The human cost of the increasingly savage civil war in Syria can be seen in the faces of its displaced children. Some outlined their deeply disturbing stories to me earlier this month at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where about 60 per cent of the current population of 180,000 is of school age. Boys and girls described experiences that hardened soldiers would find it difficult to cope with, all the while displaying physical and psychological wounds that in many cases will never heal.
That the youngest victims of Syria’s violence are among the best placed to tell us about its wider effects is beyond doubt, but there is a great deal more to be learned from the refugee communities growing on the country’s perimeter. Spend just a few days in camps such as Zaatari – which opened less than a year ago but is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan – and you soon begin to realise that these new settlements threaten to provoke an economic, social and security crisis that could have repercussions as grave as the fighting that created them.
The scale of the refugee problem was made clear by the United Nations recently when it called for a $5.2bn fund to help cope with the flight of men, women and children from Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny. This amounts to the largest appeal of its kind in history. Even that enormous figure might not be enough, as the UN estimates that the number of Syrian refugees across the region – now 1.6 million – could reach 3.5 million by 2014.
Aid workers I spoke to pointed to growing resentment among host populations. Despite the lavish wealth often displayed by Jordan’s monarchy, many of the 6.5 million people living in the country are relatively poor – yet their government is currently accommodating roughly half a million Syrian refugees. Up to 2,000 more arrive every day, putting an immense strain on resources.
While in Jordan, I often saw local people being turned away as they demanded a share of the aid being distributed by charity groups to Syrian newcomers. Water is becoming particularly scarce among Jordanians, who are unhappy about the 35 litres per person each day that the Syrians are using. This is six times more water than the average Jordanian gets through.
Water deliveries are few and far between in towns and villages where crowds took to the streets as recently as December to complain about the high cost of gas and electricity. As summer droughts begin and the lack of water drives up food prices, many believe it could be the catalyst for severe civil unrest.
“It is always economic shortages which trigger the street demonstrations,” said Hind, a teacher who lives close to Zaatari. “Jordan is considered one of the most secure countries in the region but, with more and more Syrians arriving every day, there will be a breaking point. It will be the same in other countries nearby.” Syrian rebels are openly using refugee camps for rest and recuperation. Zaatari is just five miles from the border and an obvious place for combatants to travel to. Armed groups can establish a firm and relatively safe base in a neighbouring country before heading back to the front line. This raises the prospect of conflict proliferating across the region.
Lebanon, which has experienced a 20 per cent increase in its population since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, is the home of Hezbollah militants who are fighting for and alongside President Assad’s troops. Turkey, which is pro-rebel, is sheltering more than 200,000 Syrians. Turkey, like all of Syria’s immediate neighbours, is becoming increasingly fearful of terrorist attacks directly linked to the civil war.
The greatest fear among all the countries involved, however, is about the kind of Syria that will finally emerge from the conflict. It was King Abdullah II of Jordan who, in April, presented President Barack Obama with a map of Jordan’s neighbour divided into rival fiefdoms and – most sinisterly of all – showing its surrounding deserts dotted with terrorist training camps.
The prospect of sectarian hatred and murderous extremism being formalised by new borders is terrifying, especially when one considers the role that ordinary Syrian people played at the start of the Arab spring in 2011. It is easy to forget that it was their street protests demanding change that grew into a nationwide movement – one that was crushed by Assad as he set about massacring his own people.
As many of the surviving protesters find themselves forced abroad, their problems not only remain unresolved but are being exported to countries that are increasingly unable to cope with them.
This is the latest of our weekly reports exploring aspects of the war in Syria