Refugees are not the root of the problem
The flow of refugees into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa is finally attracting worldwide attention. The 71 Syrians found suffocated in a truck in Austria and the photo of a 3-year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean have done what close to 250,000 dying in Syria over the past four-and-a-half years could not: They have mobilised public opinion.
Germany and Sweden should be praised for opening their doors in response. Hungary, on the other hand, is trying to seal itself off. The United States may take in more than the trickle of refugees it has accepted so far but it still will be an insignificant number. The United Nations is appealing for funds, which have been sorely lacking. According to the United Nations and its non-governmental partners, they are seeking more than $8.4 billion.
But the refugees are not the root of the problem. Nor are the Syrians who arrive in Europe and the United States the ones most in need or most at risk. They are the symptom — a relatively small and distant one — of a much larger and more challenging problem: the multisided conflict in Syria, to which we have become unfortunately inured.
At least 4 million people have escaped Syria, mostly fleeing to neighbouring countries. They are the relatively fortunate ones, when not jammed into a truck in Austria or drowning in the Mediterranean. But another 7 million have been displaced inside Syria, where relief is much harder to find. Problems are much more visible when up close and personal but we need to keep the focus on the disease, not only the spreading ripple of symptoms.
The disease has its origins in the Syrian dictatorship’s response to peaceful pro-democracy protests. Determined to stay in power, it cracked down violently, concentrating its efforts against relative moderates and the majority Sunni community, both of which posed a real threat to Bashar Assad’s hold on power.
The natural result was the growth of Sunni extremism, which helped Assad make the argument that the only alternative to his rule is al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). However, his forces focus disproportionately not on jihadi terrorism but on those who say they want a secular, democratic state.
There is no way to run this history backwards. The extremists will not disappear if Assad falls. It is highly unlikely that relative moderates would replace him. The best we can hope for is to create some relatively safe places inside Syria where moderates can govern and provide protection for civilians.
The northern area that the Americans and Turks are contemplating for this purpose is hardly ideal. Large parts of it are barren rural lands over which control will be hard to establish. Turkomans populate much of the border area with Turkey, along with Kurds, whom the Turks have been fighting. The Kurds control much of the rest of the border area, where the key to making things safer for civilians will be cooperation between Kurds and the Arabs who live both among them and farther south.
The area along the Jordanian- Syrian border is another possible safe zone, one dominated by relatively moderate Sunni insurgents, including some with US training, and the Arab Druze.
The Druze have tried to hold their fire and avoid close alignment with either the regime or the insurgents.
Self-preservation is their priority. Bringing them into closer alignment with the insurgents would require giving them the confidence that they will be protected from the vindictive reaction of the regime.
Protected areas north and south would not solve Syria’s problems. But with support from the United States and at least some European and Gulf countries, they might begin to stem the tide. If nothing is done to enable Syrians to remain in their country, it is a virtual certainty that next year’s outflow will be much greater than this year’s, with economic and political consequences for both the neighbouring countries and Europe that will dwarf what we are seeing today. But the refugees will still not be the root of the problem.