Civil war in Syria: The Spillover Threat
Water tankers line the unpaved road outside a pre-fab United Nations meeting room in Za’atari, the Syrian refugee camp in a desert just south of the Jordanian-Syrian border that is home to 110,000 escapees from the brutal war between Bashar al-Assad and his opponents or just about a quarter of the total number of Syrians in the country. Inside the meeting room, different perspectives on resource conservation and entitlement spill into the open.
A young Jordanian aid worker complains that Syrians despite years of drought have little concept of water conservation, a sensitive issue in one of the world’s more water-starved nations that has seen its population grow by an approximate eight percent as a result of the refugee crisis. Jordanian and United Nations estimates suggest that Jordan’s Syrian population could increase to 600,000 by April and up to a million by the end of the year.
In response to the Jordanian’s plea for greater care, a Syrian soccer coach counters that his section of the camp had been without water for the last two days. UN officials advised him that they were struggling to cope with the expansion of the sprawling camp as a result of the arrival of up to 3,000 new refugees a day. “What’s the problem,” the coach says, pointing his finger in the direction of where the water tankers are. “Just bring more water.”
Underlying the exchange, is a more fundamental perspective that promises to shape post-Assad attitudes in Syria as well as attitudes of the embattled leader’s eventual successors to their neighbors and the international community. The Syrian soccer coach’s sense of entitlement echoed among players in nearby Jordanian towns, reflects the refugees’ belief that they have been abandoned and betrayed by Jordan, the Arab world and the international community and are paying for it with their blood. ”This is not just a struggle for freedom in Syria, it’s a struggle for freedom for the Arabs,” said a Syrian striker void of any sense of gratitude to his hosts. “We would rather die than be humiliated. Putting us in the middle of the desert is a humiliation,” adds the coach.
The concern about the potential fall-out of mounting claims on limited resources coupled with increasingly regular clashes between refugees and security forces in Za’atari and growing worry that militant Islamists are emerging as a dominant resistance force has prompted a review of Jordan’s policy that could increasingly rope it into the conflict. Convinced that the Assad regime is trying to destabilize Jordan by targetting the Dera’a region in southern Syria and forcing its residents to flee across the border, Jordanian officials are looking for ways to help Syrian civilians stay on their side of the border. At the same time, they are preparing for a potential opening of the flood gates should rebel forces gain control of crossing points on the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Senior officials in King Abdullah’s court pour over detailed maps seeking to figure out ways of establishing a safe zone inside Syria similar to that created by Turkey on its border 30 kilometers inside Syria. The zone serves as a safe haven for refugees fleeing Aleppo and other confrontation points in the north of the country. That is a more difficult undertaking in southern Syria with Damascus, widely viewed as the not to distant focal point of a make-or-break battle between the rebels and Assad’s forces, much closer to the southern than the northern border. As a result, Jordan has quietly started allowing arms funded by Saudi Arabia and others to reach the rebels through its territory in a bid to strengthen rebel forces in Damascus and the south in the hope that they will contribute to stemming the exodus as well as in an attempt to redress the balance between Islamist militants and moderates within the armed resistance.
The potential for rising social tension is enhanced by the pain of austerity measures promised by the government to maintain the support of the International Monetary Fund for Jordan’s economic reforms amid an 80 percent drop in trade with Syria, reduced income from transit trade to Europe and the Gulf, increased shipping costs for Jordanian exports and stepped up budgetary pressure as a result of more people benefitting from subsidized pricing of bread, electricity and gas and greater stress on education and health care. Already schools, are forced to revert to a double shift system abandoned a decade ago while officials predict power blackouts in the near future.
The potential for increased social tension in Jordan is fuelled by a sense among both officials and the public that Jordan as the host of the largest number of refugees in the region is paying the price for what they see as reckless Saudi and Qatari for the more militant opposition forces. Some Gulf states moreover have yet to live up to their pledges to help Jordan fund the cost of the refugee crisis.
Back in Za’atari, the Syrian coach alongside UN agencies and international and Jordanian NGOs including the Asian Football Development Project, employ soccer to reduce tensions, focus energies, empower conservative women from rural Syria and forge a sense of community in a makeshift town that ranks among the country’s top four urban centers and has already witnessed hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage as a result of vandalism. With frustration prompting refugees to bite the hand that feeds them and irritation mounting among Jordanians as King Abdullah seeks to manage external threats and domestic discontent, Jordanian planning minister Jafar Abed Hassan voices a concern among officials and the public alike: “We’ve passed the breaking point. I don’t see who is going to provide answers.” James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author ofThe Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.