L’Internationale, 2 January 2015
The United Nations estimates that the total number of Syrian refugees will be around 4.1 million by the end of 2014. But a larger number emerges when data from neighboring countries are combined: 1.23 million in Jordan, 1.5 million in Lebanon, more than 1.6 million in Turkey, 140,000 registered refugees in Egypt, and more than 150,000 in Iraq. Though different sources provide different figures, the actual numbers are probably even higher, due to the many unregistered refugees.
It is likely that the number of internally displaced people exceeds seven million, which means that half of the Syrian population has fled their homes. UN agencies call this the worst human crisis in a generation.
Military salafi groups have had their share in humiliating and killing Syrians and Syrian Palestinians. The most notorious among these is Dae’sh (ISIS), which is responsible for the expatriation of many people – Arabs and Kurds alike – from the northern and north-eastern parts of the country. Concurrently, dozens of Syrians are killed on a daily basis at the hands of the Assad state. Vigorously supported by Russia and Iran, it still refuses serious negotiation.
What is happening in Syria is a very brutal form of Palestinization of Syrians, with an amplified Palestinization of Syrian Palestinians (600,000 before the revolution). But instead of one Israel, there are three Israels here: the continuously warring Assad state, Dae’sh and other salafi jihadi groups, and also the United States administration, which has effectually engineered the Syrian devastation “from behind.”
The conditions in which Syrian refugees live vary from one country to another, on a scale of bad to worse. The contemporary world is composed of units called nation-states, where foreigners are not welcomed unless they are “healthy, wealthy and wise.” The influx of forcibly displaced migrants with limited resources and open-ended residence stimulates the worst xenophobic instincts within this type of political arrangement.
In fact, the way these nation-states deal with refugees is not much different from the ways they deal with their weakest subjects, those who constitute the most vulnerable segment of the “citizenry.” The Lebanese authorities treat Syrian refugees in the same way that they treat Palestinian refugees who have been there for more than half a century; the hostile position of some sectors of Lebanese society towards the Syrians is in no way different from their positions towards other sectors of Lebanese society, divided as it still is by sect and class. But current social and political arrangements, built up after 15 years of civil war (1975-1990), do not always allow Lebanese parties to deal with each other in the discriminatory ways that they are permitted to deal with poor and vulnerable Syrians.
In Jordan, Syrian refugees have a status that Palestinians previously had. The highest level of control and discipline is directed at the poorer refugees, the ones the Jordanian government has isolated in the Za’atari camp.
In Egypt, the situation of refugees from Syria mirrors the situation of the Egyptian poor after the Sisi coup d’etat. Egypt became narrower to Syrians when it became narrower to Egyptians themselves.
Turkish authorities deal with Syrians in a patronizing way that renders them dependent on the host country and weakens their independent political initiative. This clearly paternalist tendency is further enhanced by the pressure that European governments exert upon Turkey to regulate the status of the Syrian community such that the movement of Syrians into Europe is severely limited. Democratic Europe has been very active in intensifying Turkish control over Syrian refugees, limiting their mobility and preventing them from travelling to Europe, even for cultural or academic purposes. But it also bears consideration that the modern republic in Turkey was premised on denying the political agency of some sectors of its population, such as the Kurds. This exclusionary tendency is now repeated in the republic’s dealings with Syrian Kurdish refugees, who are seen as representatives of a threatening political entity, and not as asylum seekers in dire need of shelter and safety.
As a matter of fact, neighboring countries host diverse populations of Syrian refugees in a manner consistent with the diversity of their own social and cultural environments. As the Turkish researcher Şenay Özden has put it, each community has its own refugees: the Syrian Kurds are hosted by Kurds of Turkey, Syrian Alawites are hosted by Turkish Alawites, and Arab Sunnis from Syria are hosted by the AKP government and religious Sunni communities in Turkey. The rich live in gated communities, and the poor live under dire conditions in refugee camps and in urban locations.
In sum, the terms according to which refugees must navigate and find a place in these countries are set by the host society’s class, cultural and socio-political structures.
In keeping with this observation, European asylum policies facilitate the acceptance of minority Christian refugees more than other groups. Months ago, France expressed its immediate readiness to host displaced Christians from Iraq, and there are reports that Canada is also thinking of prioritizing refugees from Syrian minorities. ‘Minoritising’ the Syrian population, just like the Assad state has always done, is an inherent outcome of Western policies.
Although fourteen European countries have not accepted any Syrian refugees at all, the total number of refugees in Europe was estimated at around 20,000 in June of 2014; other sources say that 55,000 have been able to reach Europe. Thanks to the high walls the old continent has built around itself, refugee smuggling has become an industry and human trafficking now flourishes in Turkey and North African countries. Three thousand Syrians were buried in the Mediterranean because of the aristocratic and entitled mindsets of European governments and wide circles of their political elite. Because of their ‘lower status,’ migrants are considered as a threat to an affluent society’s welfare or, after the rise of Dae’sh, as a security threat. For those who are accepted by Europe, it is always expected that they must discipline themselves in ways that they are not allowed to negotiate.
The conditions of Syrian refugees and of refugees in general reveal the exclusionary basis on which the contemporary state system is built. The tent camps established for refugees by some neighboring states, along with the refugee camps in some European countries, are structurally comparable to the discipline and categorization strategies that these states impose upon their own subjects. ‘Democratic’ states are no exception: to an even greater extent, these states tend to isolate the stranger and build both visible and invisible barriers around him or her. Only those with high incomes, who speak the country’s language without accent, and whose appearance and habits are not that different are ‘integrated.’ But one has to come from the higher strata of the middle class in order to achieve this. The rest are referred to the margins, along with local and other foreign poor.
Within the general genealogy of disciplinary strategies now being applied to refugees, other examples can be named: prisons and mental hospitals, as analyzed by Michel Foucault; nineteenth-century factory organization; the importation of slaves to ‘the new world’; and, in a way, even colonialism itself. The historicity of ‘civilization’ – for these forms of discipline are called civilization – is established either by casting away its past to the outside, or by applying its own past to those coming from outside.
But even as the conditions of the Syrian refugees express something essentially horrific about the world’s situation, they say something far more horrific about Syria. The Palestinization of Syrians means that these people are stripped of political agency, their lives colonized, and so their annihilation becomes easy. This process also signals the Israelization of the Assad state that colonizes and massacres them, while enjoying international protection. Before the expatriation of more than four million Syrians from their homes, the majority of Syrians were already internally exiled within a country that was already expropriated from them and labeled as “Assad’s Syria.” Part of the population identifies with the regime, for class or sect reasons, but even these people have no real political rights. Those who have tried to claim politics and rights have been faced with destruction, again and again.
Conditions of displacement, refuge, and exile cannot be grasped without an understanding of their origins in a political order that denies the population ownership of their lives, country, and politics. That is why a radical solution to the problem of the Syrian refugees requires standing in solidarity with them as they work to reclaim their country, instead of acting as if Syrians fled their country as a result of a natural disaster. It requires understanding that the entity who Palestinianized Syrians is, mainly, the local Israel – the Assad state.
Aspects of the Israelization of this “state” are many. It has a complete monopoly over the air force. It has been protected from condemnation by four Russian-Chinese vetoes in the Security Council, just as the United States has done to protect aggressive Israel. It has categorically refused to recognize the opposition as negotiation partners and has expressed no interest in negotiating with them. It has developed a ‘modernizing’ ideology complete with an array of symbols that conceal basic matters of justice and political equality. It dehumanizes Syrian protestors and resisters and accuses them of being terrorists, with the tacit cooperation of the international community as marked (for example) by the granting of a UNESCO award to an organization led by Asma’ al Assad, the tyrant’s wife. And the public killer at the head of this state is supported by all the fascists and Stalinists of the free world and is interviewed in its free press!
The West’s exclusive focus on Dae’sh marks the other side of the dehumanization of Syrians, and reduces their much larger struggle to this single, fascist entity. With this move, the society of Syrians inside and outside the country is completely obscured, and as people, they become invisible. This outcome is not a matter of lack of information or knowledge, it is a matter of politics – a politics of the elite, even though some of them argue that they represent the masses.
This horrendous situation is unfolding in an interconnected world. According to its laws and regulations, Syria was formed as a modern state, and it is a member of the United Nations. These days, there are no countries that are isolated enough not to be neighbors to others. Those who close their doors against migrants spend a lot of precious resources on walls, doors, guards, and security procedures. To justify this spending, legitimizing ideas and ideologies are produced. As their production accelerates, the basic life conditions of the people deteriorate, as freedoms are sacrificed to the guards and those who control resources.
The idea of the ‘homeland’ and the system of the nation-state are problems of the world, not of the refugees. The representatives of these political relics should justify their continued existence to the waves of asylum seekers, not the other way around. Syrians, after Palestinians, are living witnesses that this world order should change.