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Omar Dahi: Syria’s refugee crisis can only be solved through a political solution that allows international relief to cross its borders

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News, and I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our discussion with Omar Dahi. He’s an associate professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Thanks so much for being back with us, Omar.


NOOR: So, Omar, in part one of this discussion we talked about some of the latest developments and the failure of peace talks to really amount to anything in Syria. And let’s turn our attention to the refugee crisis, ’cause we know that there’s at least six and a half million internally displaced people in Syria, perhaps 2.4 million or more external refugees.

And there’s some proposals to deal with the situation. One put forth by the group Inegma, which would create internationally protected areas on Syria’s borders where refugees will be protected by the UN and likely Western forces. So let’s start off by talking about proposals such as this. How do you evaluate their effectiveness? Or could they perhaps be a way to or a reason for U.S. forces to get further involved or Western forces to get further involved in the ground in Syria?

DAHI: Well, I spent three months in the fall of 2013 mostly in Lebanon, but with trips to Jordan and Turkey. We were researching the refugee crisis.

And it’s catastrophic. You have over two-point-four–maybe by now two and a half or more million refugees [inaud.] around 2.3 million that are registered.

Lebanon itself is the worst hit of all the neighboring countries, and in many ways the crisis in Lebanon is unprecedented, because you have over 25 percent of the population of Lebanon is now Syrians, coupled with the fact that none of them are in official UNHCR refugee camps, in addition to the weak central state in Lebanon. And, in fact, since April of last year, you only have a caretaker government, meaning you don’t have a government in power that can take effective developmental decisions that will meet the needs of the refugees. So the refugees in Lebanon are in a very bad humanitarian situation and they’re scattered all over the country.

The same is true to a certain extent in Jordan, even though Jordan has large official camps. But most of the refugees in Jordan are outside these camps, and less so in other areas, such as Turkey and Iraq, even though the situation isn’t great for many refugees there either.

So, in short, the situation is catastrophic.

But the last thing that needs to be done is further militarization of the refugee crisis. The refugees in the neighboring countries are now in fact in safe areas. They are not under attack by anyone. Their bad situation, their negative situation stems from the lack of humanitarian aid, from the lack of ability to deliver that aid, and the difficult economic conditions in which they live. But they’re not in direct danger of war.

The internally displaced population is in danger, because many of the people who are internally displaced, even though not all of them, but many of them are in areas that are not under government control. And these areas have been devastated economically and in terms of infrastructure and in terms of the continuous fighting and the air raids by the government.

There are many internally displaced people in, actually, the coastal areas which are under government control. And those people appear to be also safe, although with difficult economic conditions.

The proposal that you just mentioned echoes the proposals of the coalition, which was [snip] views humanitarianism as a means for opening military corridors inside the country. And I would say that the situation of the internally displaced populations and the refugees are such that you need immediate attention and immediate reach by the international relief organizations.

And the question is: is militarizing it the best way to do that? In the coming year or more as the peace process unfolds, you’re likely to see international peacekeepers in Syria. And I think three years ago I might not have thought that was a good idea, but today I think there will be. But that should only come after a political settlement has been achieved, meaning peacekeepers, if they come, should arrive to Syria only after there has been an agreement by at least the majority of the different warring parties or the main warring parties, the opposition and the regime, to accept peacekeepers. But short of that, they’ll be seen as a, basically, foreign invasion and might exacerbate the crisis, rather than reduce it.

The basic solution for the IDPs and the refugees, as well as all the other humanitarian dilemmas inside Syria is a political settlement. And short of that, the continuation of the war will continue to make the crisis more difficult.

NOOR: And so what are the other proposals on the table? Are there other proposals that you would support and could get behind? And, you know, as a counterargument, what would you say to people that say, we need troops on the ground now to protect the refugees, you know, millions and millions upon refugees, extremely vulnerable populations inside of Syria.

DAHI: Well, for instance, I mentioned the refugees outside of Syria are not in need of protection from violence. They’re in need of humanitarian aid. Second, in terms of the IDPs and the people who are not necessarily displaced but who are living in extremely difficult economic and social conditions, the proposal that I might support or that I will support and many others have supported is for all sides to commit to allowing humanitarian access, unfettered, to all those in need. And that would include access to areas that are now under regime siege, which are being starved to death, for example the Yarmouk Camp in the suburbs of Damascus, and other areas which may be under rebel control as well, especially areas around Aleppo in the north that have seen tactics by rebel groups that are similar to this process of starving the people into submission. And so this is one of the things that was raised in Geneva but was not achieved, but this is the most effective way to do this, in addition to perhaps allowing international relief agencies to reach areas in Syrian territory that are not necessarily emanating from inside the regime-controlled areas.

Many of the international relief agencies have been having a problem. For example, if the United Nations was wanting to reach areas under siege or areas that are in need of humanitarian access, the Syrian government stipulated that it must emanate from areas under its control. They wouldn’t allow cross-border humanitarian access. So the Syrian government threatened to kick out all the UN agencies if they try to reach, let’s say, the north of Syria from Turkey. And so one of the sticking points was whether this is a acceptable practice. And there’s been a lot of pressure against the Syrian government to allow cross-border movement of goods to reach these areas by the United Nations and other groups.

So these kind of proposals, the ones that get both sides to commit themselves to, are the ones that are most likely to be effective. Short of that, militarizing the conflict preemptively will increase the rate of violence, rather than decrease it. And I think many of its advocates are viewing it as a way to essentially drag more international intervention into Syria, more direct military, international intervention into Syria, rather than, in my view, a genuine solution to help those in need.

NOOR: Omar Dahi, thank you so much for joining us.

DAHI: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: You can watch both parts of our interview with Omar Dahi at Follow us on Twitter @therealnews. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Omar S. Dahi is an associate professor of economics. He received his B.A. in economics from California State University at Long Beach, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on South-South economic cooperation, and on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa.