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Syrian Refugee Crisis Update – Understanding the Conflict

by Gibran Caroline Boyce

In recent months, we have all read and listened to numerous accounts of the growing Syrian refugee crisis and even debated it in our own country as everyone – from the person on the street to Presidential candidates – added their voices to the debate. However, in the past few weeks, the sympathy for the fleeing refugees has been undermined by concerns for terrorists sneaking into the midst of the group and gaining entry into countries willing to accept them. It has raised several debates, including how to balance empathy for Syrian refugees against safety and security of countries. Is it also appropriate for a presidential candidate to suggest that all the people of a particular religious group be barred from entry into the country, as we have seen in the current presidential election as a few candidates called for a total ban on Syrian refugees? Is it ever okay to close your border to a people that is in so much desperate need?


To understand the crisis is to understand its history. One of the most powerful recent summaries on the history of the Syrian Refugee crisis was published by the BBC on October 8, 2015. There, the story was related on how a people came to flee its homeland in the face of war, civil unrest, untold human suffering, and deaths of innocent people. BBC stated that as of the date of their article, more than 250,000 Syrians had lost their lives following four and a half years of conflict. An additional 11 million others have been forced to flee their homes under threats from both armed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and armed jihadist militants from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).


The BBC’s eight-point summary went as follows:

  1. Violent Uprising – In March 2011, pro-democracy protests became violent after security forces opened fire on unarmed and even teenaged demonstrators. As the government used force to quiet protestors, the public took to the streets in protest. Soon, small armed-groups began forming to protect their neighborhoods.
  2. Civil War – By June 2013, 90,000 were already reportedly killed according to the UN. By August 2014, the estimate had doubled; it had almost tripled by August 2015. The nation is now in full civil unrest, with multiple layers to its infighting, including sectarian and jihadist conflicts.
  3. War Crimes – The UN faction that is investigating developments in the Syrian crisis believes that human rights have been violated by both rebels and governmental forces on different sides of the conflict, and include murder, torture, rape, and enforced disappearances. Depriving citizens of basic needs, including food, water, and health care, has also been used as a war tactic. We have also seen footage of mass killings and beheadings over the period.
  4. Chemical Weapons – In August 2013, the civil war reached a new low, when rockets filled with the nerve agent Sarin were fired into the Damascus area, killing hundreds, including a lot of children. Many blamed the Syrian government, but the government blamed the rebels. However, it begged the question: who beside the government with its history of housing chemical weapons would be able to complete this attack? Rumors of the Islamic State hoarding chemical weapons have also become common.
  5. Humanitarian Crisis – For many of us, the reasons why are complex and do not alter the fact that many Syrian families need help. Over four million have fled Syria since the conflict began – men, women, and children with little left but the clothes on their backs. The conflicts, according to the UN, left 30% of Syrians in abject poverty and eliminated education, health, and social support.
  6. Rise of Jihadists – The presence of the Islamic State is now a staple in the region as extremists control large areas in northern and eastern Syria, along with neighboring Iraq. Airstrikes by coalition of various world governments have not been very effective, and there is a sense that there are so many different layers of warring groups – often defined as including ISIS as well as the Syrian government itself – that eliminating any enemy group and reclaiming stability in the country is difficult to accomplish.
  7. Peace Efforts – The UN continues to try to broker peace by bringing together allies of different nations to fight terrorism and trying to develop longer-term strategies to reverse the crisis. However, these may take a much longer time to work given the challenges at hand.  
  8. Proxy War – This is a less clear issue of nations like Iran and Russia aligning themselves with the government of current Syrian President Assad, despite overwhelming evidence that the government’s actions may have contributed significantly to the crisis through suppression of the people and may even have been the cause of atrocities such as the chemical-related deaths. Without confidence in the current government, countries like the U.S. have been reluctant to put their soldiers in harm’s way on the ground in Syria, and the backing and arming of rebel groups has become treacherous.


So, as uncertainty in the region continues, refugees continue to flee the land and beg nations to “rescue” them with an offer for resettlement, while fears of the same nations rise that in the process of eagerly helping a people in need, they may unwittingly let in members of terrorist or other militia groups that are seeking to export their war to other countries. Should our moral obligation to help others take precedence over our national security interests? The debate will no doubt continue, as leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel took in refugees at the rate of tens of thousands in a single week and committed to taking hundreds of thousands of refugees in coming years, earning her the TIME Magazine 2015 “Person of the Year.” Her decision was sharply criticized by many who felt it displayed her naiveté about terrorism. U.S. President Barack Obama applauded Chancellor Merkel’s decision, as U.S. nervousness about terrorism risk has reportedly limited resettlement to less than 1,000 Syrian refugees since the crisis began. For the refugees away from their homeland, uncertainty continues for a happy-ever-after life as many wait in holding camps for nations to let them in. This crisis is different, as the struggle of a few has become the curse of many. One cannot help but wonder when the world will see these fleeing people as Refugees instead of Terrorists, as only then will the doors begin to open.

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Photo Description: A Syrian man carries a child wrapped in a thermal blanket as they arrive with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece. (Petros Giannakouris)