The chilling image of drowned three-year old Aylan Kurdi has encapsulated the humanitarian catastrophe that is engulfing the Middle East and Europe while also demonstrating how Western policy continues to fail in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Aylan’s tragedy is not a new phenomenon. His premature death in the Aegean confirms what governments have struggled to face, they continue to underestimate the harrowing Syrian conflict and the long-term implications it may have for the Middle East and Europe. The international community has long been desensitised to the pictures of children killed or maimed by ISIS suicide bombers or Assad’s barrel bombs. The people and its society have become abstracts, instruments of policy that have been caught between local, regional and global power struggles.
The response of the international community attempting to unite around Aylan’s tragedy to resolve the refugee crisis is a welcome change to challenging current policies and an apathetic mind-set to the Syrian conflict. However the need for such a grisly image to provoke a belated reaction speaks volumes of the indifference and resignation that has pervaded the Western world in the face of bloodshed in Syria in recent years. The image speaks volumes of our policy failures in Syria, the consequences of those failures for the wider region, and our inability to reshape policy into one that matches the realities on the ground.
There was little uproar when ISIS massacred 164 and injured 200 civilians in Kobani (Aylan’s home town) on 25th June 2015. There was little uproar or public pressure to step up political solutions to the Syrian Civil War when Assad’s bombers indiscriminately slaughtered 112 of its civilians in the town square of Douma on 16th August 2015 in one of the more harrowing attacks of the conflict. There was little uproar when Assad used napalm against his civilians in August 2015 and more horrifically in September 2013 when school children (including a seven month old baby boy) were brutally disfigured, burnt and maimed by the Syrian Air Force. As Patrick Cockburn summarises: ‘people worldwide have become inured to horrible things happening in the wars in Iraq and Syria’ and the fallout of the Syrian war, most notably the Syrian refugee crisis.
A core issue lies in how our foreign policy has jumped from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. In Iraq, civilians were collateral damage of a catastrophic state-building project, a self-inflicted mess where neo-liberal interventionism has scarred American and British credibility in the region. In Syria and Iraq we now wage a covert and endless war against ISIS, a symptom of the Syrian Civil War. In short the West, and in-particular the United Kingdom, is absent a coherent strategy which is frequently in contradiction to events occurring on the ground.
Civilians trapped between Assad’s ferocity and extremist rebel forces remain unprotected. Civilians remain besieged in city enclaves such as Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and continue to die under the barrage of napalm strikes, barrel bombs and chemical weapons while being targeted by an array of ‘moderate’ forces we support. These illusory moderates forces range from a shattered Free Syrian Army who fight out of necessity with battle-hardened extremist cells, Kurdish ethno-nationalists such as PKK, PYD and YPG that have ethnically cleansed areas of Iraq and Syria following the emergence of Islamic State, and Shiite militia that have slaughtered countless civilians. Equally the international coalition formed to defeat ISIS killed 125 Syrian civilians (January-July 2015) they claim to protect from ISIS. As summarised by Natalie Nougayrede:
“One of the most puzzling aspects of this new phase of American involvement is that it is in no way expressly intended to provide protection for civilians. Yet it is precisely because civilians are not protected that Islamic State have been able to grow…Assad…cannot in any possible way be considered an anti-Islamic State weapon.”
Western policymakers’ and Western media’s obsession with the war against ISIS has distorted our perception of the conflict, worsened violence on the ground, and produced more refugees which Syria’s bordering countries Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan can scarcely provide for. Correspondingly a resurgent, but unwinnable, war on terror has, according to data gathered by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, distracted us from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime (which) ‘remains, for many Syrian civilians at least, the biggest threat to their lives. While the United States may be focusing its bombing campaign against the so-called ISIS, the terrorist militants are actually only responsible for a fraction of the civilian deaths in Syria.’
The West firstly underestimated the brutal counter-revolution of Assad (unconditionally supported by the Russian Federation and Iran) whose ‘readiness to literally burn down (his) country in order to cling to absolute power’ (Filiu, 2015) has produced grotesque political, extremist, paramilitary and sectarian violence. We expected the Syrian regime to fall ignominiously as Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya did, yet politicians did not pay attention to the Assad family’s natural tendency to be exceptionally stubborn both militarily and diplomatically, the latter of which has been firmly illustrated by their negotiations with Israel over returning the Golan Heights to Syria since 1967.
Secondly the West and its allies such as Turkey and the Gulf States belatedly funneled arms into the rebel groups before it fully understood the nature of the Syrian insurgency. This insurgency as early as 2012 has come to be dominated by Mohammad al-Jolani’s Al-Nusra Front, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS, and other local extremist groups. The declassified U.S Defense Intelligence Agency (2012) document argues that Al-Qaeda in Iraq (refashioned as contemporary ISIS) ‘supported the Syrian Opposition from the beginning’ and that ‘Western countries, the Gulf States, and Turkey (were) supporting (the) efforts’ of ‘opposition forces trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the Western Iraqi Provinces (Mosul and Anbar).’ All these areas are now threatened by, or under the control of ISIS. The warning of this document, which stipulated that continued the West’s covert support for this opposition would ‘create the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi’ during the Iraq war and that ISI (now ISIS) ‘could also declare an ‘Islamic State’ through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria,’ has become a reality.
The moderate Syrian insurgents and the Free Syrian Army, under-equipped and inexperienced, turned to these groups and collaborated out of necessity to survive Assad’s onslaught. As a result the Syrian Revolution stalled, fragmented and ultimately failed while deteriorating into a brutal cycle of decentralised violence.
The gamble played by Assad to release hundreds of prisoners associated with terrorist cells like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the early stages of the revolution to delegitimise the opposition by framing them in a terrorist narrative should not be underestimated. In May, 2015 there were many fears that the regime was buckling under a string of military defeats by Al-Nusra and the ‘Army of the Conquest’ after their seizure of key cities such as Jisr al Shugheur and Idlib in the north and an array of villages and towns in the southern Deraa province. Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus (Assad’s centre of power), home to the neutral Palestinian refugee population, has become a battleground between Islamic State affiliates and Assad’s paramilitary forces. The continued threat of these groups to the regime disproves the myth that Damascus has been secured by the Syrian security apparatus gamble.
Nevertheless Assad’s gamble has successfully divided the opposition and made moderates turn to alternatives that are equally as dismal an option as Assad and weakened the capacity for the international community to fashion a viable political settlement. A military intervention against Assad, politically impossible and impractical strategically in current circumstances, will not solve the Syrian conflict. It would result in the death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more Syrian civilians and produce a new civil war between the splintered Syrian opposition and play into the hands of extremists such as ISIS and Al-Nusra that now spear-head the rebellion against the House of Assad.
Military options are being used, however they are focused on defeating ISIS, a bi-product of Syria’s instability not the root cause of the civil war. The West has strengthened ISIS by funnelling arms into ‘moderate’ such the FSA and Iraqi Security Forces, whose subsequent collapses during the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s Northern Offensive in Iraq (2014) provided the terrorist cell with a surplus of high-tech weaponery. However it cannot be forgotten that the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ (“ISI”), as Filiu argues, was ‘one of main partners of Bashar al-Assad’s regime (and) Damascus was the main entry point’ into Iraq for foreign jihadists from 2003 onwards to undermine the U.S. occupation (2003-2011).
The surge of extremist organisations in the wider Middle East cannot, and should not, be entirely blamed on Western policymakers. It must be placed against the authoritarian regimes like Assad and Nouri al-Maliki which ‘played with jihadi fire to deny…substantial power-sharing.’ (Filiu, 2015) Western policymakers underestimated how secular authoritarians would use anti-terrorism narratives to further entrench their violent security apparatuses.
The international coalition is not designed to protect civilians from Assad, nor does it provide desperately needed financial and humanitarian aid to refugees. These military options of air-strikes and covert counter-terrorism operations are equally absent a diplomatic solution to the conflict which effectively means the coalition simply contributes to a conflict where no particular group can deliver a decisive military blow.
The pressure mounting on the Conservative government has forced David Cameron’s hand to provide resettlement to “thousands” more Syrian refugees in response to the worsening refugee crisis. Cameron has agreed to provide asylum to 20,000 refugees between 2015-2020, yet these are poultry numbers. Global refugee figures now stand at 51.2 million the highest since World War II . This looks set to increase and our admission of refugees remain pitiful numbers in a situation where, as Anton Guterres (UN High Commission for Refugees) states, ‘quantum numbers’ parallel the ‘quantum’ leap in the stakes of this regional crisis, one which has been grossly underestimated by policymakers.
The language describing these people fleeing conflicts has to change. There is nothing wrong with what the majority of these people are doing and we should stop demonising these men, women and children. We should be thinking about a plan to integrate these refugees, the majority of whom aren’t just flooding Europe they are destabilising Lebanon (1.1 million Syrians), Jordan and Turkey which the EU has done little to address. This refugee problem has been dumped on countries throughout the Balkans such as Macedonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia as well as Greece and Italy all of whom are blighted by serious socio-economic problems and lack the capacity to deal with the huge influx of refugees fleeing conflict.
The majority of refugees are not a threat to the West, however they do present a big problem that cannot be ignored. Humanitarian aid can become a substitute for effective and essential political and military solutions to the conflicts that caused the refugee crisis. Politically blind humanitarianism, failing to challenge our unimaginative air-campaign conjoined with ineffectual political solutions and framing the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ as a separate issue will serve to side-line an escalating war in Syria and exacerbate the refugee crisis.
It is not a moral argument; refugee crises, when inadequately addressed or aggressively attacked as a threat to particular governments and communities have caused violence, upheaval and instability. The refugee crisis in post-Second World War Europe as new borders formed led to a massive exchange of populations which sparked new waves of violence across the continent as illustrated by the civil war in Greece, ethnic cleansing in eastern Germany, Ukraine and Poland, racial, ideological and racial atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, and the First Arab-Israeli War.
Similarly in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of refugees became a catalyst for the collapse of Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) and Mobutu’s regime eventually producing what Prunier coined ‘Africa’s World War’ as defeated Hutu Power extremists (a minority within a majority of the two million Rwandan refugees) sparked a local conflict in Kivu which, preluding collapse, was a combustible ‘zone of high-density population with demographic, ethnic and tribal contradictions.’ The local conflict, fuelled by Western humanitarian aid, in Kivu swiftly expanded into a bloody regional conflict across Central Africa which left an estimated five million dead. One extremely bloody civil war in a tiny country the size of Wales, and a subsequent refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region which was poorly addressed by regional and Western powers tore apart an entire region and shook the entire African continent.
The conflict in Central Africa in the 1990s and the Second World War are potent examples of when a refugee crisis can have disastrous consequences for a region that lacks the capacity to deal with millions of fleeing people who are moulded by persecution, desperation, and expectations. These examples, while historically different and contextual, still have lessons that can be learnt; we cannot underestimate the crisis facing the Middle East, North Africa and Europe and the long-term impact the Syrian war will have on demographic changes of the two regions nor should we consider the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East as separate issues. One region will invariable effect the other as the original domino effect of the Arab Spring (2010-2011) illustrates.
Closing our borders to refugees will reinforce communal tensions between arriving refugees and local communities, particularly in Greece (which is dangerously unstable) and the Balkans which remains in dire economic straits and continues to struggle to come to terms with the various ethno-nationalist wars of the 1990s.
The countries with less severe social and economic problems in comparison, such as the UK, Germany and France, with (to some extent) more tolerant societies must shoulder the refugees because they have the capacity to do so. In doing so they may lessen the likelihood of civil conflict in both Western and Eastern Europe. The refugees arriving in Europe are a small fraction of those currently in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
Shutting out refugees and adopting an absolutist anti-refugee/anti-migrant stance in the name of security and an illogical war on terror will contribute to and foment crime, extremism, and terrorism if refugees are stranded in Europe and left to languish in squalid conditions, poverty and are isolated socially and economically. Integrating these people properly is absolutely essential, they must become a political reality that government’s cannot sweep under the carpet. If not they will become a source of instability. However their integration must be done in parallel with searching for political solutions to the civil war otherwise it will further empower right-wing, anti-migrant parties in Europe who reflect the uglier side of Europe’s current political reality.
Taking in refugees fleeing from war zones and persecution should be priority but is the inability to solve the various political deadlocks and to challenge current Middle Eastern policies which remains the critical issue. By absorbing refugees we will be mitigating the symptoms of conflict. However absent a long-term solution to the Syrian conflict and a far-reaching social and economic plan for rebuilding post-conflict Syria, the number of refugees will increase creating underlying tensions between current and potential asylum seekers and local communities in Europe and the cycle of violence will continue.
Protecting civilians in Europe, Syria and Iraq should be our priority, not the war against ISIS which while a dangerous regional threat has become inflated by policymakers as a direct threat to Western security interests. ISIS is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be defeated by military means alone. Like a hydra, cutting off one head will only lead to several more to grow in its place, as the demise of Al-Qaeda and its replacement by ISIS illustrates.
Addressing its violence will require socio-economic solutions to rebel grievances as well as concentrated military pressure by regional and global powers to weaken ISIS. While ISIS should be a major regional concern, it should not become overly centralised in policy-making as it is not the predominant cause of civilian casualties. ISIS and its exhibitionist ultra-violence has served as a distraction from the continued havoc Assad’s state-sponsored violence continues to create which is accompanied by regional and Western military policies that have fueled violence rather than solved it. Marginalised civilians that are targeted by Assad and unprotected by the international community have swelled the ranks of rebels such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front as a result.
The Syrian Civil War continues to surpass one deadly impasse after another. Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe has finally reached central Europe, the conflict’s brutality has escalated while the stakes have increased for all the major actors involved as Syria has become the epicentre of a wider regional conflagration. The nature of the conflict and the accompanying regional threats determine that we cannot ignore or simply contain Syria’s fall-out anymore. As Peter Bouckaert argues the ‘consequences of a further meltdown of the Middle East cannot easily be contained to the region, as is clearly evident from the spreading insecurity and instability, the increasing refugee flows out of the region, and the growing threat posed by ISIS-inspired attacks.’ Similarly Bouckaert goes on to add:
“The complexity of the conflict in Syria is no excuse to look away. Civilians in Douma (and refugees making the hazardous journey across the Aegean, the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe) like other civilians caught in conflict, be they in Sarajevo, Gaza, the Negev or Baghdad, deserve protection. There may not be an easy solution to each conflict, but there are always measures that can reduce civilian suffering.”
Granted, it is impossible to remove Assad by force, but it isn’t impossible for measures to be put in place which protect displaced refugees and civilians from both the Syrian military and extremist groups and providing them with safe haven. The refugee crisis brings new dynamics to the conflict as each European country and its populations’ absorbing or rejecting refugees will grapple with the crisis in different ways.
The Syrian conflict and the subsequent regional break-down has produced, as Pankaj Mishra contends, uncoordinated violence and conflict that ‘future historians may regard…as…the third, longest and the strangest of world wars’ which stretches from Iraq to the shores of the Levant, to Libya and Tunisia in North Africa and all the way to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. These overlapping Middle Eastern wars, with their own specific revolutions, counter-revolutions and causes, have drawn in superpowers such as Russia, the United States, major European powers, and major Middle Eastern powers such as Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia in different shapes and forms. It is an illogical and contradictory Middle Eastern war that may require illogical solutions that has always typified Middle Eastern politics.
It would be foolish to ignore the dangers presented by the Arab Spring and the subsequent carnage which, while difficult to understand, has logic to it. Security, counter-terrorism, surveillance; these are a reflection of the times we live in. However without constructive solutions to resolving the United Kingdom’s enduring polarisation on refugees and terrorism, we will always be reacting to threats, creating new enemies at home and abroad, and empowering those who hold radical attitudes and alternatives to solving the conflict on the political right and left.
At worst, we remain reactive to terrorist attacks (microcosms of wider violence in the Middle East),relatively indifferent to war crimes and atrocities and unperturbed by regional and Western powers tampering with the revolutionary processes underway in the Middle East. These are processes we have yet to fully understand, including the consequences and implications of the West’s current and recent actions in the Middle East.
New approaches are needed by the European powers while conventional policies in Syria (military, humanitarian, diplomatic, as well as our perspective on the war on terror) require serious reform and scrutiny. Such a reform would require a shift in the attitudes of Russia and the United States who, along with their regional affiliates, have fuelled the conflict. Such an escalation in violence, an escalation of the arms race between proxy states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and an ever worsening refugee crisis can only spell further catastrophe if world powers continue to pave this path.
Direct military intervention is impossible, and should be avoided. Nonetheless there are certainly better avenues to solving the conflict then simply turning a blind-eye to Syria’s plight, bombing ISIS and crossing our fingers that our government will contain a monumental shift in Middle Eastern politics.
The tragedy of Aylan’s doomed voyage, his brother and mother’s death (and atleast nine others) and the tears of his father and a family who have lost everything have poignantly captured the Syrian people’s tragedy, the Middle East’s tragedy, and our policy failures in Syria. If this story and the harrowing images of Aylan, yet alone the countless other tragedies of Syria’s people that preceded it don’t change our attitude it is highly unlikely anything will change in the war. In such a case we will be sure to see more tragedies for the Syrian people such as Ghouta chemical attack, the napalm school bombings, the Douma and Houla massacres and other countless atrocities of a war that has now claimed a quarter of a million lives and displaced over half the Syrian population (21 million before the war).
Authentic refugees require our protection and humanitarian action remains a critical issue, but ultimately it is our policies, the narratives that drive our perception of the war, and our strategies that urgently require change.