The numbers are mind-boggling. Seven million people, one-third of Syria’s population, are refugees. Most are still inside war-torn Syria, though not living in their homes or communities. More than two million have crossed the borders into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Others have reached Egypt, Iraq and Yemen, and some have made it to Europe.
They have fled, literally for their lives, seeking safety from the murderous Assad regime, whose assault on a group of schoolchildren 30 months ago launched a conflict that to date has cost the lives of more than 110,000.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, addressing the 193 countries attending the UN General Assembly, tried to focus the attention of the international community on this core issue of refugees, which reached crisis proportions long before the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against Syrians in August prompted world leaders to respond to that aspect of the conflict.
The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan already equals one-tenth of the country’s population, and “could reach one million, some 20% of our population, by next year,” said King Abdullah. “Not even the strongest global economies could absorb this demand on infrastructure and resources, let alone a small economy and the fourth water-poorest country in the world.”
Za’atari, for example, a refugee camp erected in Jordan for Syrians, is now one of the world’s largest, housing more than 120,000 people, half of them under age 18.
This camp suggests in microcosm what’s in store for the Syrian people, especially the younger generation.
Even if the US-Russia plan, endorsed by the UN Security Council, to identify, collect and destroy Syria’s large supply of chemical weapons is successfully implemented, the refugee masses require urgent attention.
The regime may not use chemical weapons again, but the full force of Syria’s military might is still available and employed. Syrians are still finding ways to exit, currently at a rate of more than 5,000 a day, according to the UN.
Apparently, this mystifies the Assad regime. Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem, in his UN address, called on “Syrian citizens to return to their towns and villages where the state guarantees their safe return and their livelihood away from the inhuman conditions they suffer in those camps.”
Moallem’s fantasy aligns with Assad’s disconnect from the reality of who have been the main victims of this tragedy in Syria and who is responsible.
“We don’t kill our people,” Assad told Barbara Walters in an ABC TV interview in Damascus in December 2011.
“No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
And speaking to Charlie Rose of PBS in an interview last month, Assad flatly denied any government involvement in the August 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus. “We’re not sure if chemical weapons were used and who used it,” Assad said.
Indeed, Assad has managed to survive while acting with complete impunity and denying any culpability for the devastation his regime’s forces have wrought across the country.
He has been given the same pass on using chemical weapons multiple times on his own people as he has been given for what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called crimes against humanity – murder, detention, torture of Syrians of all ages.
The refugees had hoped to eventually return to whatever is left of their homes, villages, towns and cities after Assad is gone. But day by day that scenario is looking increasingly improbable – and Assad is talking about elections in 2014.
No one can be more disappointed than the refugees themselves by the tepid response from the international community. Donations for humanitarian relief, always a challenge to collect and deliver, are not keeping pace with the needs. Military intervention to ensure delivery of aid inside Syria is off the table. And a new agreement of 17 Western nations to accept some 10,000 refugees to help ease the burden on Syria’s neighbors is a paltry offer that shows unwillingness to grasp the gravity of the crisis that King Abdullah called a “global humanitarian and security disaster.”
For a combination of reasons, the world powers came together to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons. Similar urgency, long overdue, is needed now to deal with the refugee crisis.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.