitions.”
An audience member asked, what is the long-term solution?
“I don’t put any faith at all in the feckless political class in Lebanon. I think that the issues are far bigger than them even if they wanted to confront them. I do think there has to be a point, an intersection of the strategic interests of the key players – the Saudis, the Iranians in particular, but also the Russians and to some extent the Americans.”
Carol Allen-Storey, a photojournalist in the audience asked, where are the visionaries of the future, who is going to inspire?
Chulov and Shehadi said that they couldn’t come up with many suggestions for the future leaders in the region, however Stamadianou was more optimistic:
“You can’t just hope that you’re going to find this new breed of people that didn’t exist there and they’re going to solve all the issues. . . . What you can do is . . . see if you can find ways to model different approaches to doing politics and supporting them to change the grain – working with the grain to change the grain.”
“Today in a sense the Syrian population has been unleashed, so one can say there are no distinct ‘Mandelas’ that one can see on the horizon but there’s a whole people that have discovered a political awakening which was kept away from them for so long.”
Watch and listen to the full discussion below: