Helping Syrians Helps Europe and America, too
Aleppo on the Brink (Financial Times/YouTube, 2016)
By Charles Kirchofer and Per Søreide Senstad
Americans long thought they had the luxury of ignoring far-away Syria and its bloodshed. Today, as death and destruction in the Syrian city of Aleppo reach a sickening high, many are beginning to wonder if inaction makes us responsible for the war crimes there almost as much as committing them ourselves. Europeans, connected by land to their near-abroad, have always known they could not ignore Syria. In addition to the suffering filling the screens of their phones and TVs, refugee flows into Europe have accentuated a populist backlash that was already underway there, even as indecision over Syria causes consternation and a sense of helplessness in Europe’s capitals.
Standing by while innocent people are murdered en masse is not in the US interest because it violates core American values and damages America’s reputation. An inward-looking and divided Europe plagued by populist, nationalist, and anti-American sentiments is also not in the US interest, nor is a Middle East destabilized by refugee flows and sectarian divisions. Though the hour is late, something must still be done.
Europe has for decades struggled to integrate immigrants entering its countries at a much lower rate than the flood in 2015. It has become clear that European electorates are not willing to accept further large influxes of refugees. Fearing a backlash, European leaders, headed by Germany’s Angela Merkel, have raised the drawbridge, in no small part via a deal with Turkey’s increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The deal has stopped most refugees from getting to Europe and European diplomats now say the refugee crisis is “over”.
The deal carries heavy costs for Europe. The UN’s refugee agency has said that the deal “contravenes basic aspects of the 1951 refugee convention”—violating Europe’s long tradition of championing human rights and security. The EU’s reliance on Turkey also means it is not in a position to do anything about Erdogan’s crackdowns against his political opposition and freedom of speech and the press. In addition, Turkey’s intentions and goals in Syria do not always align those of the US and Europe. The deal gives Turkey a powerful coercive tool for getting its way, making it harder for Europe to act according to its own interests and those of its US ally.
Blocking the European path for refugees has placed a greater burden on other countries in the region, such as Lebanon and Jordan, a Western ally. Every day that bloodshed continues in Syria, moreover, is a day in which the idea of backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as the lesser of two evils becomes less repellent. Commentators like Bob Dreyfuss and Jay Hallen, along with politicians like Boris Johnson, have already argued as much. Inaction on Syria gives Assad and his Russian sponsor the upper hand. If Syria’s civilians could be protected, Europe and America would be freed to make strategic choices that best support their interests.
Europe quite simply does not have the unity and military capacity to tackle this issue on its own. Together with America, however, Europe can aide refugees, ease pressure on neighboring countries, and stop aiding and abetting the Assad regime in mass murder—without threatening its domestic stability or ignoring its electorates’ fears. Doing this will require a fairly minimal military commitment and does not require a plan for ending the war in Syria—though it could grant additional maneuverability in concocting such a plan.
Ensuring that refugees from the Syrian civil war have everything they need to survive, including proper education and health care, need not mean gaining asylum away from Syria. Instead, this can be provided in well-defended refugee camps on Syrian territory. This would be more just as well, as these would be reachable by Syrians from all socioeconomic backgrounds, whereas the expense of fleeing toEurope previously meant that the rich escaped while the poor were left to die in Syria’s bombarded cities. This would also prevent a further brain drain of people who could one day help rebuild a new Syria.
The US and Europe can do this together. The much smaller amounts of territory to be protected would mean a smaller military commitment and lower risk than the maintenance of the large buffer zone that Turkey has established. This plan is also better than that proposed by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because, unlike hers, it would offer ground support. The area this would protect would meanwhile be much smaller than that required to secure Syrian cities from aerial assault. It would also be less likely to provoke Russia into attack. Russia and Assad are fighting hard for every inch of territory they can maintain or re-take from the US-backed rebels. No-fly and safe zones over and within Syrian cities would benefit those rebels and amount to a significant escalation of US involvement in the war. By contrast, small safe zones in strategically unimportant areas outside of Syrian cities would not threaten to alter the strategic positions of any party to the war—they would simply provide places innocent civilians could flee to be safe from harm. The US and Europe could certainly do more to compel Putin and Assad to allow civilians safe passage out of besieged areas, however.
The complex web of allegiances within Syria and the difficulty of building states and nations after removing a strongman mean the West’s reluctance to force an end to violence is justifiable, but the bloodshed continues regardless. “All-out intervention” vs. “nothing” and “completely open borders” vs. “high walls” are not the only options, however. Limited safe zones in Syria, protected from without by credible deterrent guarantees and NATO forces and from within by UN and EU police are a realistic alternative. The US and Europe have the ability to limit human suffering on their doorstep at a tolerable cost and risk while also shoring up their cooperation and strategic interests in the region. They should do so.