We must rethink the way we’re dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis -- or risk militants winning hearts and minds.
Recent government airstrikes on Aleppo, Syria have led to hundreds of civilian casualties and yet another wave of refugees to neighboring states. Islamist militant groups in the country grow stronger by the day. The moderate opposition is in disarray, unable to agree on a negotiating platform. And President Bashar al-Assad is insisting he will not step down.
Things certainly don't look promising in Syria heading in to the Geneva Peace talks scheduled to begin on Jan. 22. Participants at December's Peace Game, sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy, shared this gloomy assessment. But when they shifted their focus from high-power politics to events on the ground, they unearthed some unusual options for promoting peace -- options that should receive serious consideration from policymakers, given the lack of viable alternatives.
One option for promoting stability in Syria and around the region centers on deeper engagement with the fast-growing refugee population. There are now more than 2 million refugees from Syria; the United Nations projects that the number may reach 4 million by the end of 2014. Young people represent more than half of the current refugee population. This influx of people puts enormous political and economic strain on neighboring countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Their presence pushes wages down, prices up, and sends unemployment soaring. Housing, schools, and medical facilities are stretched past the breaking point. Water shortages are leading to violent clashes. And violence against refugee women and girls is pervasive.
And yet, these people are not just victims or problems. They are parents and teachers, doctors and shopkeepers, tribal elders and farmers. There are no people on the planet who are more passionately committed to seeing stability return to Syria, and thus they could represent a powerful constituency for peace. But they could also be powerful spoilers -- an entrenched source of volatility that could fuel conflict in the region for decades, in particular as young refugees seeking meaning and purpose view militant leaders as the only people offering a solution to the crisis. Which direction refugees end up going depends on how we address and assist them now.
Indeed, it is time to rethink our assistance in protracted crises so that we can begin to tap into the positive potential of refugee communities, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping against hope they won't become spoilers down the road. Too often, the international community waits until a political agreement is signed before we begin to strengthen the hand of ordinary people who are committed to peace. But if our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that a political settlement is just the first step, and that the competition and score settling that occur post-agreement can seriously damage the chances for lasting peace. It is never too early to equip people with the skills and support they need to navigate tensions and promote peaceful solutions, even if these people currently seem powerless.
What would that look like in concrete terms? One example is a program implemented by Mercy Corps, a humanitarian relief and development organization that works with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. In addition to humanitarian assistance, Mercy Corps provides mediation training to Syrian refugee leaders and host communities in a pocket of northern Jordan so they can address tensions that emerge over issues such as employment and housing. These leaders then implement development projects that benefit both Syrians and Jordanians. So far, the leaders have used their new skills to calm violent clashes over access to water in Zaatari village, which sits next to Jordan's largest refugee camp, and have set up a committee to oversee the maintenance of water pipelines shared between the camp and the village. They have raised money from wealthy local families to fund extra water tanker deliveries to both the village and the camp during the year's hottest months. They have addressed tensions over access to health care and have procured funding to begin construction on an emergency room that will relieve pressure on medical facilities meeting the needs of refugees living in and around Ramtha. And they have worked with the Jordanian government to build new classrooms to accommodate hundreds of Syrian children.
By providing mediation training, the international community is also helping support a future peace, since the skills Syrian leaders learn now can help them manage the disputes they will encounter when they return home. The program in Jordan is based on a similar initiative in Iraq, where in the post-conflict period, a network of leaders -- Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, tribal elders and local government officials -- have used mediation to resolve hundreds of disputes, from clashes over water to skirmishes between factions of the military and police over control of key roads. In one case, an Iraqi leader brokered a deal between Sunni and Shia villagers that allowed Sunnis to return to homes they had abandoned during a wave of sectarian violence. In addition, the Iraqi mediator and community leaders were able to marginalize extremists who opposed the deal, eventually apprehending them and turning them over to Iraqi security forces.
It is worth noting that this U.S. State Department-funded program in Iraq -- which created a nationwide network of 200 leaders and led to a measurable reduction in violent incidents -- cost the equivalent of deploying roughly three U.S. soldiers over the same time period. What's more, Iraqi nationals who participated in the program are now among those providing training through Mercy Corps to Syrian and Jordanian leaders. Such men and women have firsthand experience with violence and civil war. They are far more able than Western experts to speak to the challenges faced by their counterparts in the region. And they have the credibility that comes with having successfully resolved many of the same issues that are now leading to tensions between Syrian refugees and host communities.
To be sure, no one should be under any illusions that a mediation program will bring complete peace to Syria anytime soon. The program in Jordan, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the British Foreign Office, is small. It reaches only 50 Syrian and Jordanian leaders and touches just six villages in northern Jordan. But imagine if it, or programs similar to it, could reach thousands or tens of thousands. Imagine if these Syrian women and men not only used their skills and experience to manage tensions with host communities, but also to bridge sectarian and political divisions that currently tear the Syrian community apart.
The U.N. has requested an unprecedented $6.5 billion in assistance to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. The mediation programs described here, even if they were expanded thousandfold, would only represent a fraction of that amount. The vast majority of the money is going to lifesaving assistance, such as food, shelter, and medical care. As important as this assistance will continue to be, we need to explore new models of helping and empowering refugees as the conflict in Syria stretches into its third year.
Bilateral and multilateral donors need to be much more flexible in terms of how they view humanitarian aid and adopt an approach that combines lifesaving assistance with training and development projects that meet the needs of both refugees and host populations. This also means that donors need to adopt longer program cycles. Too much of our humanitarian assistance is still doled out in three- to six-month increments, causing our response to lurch from one urgent need to the next. Extending programs to a minimum of twelve months would allow initiatives like mediation programs to take root and flourish.
Donors, humanitarian organizations, and the media also need to start viewing refugees and host communities as important sources of leadership, rather than as passive recipients of aid. For example, some donor trust funds being established to support refugees do not have any local representatives on their board. And yet, as the mediation examples suggest, local leaders are in a far better position to identify solutions to the problems they face than officials in remote national and international capitals.
Finally, wherever possible, young people need to be deeply engaged in training and development projects, learn mediation skills, and participate in implementing programs that benefit their communities. Young people badly need to see an alternative to the violence that drove them from their homes, and they need to see respected adults address challenges and resolve disputes by cooperating with others. Many of these young people have seen terrible things happen to their families and communities. As much as they want to attend school and have a safe place to live, they also want to do something to help -- to try to fix the wrongs that have been done. Either we offer them that opportunity, or militant groups will.
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