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NYRB: Syria's Refugees: The Catastrophe

Authors: Hugh Eakin, and Alisa Roth
October 10, 2013

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"One of the misconceptions about the Syrian refugee crisis is that it mainly involves people in large camps, above all in Jordan and Turkey....But according to UN figures, a full three quarters of the Syrian refugee population throughout the region are surviving on their own in towns and rural areas."

The country had a population of 22.5 million when the war began; about 10 percent have now left. With nearly a half-million Syrians now in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actively supporting the Syrian opposition and has turned his country into a primary conduit of arms to rebel groups. Along with the FSA, which is favored by the US and its allies, these include other militias, some of them associated with aggressive Islamism. Notably, the Turkish government has not impeded the activity of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the UN Security Council.

In Jordan, a far smaller and more fragile country, the arrival of an even greater number of Syrians has raised fears that refugees could bring instability or encourage jihadism among Jordanians themselves. In recent months, the Jordanian government has clamped down on its refugee population while quietly allowing the United States to build up a military presence to protect its border with Syria. In northern Iraq, a rapidly growing population of some 200,000 Syrian Kurds is drawing Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government into a violent new war between Kurds and Islamists in northeastern Syria. Iraq's Kurdish leaders are meanwhile locked in conflict with Syria's main Kurdish party over the future of Syrian Kurdistan.

And then there is Lebanon. A tiny, fractious country of about four million people when the Syrian uprising began, the Lebanese Republic has large populations of Sunnis, Shias, and Christians, and especially intricate ties to Syria, which surrounds all of its northern and most of its long eastern borders. According to the government, it has now received well over a million Syrians, most of them within the last twelve months; soon, nearly one in four people in Lebanon will be Syrian. A large majority of the refugees are Sunni Muslims and many Lebanese Sunnis strongly support the Syrian opposition. Yet Hezbollah, the powerful Shia group that controls significant parts of Lebanon, has been fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime.

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