Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC

Syria: Escalation and the Ballooning Refugee Crisis

More than 100,000 dead in 2 years. This astonishing figure is the ghastly reality for Syrians today, who now live in a country where no corner has been left untouched by the fighting between the government and a diversely composed band of rebels whose divergent motivations are unified only by the goal of ousting the enduring regime of Bashar al-Assad and do not appear to present even a semblance of unity regarding their post-war objectives. Now, they are receiving weapons from abroad.

Within this context, the diversity of international actors now involving themselves in this situation is of particular concern because the outcome of actively supporting one group over another within the “revolutionary movement” seems so unclear. Understandably, the desire to “do something” is pushing many to support the countries currently contemplating intervention; however, it is important to remember that, official statements aside, the real ambitions of any country in the region — whether it be Russia and Iran, or the United States and the Gulf countries — are questionable at best. Indeed, according to some accounts, the United States has linked its assistance to rebel groups to assurances that a post-Assad Syria will support U.S. regional objectives.

While many pundits have rushed to emphasize the supposed sectarian nature of the conflict, they would be advised to take a closer look at the alliance of Shiite majority Iran and Hezbollah in the context of regional relations. Assad’s Syria, for instance, has been an essential pathway for Iran’s financial and weapons-based support to the Lebanese group, and neither Iran nor Hezbollah has suggested that their alliance with Assad is based on any sort of confessional solidarity. Rather, it is more likely that Iran fears losing the regional influence it has gained through its support of Hezbollah, buoyed by the ease of weapons transport across Syria into Lebanon. That said, the more that external powers emphasize sectarians divisions, the more likely they are to exacerbate the conflict within Syria as well as push the fighting to a regional scale.

Ultimately, in the muddled Syrian quagmire, there are several key conclusions that we can reach with increasing certainty:

1. Countless civilians are dying every day

2. Both the Syrian military and the revolutionary forces are guilty of extensive human rights abuses, but the sheer magnitude of power in the hands of military means that it has caused far more devastation.

3. The United States and “friends of Syria” have agreed to start arming the rebels.

4. The possibility of Assad leaving through negotiations or voluntarily is minute.

5. The impact of the ongoing war is already a regional problem with the number of refugees set to expand exponentially this year if fighting continues.

A seemingly unending humanitarian and refugee emergency

Aiding those within Syria remains an almost insurmountable task at present as violence escalates and the situation grows increasingly more unstable, yet even those who have left the physical conflict behind to join the refugee populations in neighboring countries — especially Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan — face a shortage in aid and funding. Nearing astronomical proportions, with an estimated 1.6 million Syrians now living as refugees. Many analyses suggest that this number will more than double by the year’s end unless there is a significant change on the ground within Syria itself. With sufficient aid resources a distant dream and options limited, the obstacles to ensuring that refugees live in relative safety are enormous.

From my own experience in Jordan, those with any financial resources or local connections that allow them to leave the camps do so. Foreign resident registration desks at local police stations across Jordan are regularly seeing large groups of Syrians registering as residents through family or friends’ addresses. While those who manage to arrange their safe passage outside of the camps are the “lucky ones,” they still face enormous obstacles in finding employment, as domestic and regional labor markets already have a sizable worker surplus. Thus, the average Syrian’s struggle for normalcy and a dignified existence reaches far beyond the borders of his or her war-torn homeland or even the refugee camp.

It remains unclear in which direction Syria is headed, but it is likely to get worse before it gets any better. There is no time like the present for defying headlines and uniting around the importance of preserving human life rather than political power. At least that’s what we might — in a reasonable world — expect certain regional actors to do.

image credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images