The Paralysis over Syria
Sarosh Bana

The refugee crisis cannot be resolved without tackling Syria’s conflict

There is turbulence in the Eurozone and its disquieting genesis lies in the protracted civil war in Syria, some 1,200 km away to the east.
As Europe’s demography and ethnicity are poised

to be transformed by the relentless influx of those fleeing the conflict to seek refuge on the Continent, the international community needs to brazen out a resolution of the Syrian campaign as much as it will need to cope with the surging asylum-seekers. Rehabilitating the refugees without addressing the havoc they are escaping will only perpetuate the problem and pose a new dilemma for them as well as for their host countries.

With the deadly impasse having endured for the past four and a half years, rivals United States and Russia are now seeking to outmanoeuvre each other in gaining an upper hand on the crisis. The US-led coalition’s perceived ineffectiveness against both the authoritarian Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the Islamic State (IS) jihadi militants who now control half of that country finally emboldened Russia to move in briskly on 30 September, in its first military operation beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War.

Starting with aerial attacks against rebel forces ranged against Assad who is its staunch ally, Russia is now targeting IS encampments and already claims to have smashed the control and logistic network of the terrorist organisation. With the US’s 2,410 airstrikes against IS-held areas since 23 September 2014 seen to have had little impact, President Vladimir Putin is rallying other countries to join a Russia-led co-ordination centre that will share intelligence between his country’s armed forces and Syria, Iran and Iraq. While he seeks Assad’s ouster, President Barack Obama claims the US-led coalition comprises 60 countries, with 24 of them actively participating in the military operations.

The two superpowers will be queering the pitch as each will be loath to join the other’s coalition – to avoid submitting to the other’s command - and they will also be hesitant to articulate their respective strategy in Syria. While the Americans see an end to the conflict through regime change in Syria, Moscow sees a solution in the annihilation of Assad’s opponents.

The conflict in Syria swirled in January 2011 as another Arab Spring uprising against the autocratic rule of Assad and escalated into a full-blown civil war between the protestors and the Presidential loyalists as well as between them and IS. Over 220,000 Syrians have been slain in the internecine skirmish that has internally displaced 7.4 million inhabitants and sparked the mass exodus of 4 million others, a good many of whom are besieging the European borders today.

Just as the 28 member states of the European Union (EU) were grappling with Greece’s debt crisis in a stupendous effort to salvage the economic and political alliance, they are now challenged by the worst refugee crisis since the last War.

As distraught migrants surge in primarily from war-torn Syria and occasionally from other conflict zones in the Ukraine, Iraq, Eritrea, Yemen, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa, an alarmed European leadership is striving for a consensus on ad hoc measures that can at best contain this calamity.

EU heads of government have pledged €1 billion ($1.1 billion) for international agencies assisting refugees at camps near their home countries. They also decided to set up ‘hotspots’ by end November where asylum applicants can be quickly registered and screened for refugee protection, a move that will sift out economic migrants ineligible for asylum in Europe. Despite opposition from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, which are resisting compulsory quotas for resettling refugees on their territory, EU interior ministers approved a plan to relocate 120,000 migrants across Europe, on top of the resettlement of 40,000 refugees who have arrived in Greece and Italy.

The eventual costs of identifying refugees and integrating them socially, linguistically and culturally within Europe, educating their children, and providing them jobs, medical aid and housing will be staggering as their numbers swell. The International Organisation for Migration estimates a record 522,124 people to have crossed over into Europe this year, more than 388,000 of them having entered via Greece. Syrians constituted over 181,710 of them, the largest single refugee grouping. Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer says 169,400 migrants arrived in September alone in his southeastern German state, the main point of entry to the country. “These are dimensions that in the past we didn’t have in a whole year,” he notes. At this rate, more than 1.8 million refugees are expected to head for Germany over the next year, even without the effects of Russian military intervention in Syria.

While the US has resettled 140,000 Iraqi refugees in the six years since 2009, US Secretary of State John Kerry now says the number of refugees taken by his country will rise from 70,000 this year to 85,000 next year and to 100,000 in 2017.

Urging European countries to do more to safeguard refugees making arduous journeys to reach EU states, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the 193-member UN, asked for safe and legal routes to be created into the Continent to avert tragedies like the deaths of hundreds of refugees suffocated in trucks and drowned in the Mediterranean. Appealing to all governments to act with humanity and compassion, in accordance with their international obligations, he termed this a human tragedy that required a determined collective response. Woefully, in the Syrian context, the ‘human tragedy’ lies more in the mindless Syrian offensive than in the waves of refugees it has engendered.

As the international security arbiter, the 15-member UN Security Council should have been seized much earlier of this Syrian conflict than have allowed it to fester so long. It has, however, been thwarted by Russia and China, two of its influential permanent members, which have all along safeguarded their ally Assad – who has been President since 2000 - by vetoing resolutions on four occasions to deflect action against his government, when the 13 other Council members have voted affirmatively.

Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that it was time to overcome diplomatic failure and recognise that there was a global interest in returning Syria to peace, warning that if conflict continued, nations would be “fuelling a war to keep their influence over a country that would barely exist”. He observed that States cannot continue affirming their support for a political settlement “while arming belligerents, failing to adequately fund humanitarian services, and be taken aback by the spreading refugee crisis”.

Pinheiro’s Commission on 3 September released a report that found continued atrocities by both the Syrian government and terrorist groups such as the IS and the Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that is fighting against the Assad government. There was also evidence of the use of chemical weapons in the civil war. Other atrocities have included direct attacks against civilians, summary killings, systematic bombardments and prolonged sieges of predominantly civilian areas that have led to deaths from starvation and from lack of adequate medical care, and widespread torture and even rape of women and children in detention centres.

Petitioning the Security Council for a political solution, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, regretted that despite the Council’s adoption in February 2014 of resolution 2139 strongly condemning human rights violations in Syria, there had been no reduction in the appalling patterns of these violations and the Council’s demands to allow unhindered humanitarian access to the country had gone unheeded.

A vastly belated political approach to solving the conflict, presented to the Security Council in July by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, enunciates engaging the Syrian parties in four thematic working groups on safety and protection for all, political and legal issues, military, security and counterterrorism issues, and continuity of public services and reconstruction and development. It is questionable how effective such an approach will be, being as it is more academic than political.

Several EU countries are now taking steps to ostensibly regulate the flow of refugees across Europe. After previously welcoming the migrants, Germany reintroduced checks on its border with Austria, effectively exiting the Schengen travel area and invalidating the ideal of a Europe without internal borders. Austria, the Netherlands and Slovakia have similarly reimposed border controls. Hungary has cracked down harder, following its sealing off of its border with Serbia with construction of a 175 km wire fence along the length of its southern frontier, the EU’s external border. Its right wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has empowered the army to deter refugees at its borders through recourse to non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. Budapest also closed off a railway track across the border that thousands of migrants had previously used to cross and warned refugees through advertisements in Lebanese and Jordanian newspapers that they could be jailed if they entered Hungary illegally.

Concerns have also been expressed about radical Islamists exploiting the refugee situation to infiltrate into Europe. Hans-Georg Maassen, President of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, believes Islamic extremists already in the country might succeed in recruiting newly-arrived refugees to their cause. He says the number of ultra-conservative Muslim Salafists in Germany has risen by 400 since June to 7,900. Many US Republicans too are against relaxing the refugee ceiling, contending they are not confident that the screening measures in place can identify potential threats amongst those arriving.

Finding refuge in Europe would, however, disadvantage the asylum-seekers in the long term as they would be better placed to be assimilated in countries with which they are more ethnically, culturally, linguistically and traditionally aligned. An Amnesty International (AI) report notes that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt have hitherto together hosted 3.8 million refugees from Syria – a country with a population of 22.5 million and a territory measuring 185,180 sq km - with the first three countries having shouldered most of the responsibility. As a result, one in every five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.

In the three years up to October 2014 – before the current surge in numbers – some 150,000 Syrian refugees applied for asylum in the EU, roughly the same number who reached Turkey fleeing the IS advance on Kobani in the space of one week in September 2014. While most Syrian refugees applied for asylum in Sweden (50,235) and Germany (46,265) in the last three years within the EU, the remaining 26 countries in the EU altogether received 53,605 of such applications.

There has been no offer whatsoever to resettle any Syrian refugees by the prosperous six-member bloc of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Arab countries like Syria and comprising Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Bahrain. With an average per capita Gross National Income (GNI) of $68,702 – from Bahrain’s $36,140 to Qatar’s $123,860 – these affluent countries with huge expatriate populations have a cumulative population of 48.6 million living across a total geographical area straddling 2.4 million sq km, making a population density of 20.25 persons per sq km. In contrast, with per capita GNI of $35,672, almost half that of the GCC’s, the 28-member EU has six times the population density, of 121, with a combined population of 508.2 million inhabiting 4.2 million sq km.

The UN Secretary General should be appealing to these governments on humanitarian grounds to accept the refugees and to act in accordance with their international obligations, though they are not signatories of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, the key international legal document relating to refugee protection.

Russia and China are two other countries that should share the refugee burden, having impeded efforts towards resolving the Syrian crisis. While China is the world’s most populated country, with 1.39 billion inhabitants, it is also the world’s fourth largest, with a land area of 9.6 million sq km, making for a population density of 139.54 people per sq km. Russia is by far the world’s largest country, with an area of 17.08 million sq km, but a population of just 142.8 million, a density of 8.4.

While the world has stood by as the Syrian disaster has unravelled, the resultant humanitarian crisis now compels a more definitive action to resolve it.

(The author is Executive Editor, Business India)

Published Date: 9th October 2015, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
9 + 4 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us