The Forgotten Palestinians in Syria

The Syrian Civil War was the longest and most complex geo-political conflict to emerge out of the Arab Spring, thus creating a complicated legacy for leftist analysts to interrogate. In this interview, exclusive for Counterpunch, former United Nations special rapporteur, and international relations scholar Richard Falk, breaks down Palestine and Syria and the history and politics of that refugee crisis from the left. Often, this topic finds the center-right media attempting to focus on Syria, not in the interest of Palestinians, but to remove the attention away from US/Israeli aggression. Falk, a fierce critic of US and Israel foreign policies, highlights the complexity of the Palestinians in Syria and points out how a host of domestic and foreign policies, and worldviews from the left and the right, both complicate and threaten Palestinian survival and their pursuit of liberation in the face of ongoing US-sponsored settler colonialism.

Daniel Falcone: How many Palestinians are in Syria, and how long have they been there?

Richard Falk: It is difficult to be very accurate about refugee and displacement statistics due to the prolonged internal Syrian turmoil over the course of more than a decade, and still ongoing. Before the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011 the number of Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA in Syria was 526,744, the majority of whom came to Syria during the Nakba in 1947, fleeing especially from what was then northern Palestine, now Israel. A large proportion of the Palestinian refugees in Syria chose and were able to live outside the refugee camps, with no more than 111,000 of the more than a half million living in the nine official, and three unofficial camps, according to estimates in 2002.

Current calculations reach somewhat smaller numbers due to Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries and to Europe and thought now to be around 450,000 within the borders of Syria. During the displacement of Palestinians in Syria during the civil war, reflected the dangers of being a refugee in a combat zone, especially in the face of the growing enmity between the Syrian government and the Palestinian refugees, because of their opposed alignments in the Syrian Civil War.

Daniel Falcone: What kinds of social, political, and economic devastation do Palestinians living inside Syria experience? Stephen Zunes has indicated that reliable numbers for Palestinian civilians killed by Syrian military assaults is around 4,000.

Richard Falk: Until the civil war began in 2011 relations between the Syrian government and the refugees seemed positive, especially as compared to the negative features of Palestinian treatment and experience in other Arab countries, particularly Jordan (‘Black September 1970’) which encouraged the voluntary displacement of Palestinians, departing from Syria, and seeking refuge elsewhere, especially Turkey and Western Europe. Prior to the civil war Palestinian refugees enjoyed substantially equal rights in Syria with the resident populations, could own property, and work in various sectors of the economy.

After 2011, Syrians were viewed by the Damascus government as a hostile presence in view of their overall support for the anti-government political forces, which in part reflected the Shiite-dominated political leadership and the Sunni-dominated opposition forces. Among other developments was a virtual war by Syria against the refugee camps in Syria, most prominently the Yarmouk Camp located on the outskirts of Damascus, resulting in many Palestinian deaths, displacements, and widespread hunger in the period between 2011 and 2018.

Such conditions prompted many Palestinian refugees in the 12 Syrian camps to risk the increasingly dangerous migrant journey to Europe, a situation further aggravated when Trump defunded UNRWA in 2018. Prior to the civil war in Syria, Palestinian refugees were much more regulated and their economic and social options restricted in Lebanon, with its delicate Muslim/Christian demographic balance, and in Jordan, where Palestinian refugees were seen by the government as a political threat.

Daniel Falcone: Is there a problem on the left in the United States in undermining the plight of Palestinians in Syria in relation to the left’s varying perspectives on the Syrian Civil War?

Richard Falk: Yes, the hostility of the hard left to intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, despite its oppressive tactics, autocratic governance, and outright atrocities seemed overly based on siding with what political forces invoked in the form of anti-imperial arguments against siding with the anti-Damascus insurgents, which included more humane and democratic elements than did the government, at least at the outset of the conflict.

At the same time, complexities were present no matter which side was supported in the bitter civil strife. First, the US and Turkey underestimated the capabilities and loyalties of Syrian armed forces, being too quick to think it would be as easy to get rid of the Assad regime than it had been for NATO to induce an anti-Qaddafi regime change in Libya. NATO also miscalculated in Libya. Instead of a successor regime friendly to the Global West, the situation in Libya deteriorated from one of autocratic stability to a condition of political chaos and civil strife among ethnic communities, in effect from autocracy to anarchy.

This misleading analogy between Libya and Syria was a costly miscalculation, especially for Turkey, compounded by some strange opportunistic alliances as with ISIS that seemed to join the liberal opposition to Damascus based on affinities with Sunni Islam. On the side of the Syrian government again, for a mixture of geopolitical and ideological reasons, was Russia and Iran. The Syrian Civil War was the most complex and prolonged struggle to spiral out of the Arab Spring, and perhaps in modern times, considering the variety of actors and issues at stake internally, regionally, and globally.

Daniel Falcone: What are the differences and similarities for Palestinian refugees trying to survive across the Arab world?

Richard Falk: More broadly attitudes toward Palestinians refugees varied through time and from country to country, influenced by Israeli/US diplomacy promoting normalization of Israeli/Arab relations during the last years of the Trump Presidency in the form of the Abraham Accords. Recently the Israeli genocidal onslaught in Gaza has made Arab countries more receptive to Palestinian needs, including reacting to what is increasingly being identified by pro-Palestinian perspectives as a second Nakba, in effect a forced evacuation — that is creating humanitarian pressures for offering shelter outside of Occupied Palestine, intensified by the Western defunding of UNRWA since late January 2024.

At present, in reaction to the humanitarian emergency in Rafah, and continuing Israeli threats to launch a military attack on the city sheltering over a million helpless Palestinians, Egypt is responding in two ways: 1) by deploring the forced cross-border pressures on Palestinians to leave Gaza or die and, 2) by preparing for a mass Palestinian exodus from Gaza by constructing a large walled-in temporary refugee facility in the Sinai desert area.

The issue posed is tragic for Palestinians in Gaza who have stayed in their homeland despite hardship and abuse since its re-occupation by Israel in 1967, periodic punitive military incursions from land, air, and sea in 2008-09, 2012, 2014, and 2021, and a crippling blockade since 2007. The role of Hamas in Gaza is complicated: it reportedly won international elections in 2007 because it resisted Israeli abuses, and gained legitimacy among Palestinians throughout the occupied Palestinian territories because it was not tainted by collaborationism or corruption to nearly the extent of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Since being in a governing role, Hamas has been ignored when it proposed long-term ceasefires on several occasions since 2006, Israel preferring to meet resistance by keeping Gazans on ‘a subsistence diet’ as supplemented by ‘mowing the lawn’ as needed, as well as having a free-fire zone to test weapons and tactics, and send a message to regional governments that Israel was not inhibited by law and morality when it came to dealing with its enemies. The refugee issues cannot be properly understood without such an historical contextualization.

Daniel Falcone: Leaders in America, both Democrat and Republican, have been able to feign concern for groups like the Kurds and Uyghurs in the past. Why can’t mainstream institutions support Palestine in the face of Assad?

Richard Falk: The short answer is Israel. As authors like Rashid Khalidi and Edward Said showed, the Palestinians over the course of many years naively continued to put their trust in Washington. They should have learned from the biased one-sided performance of the US that its claim to be an ‘honest broker’ was deeply misleading ever since a peace process was initiated after the First Intifada in the late 1980s.

In the case of the Kurds, and even more so the Uyghurs, the US found it politically useful to support minority discontent to exert leverage on China in one case, and Turkey in the other. It should be obvious by now that the real problem for the US is not with Palestine, but with its ally, Israel, and its lobbying and donor leverage within the US that undercuts the normative pretensions of the Global West and violates the national interest of the US and Europe throughout the Middle East.

I fear that the mainstream institutions in the US, whether in civil society or media, are brainwashed to believe that Palestinian refugees who are resistors are necessarily terrorists who do not generate support even in a context such as Syria where the dominant issue is the state terrorism of the Damascus regime despite its hostile encounters with Israel. Perhaps, if Israel continues to pursue sovereign control over the whole of historic Palestine it will experience in the aftermath of the Gaza genocide a sufficiently strong pushback from below throughout the world. This will manifest itself in forms that treat Israel as a pariah state subject to boycotts and sanctions until the Palestinians become so empowered through solidarity initiative and their own resistance as to realize their basic rights including their inalienable right to self-determination. Israel’s own hubris in recent months may lead to the downfall of the Zionist Project rather than to its victorious completion, which seemed much more plausible before October 7. The ironies of history may yet transform Palestine’s darkest hour into a new dawn of liberation from the sinister designs of advanced settler colonialism.

Daniel Falcone: Can you discuss the events of April 1st that fundamentally changed the situation in Syria, as well as the fate awaiting Syrian anti-regime Palestinian refugees?

Richard Falk: First, was the attack on an Iranian consular building in Damascus that killed seven Iranians, including three high-ranking military commanders present in this unlawfully targeted diplomatic compound of a foreign country. This occurrence seemed to pose no problem for Biden’s foreign policy, which remained steadfastly both anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian, even though the provocative Israeli attack flagrantly violated international law and escalated risks of a wider war in the region if Iran carries out its threat of retaliation.

Secondly, on the same day, occurred the much-publicized Israeli attack on a World Central Kitchen well-marked aid convoy delivering much-needed food to starving Palestinians in northern Gaza, an attack that killed six aid workers and their driver. Such atrocity incidents, and much worse had occurred ever since Israel started retaliating for the October Hamas attack. What made this event different was the fact that the aid workers killed were nationals of Western countries supporting Israel rather than Palestinians, although from a moral and legal perspective the identity of the victims should have made no difference.

What followed the WCK attack was a flurry of high-profile media and governmental expressions of outrage directed at Israel’s presumed deliberate responsibility for such an attack, holding both Netanyahu and Biden responsible for such brazen behavior directed at their allies. The fact that 2024 Biden’s reelection prospects have become clouded by criticism of the unconditionally pro-Israeli policy pursued by Washington, challenging the coherence of continued Western support for Israel in the form of the active complicity of liberal democracies in the face of months of Israeli genocide.

These two occurrences produced a geopolitical panic attack prompting an emergency fence-mending telephone conversation between Biden and Netanyahu a few days ago with Blinken reportedly listening quietly on the line.

Netanyahu was backed into a corner where he needed to apologize to the governments of WCK aid workers killed without seeming to Israelis either weak or antagonistic in addressing the concerns of his chief backer, the US. Biden was seeking to reassure contradictory domestic critics that US policies were at once critical and yet still supportive of Israel and chose partially to do this in a dangerous way by making it clear that Israel must make amends for killing Western aid workers while resisting coercive efforts at the UN to end its bloody campaign in Gaza. What gave this unusual diplomatic game away was its immediate public disclosure, a departure from normal practice in international crisis situations of keeping such direct conversations between heads of state secret, or at least private for a decent interval. But here the purpose of the conversation was to reassure Americans that Israel was neither abandoned nor any longer assured of unconditional support unless it changed its ways of interfering with international aid efforts.

In this sense, the most dangerous feature of this complex public relations initiative was to insert a pledge of US support for Israel’s anti-Iran approach, heightening Netanyahu’s incentives to foment a direct encounter with Iran to hide his failures at home–to destroy Hamas, to gain the release of October 7 hostages, to avoid a global backlash against Israeli legitimacy, and to win back popularity among Israelis.

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