BEIRUT, Lebanon — Arresting images of desperation on the West’s doorstep have brought Syria, for the moment, back to worldwide attention: refugees cramming into train stations and climbing border fences; drowned Syrian toddlers washing up on beaches, a girl in polka dots, a boy in tiny shoes.
It was never any secret that a rising tide of Syrian refugees would sooner or later burst the seams of the Middle East and head for Europe. Yet little was done in Western capitals to stop or mitigate the slow-motion disaster that was befalling Syrian civilians and sending them on the run.
“The migrant crisis in Europe is essentially self-inflicted,” said Lina Khatib, a research associate at the University of London and until recently the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Had European countries sought serious solutions to political conflicts like the one in Syria, and dedicated enough time and resources to humanitarian assistance abroad, Europe would not be in this position today.”
The causes of the current crisis are plain enough. Neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan became overwhelmed with refugees and closed their borders to many, while international humanitarian funding fell further and further short of the need. Then, Syrian government losses and other battlefield shifts sent new waves of people fleeing the country.
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Some of these people had initially thought they would stick it out in Syria, and they are different from earlier refugees, who tended to be poor and vulnerable, or wanted by the government, or from areas hard-hit early in the civil war. Now those departing include more middle-class or wealthy people, more supporters of the government, and more residents of areas that were initially safe.
Rawad, 25, a pro-government university graduate, left for Germany with his younger brother Iyad, 13, who as a minor could help his whole family obtain asylum.
People like Rawad and Iyad have been joined by growing numbers of refugees who had for a time found shelter in neighboring countries. Lebanon, where one in three people is now a Syrian refugee, and Jordan have cracked down on entry and residency policies for Syrians. Even in Turkey, a larger country more willing and able to absorb them, new domestic political tensions make their fate uncertain.
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As the numbers of displaced Syrians mounted to 11 million today from a trickle in 2011, efforts to reach a political solution gained little traction. The United States and Russia bickered in the Security Council while Syrian government warplanes continued indiscriminate barrel bombing, the Islamic State took over new areas, other insurgent groups battled government forces and one another, and Syria’s economy collapsed.
For years, Yacoub El Hillo, the top United Nations humanitarian official in Syria, has been warning that with the Syrian crisis — the “worst of our time” — the international system of humanitarian aid has “come to the breaking point,” especially as protracted conflicts pile up around the world, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere.
“This is the price of political failure,” he said in Beirut in March, declaring that the breakdown of the aid system results from the strategic stalemate over Syria. “This is a direct affront to international peace and security.”
He said that it cost the United States $68,000 an hour to fly the warplanes used to battle the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, while the United Nations has received less than half of the money it needs to take care of the half of Syria’s prewar population that has been displaced.
For neighboring countries alone, just $1.67 billion of the needed $4.5 billion for 2015 has been received. For those displaced in Syria, $908 million has been given of $2.89 billion needed. This week, World Food Program benefits were canceled for 229,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
“It is not really a question of money,” Mr. El Hillo said. “It is a question of in which pot the money is sitting.”
Few refugees have been accepted by the regional and global players that have supported combatants in the conflict. The Gulf Arab states and to a lesser extent the United States have armed and trained rebel groups, while Russia and Iran have armed and financed the Assad government, but those powers have devoted much less to humanitarian assistance. Politics also intrudes on aid, with the combatants trying to restrict aid to areas held by their opponents.
At a recent donors’ meeting in Kuwait, Mr. El Hillo said on Wednesday, he emphasized that “more can be done, not just by traditional donors but by new donors, chiefly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, to support humanitarian efforts inside Syria.”
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Syrians have so little hope for a solution in the near future that talk in the capital, Damascus, among supporters and opponents of the government alike, has turned to plans for getting overseas, especially to Europe. It is a route taken by everyone from the wealthy, whose money cannot always buy them visas, to the poor, who often sell everything to finance the trip. While many rich and poor alike risk an illegal boat ride to Greece from Turkey, those with money can fly or ride on other legs of the journey, choosing a kind of first-class ticket, while the poor walk for days.
There are signs everywhere that not all those taking the boats are economically destitute. On flights from Beirut to the Turkish city of Adana, costing hundreds of dollars, flight attendants plead with passengers over the intercom not to take the life jackets. Tourist ferry boats from Greek islands to Athens, with tickets that can cost $100, are full of Syrians.
Lebanon is giving transit visas to Syrians who take buses from the border to the Port of Tripoli, and commercial ferries from there to Turkey. Traveling on one recently was Jamal, a government supporter who fled after Islamic State fighters took over Palmyra, where he owned a cafe. Like the other Syrians interviewed, he asked that only his first name be used to avoid jeopardizing his bid for asylum.
At first he had moved from place to place inside Syria, living “like a hobo,” he said, but with “no job, no money, no house,” he decided to head to Turkey to work in a cafe and contemplate going farther.
Recently, boats to Greece from Turkey have carried numerous college-educated activists and insurgents who fought both the government and the Islamic State but have given up for now, seeking new lives abroad. On some of the same boats are young men who come from pro-government families yet are evading the draft.
Ahmed, 36, an agronomist, said the government office where he worked in Damascus was down to seven employees from 23, after the draft-age men left the country, mostly for Europe.
Even wealthy Sunni merchants of Damascus are making plans, including some who, while not big supporters of Mr. Assad, long put business over revolution, helping him hang on until now.
Abu Moaz, 45, and his two brothers own a cookie factory just outside Damascus, and persevered when government forces occupied the area around it and demanded more and more bribes. They moved the operation to the Midan neighborhood of the capital, but still government militiamen kept stopping their delivery trucks for bribes.
“Now we are just working for the checkpoints,” Abu Moaz said just before leaving. “It is better to start a new life in Germany.”
He spent $3,500 per person for him, his wife and two sons to take the deluxe route — by ferry from Lebanon to Izmir, Turkey; to Greece in an inflatable smuggler’s boat; and to Germany in a refrigerated truck — rather than walking for a month.
On arrival in Germany, he reported good news: Some of his friends had new ventures that were already thriving.
“One of my friends opened a Damascene restaurant,” he said. “The other opened a sweets shop.”
But not all families are that lucky. Aylan Kurdi, 3, was found lying face down in the surf on a Turkish beach, one of at least 12 Syrians who drowned nearby.
The boy’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, said in an interview that the family had fled first from Damascus and later from their ancestral home, the Kurdish town of Kobani that has been attacked repeatedly by the Islamic State. They were trying to immigrate to Canada, but could not get permission to travel legally. His son Ghalib, 5, and his wife, Rehan, also drowned.
“If they can’t work together to save these children,” Adnan Hadad, an activist from the Syrian city of Aleppo, wrote on Twitter as the image of the boy went viral, “the world leaders better find another planet to rule.”
Reporting was contributed by Karam Shoumali in Istanbul, Hwaida Saad in Beirut and an employee of the New York Times in Damascus.
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