Published by: IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2014 print issue.
Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Head, MENA Programme,
The Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham,
The Syrian civil war had forced 2.7 million Syrians to register as refugees outside the country between 2011 and May 2014. This is equivalent to more than half the number of Palestinians registered as refugees
as a result of the 66-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the situation has continued to worsen: the UN High Commissioner on Refugees estimated the number of registered Syrian refugees would rise by
more than one third, to 4.1 million, by the end of the year, on top of an estimated 4.5 million displaced people inside the country. Altogether, this means a third of Syria’s population is displaced.
Most of the refugees remain within neighbouring countries, with only a few tens of thousands given homes in the European countries that have supported the Syrian opposition. The pre-existing political, social
and economic pressures troubling Syria’s neighbours, especially Iraq and Lebanon, are being exacerbated by the influx of Syrian refugees from different political sides and sectarian groupings.
As it has become more internationalised, the conflict has become bloodier and harder to resolve. What started as a local revolt against corruption and brutality has increasingly become a theatre for regional and
international power struggles, especially a rivalry that has been described as a ‘cold war’ between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The failure of international efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, along with ongoing failures to stabilise Iraq or achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, has led the West’s allies in the region to question the willingness and
ability of the US to offer the kind of security they would like. Direct military intervention by Western countries appeared less likely than ever, given the UK parliament’s refusal to authorise British participation
in airstrikes that were briefly mooted by the US as punishment for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the US’s subsequent decision to avoid airstrikes in favour of a UN-supervised dismantling of the Syriangovernment’s chemical weapons stocks. The US and Europe have subsequently focused their efforts more on diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, but UNbrokered talks have made scant progress, and the
Syrian government has escalated its violence against opposition-held areas. The crisis has also cast a shadow over the wider Arab uprisings, as the preeminent example of how an uprising initially concerned with social justice and an end to police brutality has been derailed by ethnic and sectarian identity politics.