Scholarly Perspectives: Helping Americans Better Understanding the Syrian Civil War

How can the average Floridian get a real sense of the events of the Syrian civil war and diaspora?

Well, consider that in 2011 when that situation exploded, the country of Syria was about the same size (about 21 million people) as the state of Florida. What if it all had happened in Florida instead of Syria? Here’s an “alternate-world” account.

The governor of Florida, part of a Catholic minority in the state, fills all the top jobs (including those in the state police and National Guard) with members of his own minority and his family. When protests break out against this favoritism in Tampa and Jacksonville, they are met with brutal police response, beatings and arrests. Larger protests follow, and the National Guard (commanded by the governor’s close allies) has to resort to live ammunition to disperse the crowds. Special FDLE teams begin to use information from pictures of the riots to search out and arrest leaders of the protests, but some of these resist arrest; some are killed in gun battles and some FDLE agents also die. In some neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Tampa and Pensacola, the National Guard has to set up patrols to keep order; these areas tend to center on concentrations of Southern Baptists who have been systematically excluded from nearly all leadership positions in state government. Clashes between residents in these neighborhoods and the police and National Guard troops begin to spread and intensify; the first air strikes by Air National Guard planes take out houses of suspected ringleaders in northwest Jacksonville. Residents of all these cities begin to panic, loading up their cars and heading out of state. Some active National Guard soldiers and police officers resign to form their own independent militias to defend the areas being attacked. Baptist churches in other states, particularly Texas, begin sending assistance to Florida congregations, and a driver from Texas is killed in one of the air strikes by the Florida National Guard.

Two years later, half of Jacksonville has been gutted by air strikes and street fighting. Five million Floridians are scattered across particularly the northern half of the state after abandoning their own homes, living with friends and relatives in other towns and cities to get away from the fighting. A trickle of people leaving the state has swelled to a flood. Four million people (equivalent to the entire populations of Duval, Sarasota, Escambia, Orange and Hillsborough counties) are living in FEMA trailers organized into huge temporary camps on the outskirts of nearly every small town in southern Georgia. Another million Floridians are camped in southern Alabama. Those two states are making constant, urgent appeals to the federal government for disaster assistance, more FEMA trailers, and money for more teachers, police, and health workers to support the refugee populations. Congress passes legislation to provide special financial support to Georgia and Alabama, on condition that they keep the Florida refugees in those states and deal with them there. Private militias from many states send armed members into Florida to support the beleaguered Baptist neighborhoods in the northern part of the state. The Florida governor orders all young Catholic men in Florida into the National Guard to restore order in the north; many of these young men immediately escape to other states to avoid the governor’s draft.

A man stands atop a building looking at the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, 2015. 
The image is from History.com. Learn more about the conflict here.

Another million Floridians keep on going north, through Georgia or Alabama and scattering into more distant states, where local politicians often get a boost to their careers by whipping up fears about Florida Baptists taking their jobs, overcrowding their schools and hospitals, driving up rents, and causing too much traffic. Virginia passes a law denying Florida refugees entry into the state. The state police establish roadblocks at all the welcome centers along the North Carolina border to turn back any car with Florida license plates and to check ID of passengers, but Floridians keep sneaking across the border on foot or driving on dirt back roads at night. Eventually over seven hundred thousand Floridians (roughly the entire population of Jacksonville) gather in New York state, particularly in New York City, where they often have relatives or friends. The state of New York passes legislation to provide emergency support for these arrivals and to try to integrate them into schools, find housing for them, and even to encourage hiring them for jobs. Protesters hold rallies against these policies across New York state, but counter protesters also organize responses. Nearly a hundred thousand Florida refugees also concentrate in Ohio, where the government starts a plan to re-settle them systematically all over the state instead of allowing them to concentrate in Cincinnati where they tended to show up at first. In contrast, Texas (where the Baptists had sent aid to Florida congregations and from where some private militias left for Florida) copies the Virginia law. The governor of Texas becomes an outspoken advocate of extensive border security for the Lone Star state, calling the people leaving Florida terrorists, criminals, and bad people. No more than ten or twenty thousand Florida refugees manage to get into Texas. These are usually wealthy Floridians who fly in and bring above-average financial resources with them, in some cases moving an entire business from Florida to Texas. They are welcomed, but poor Floridians who arrive in fishing boats are turned away along the Galveston beaches and told to go home again.

These imaginary numbers, patterns of movement, and responses by neighboring states all mirror essentially what has happened in Syria in the past ten years. Of the 21 million people living in Syria as of 2011, about five million have fled the country. Four million are still camped along the border, mostly in Turkey, and that is where people with little children have had to stay. Another million made it to Europe, with 700 thousand in Germany and another 175 thousand in Sweden. Five million other Syrians are now homeless persons sheltering where they can inside their own country. The United States, with 330 million people living in almost four million square miles of territory, has accepted less than 20 thousand Syrian refugees during the past decade. Austria, with about 8 million people and just over 32 thousand square miles of territory (mostly mountains) has more Syrian refugees than the United States. Draw your own conclusions.

Carlson

Elwood Carlson is Charles Nam Professor in Sociology of Population in FSU’s Center for Demography and Population Health. He is co-editor of a new book, Comparative Demography of the Syrian Diaspora, published in January 2020 by Springer Publishers.)

The featured image is from The Independent.co.uk.

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