You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to have noticed that Europe has a massive refugee crisis on its hands. Pictures of drowned babies have washed up on the shore of media consciousness in the past week. They are indelible images which aren’t easily erased from our mind, nor should they be. We’ve also seen pictures of other refugees locked into sweltering trains at Hungarian railway stations, conjuring horrific images from Europe’s historic past of other refugees on their way to extinction.
But amidst all the chaos and fear of the Europe’s indecisive response to the madness, there is one thing lost in the discourse on this tragedy. Look at the root causes. Where did the crisis originate? And how?
Let’s go back to the Arab Spring. Then you had popular uprisings across the region (Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon) calling for the end of authoritarian rule. These revolts demanded popular rule, democracy, ending police abuse, impunity and corruption. They were fueled from below by the grassroots.
In these countries, populism had been suppressed so long that there were few institutions or parties which could transform an inchoate set of demands into an organized form of governance. As a result, in most cases, after the popular movement made its initial attempt to rule the elites, which had bidden their time and licked their wounds, reorganized and struck back. In cases like Egypt and Bahrain, the military and autocratic rulers returned with a vengeance.
In Libya, the overthrow of the overlord left a power vacuüm which criminal and radical Islamist militias have rushed fitfully to fill. The result has been a failed state, whose huddled masses have turned to Europe, yearning to breathe free. Tunisia, though riven by violence and assassination, is the only country which has remained on its original path toward democracy and popular rule. There, the centripetal force of radical Islam has been held in check by more moderate elements. Lebanon has for decades sat atop a powder keg of roiling ethnic divisions. We’ve seen them verge on explosion especially with the most recent garbage crisis, which has exposed the torpor of divided governance, in which no one can make ultimate decisions about something as small as municipal waste collection.
Syria is perhaps the ultimate tragedy: a non-violent popular movement faced a dynastic autocrat enjoying decades of entrenched power. Pres. Assad, having no model of negotiation, compromise or democratic consultation, met resistance with massive firepower. So the battle was joined. Instead of an Orange Revolution like the Ukraine or a People Power like in the Philippines, you had tanks in the streets. Worshipers gunned down after Friday prayer in their local mosques.
As outside Sunni interests responded to the bloodletting of the Alawite (Shiite) government forces, they ratcheted up the violence. They either created or enabled Islamist groups ranging from al Qaeda (Al Nusra) to ISIS to take hold. The latest escalation is a multilateral air campaign by Turkey, the U.S. and Gulf States to attack ISIS, a monster borne out of the Iraqi quagmire we helped create. Competing foreign powers from Russia, Iran and Lebanon (Hezbollah) rushed to fill the vacuüm on the loyalist side.
All this resulted in a standoff of epic proportions. A country once unified has broken into cantons based on sectarian divisions. Warlords, thugs, and thieves have become lords of all they survey. Those who suffer most are not the emirs, presidents and Ayatollahs who offer weapons, money and fighters, but the Syrian civilians. They have fled wherever they could find a temporary refuge: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon. From there, they’ve scattered like leaves in the wind, boarding rickety boats to cross the Bosporus on their way to Europe.
It’s terribly ironic that their ultimate destination appears to be Germany. A country which, 75 years ago, slaughtered Poles, Russians, Jews, French and Britons in the scores of millions. Now is called upon to become a safe harbor for the wretched refuse of humanity, to quote Emma Lazarus. Germany is the European nation currently sitting on top of the heap economically. It is the powerhouse. It sees fit to lecture Greece about financial profligacy. The truth is that if powerful states like the U.S., Germany and others had done more to support the Arab Spring; if they had supported efforts to institutionalize and strengthen the power of popular movements, you might not have an entire region riven by mass slaughter. You might not have a half-million refugees converging on northern European borders.
We have seen over the past few months how weak the institutions of the European Union are. We have seen posturing and hectoring from Germany against Greece. We have seen instability and inaction. This crisis threatens to be worse. Can the EU show it is a framework meant to last and not collapse at the first wind of discord? Can member states step up and each take tens of thousands of these refugees? Or will they lapse into xenophobia which, like patriotism, is the last refuge of scoundrels?
Another terrible irony of this crisis is that the same European powers being inundated by hundreds of thousands of refugees are the same states who created the artificial divisions and borders of the current Middle East. As colonial powers, Britain, Germany and France exploited the region. The U.S. certainly played a contributory role as well through its own interventions. They played ethnic groups and religious sects off against each other. They rewarded minority groups with power and suppressed majority groups. They ingrained corruption as part of the function of civil society. These imbalances and injustices have given us the Hell we now inherit.
All this points to several lessons: since the world has figuratively missed the boat in terms of dealing with this crisis in 2011, when it was still confined to the Middle East, it must now face up to the result of its indifference and inaction. Europe and the world simply must face facts. They cannot continue to deal with this situation in a haphazard, dysfunctional way. Countries must step up to the plate. A nation like Canada which is responsible for the drowning deaths of the Kurdi family, must immediately resettle the full 10,000 refugee quota it promised (it has only resettled 2,000 so far).
Despite an idiotic presidential campaign in which Republican candidates compete to be the loudest, shrillest, surliest xenophobes on the subject of immigration. For example, how is an “illegal” like a FedEx package? No, that’s not a bad joke in search of a worse punchline. Pres. Obama must show leadership and go against the tide, regardless of cost. He is in his final term. He has nothing to lose. Show the way through mercy. Take 100,000 Syrian refugees. American Jews, witnesses to similar injustices perpetrated on the European Jewish passengers of the St. Louis before the Holocaust, should mobilize on behalf of such a humanitarian effort. We must not stand idly by.
By the way, no one should expect Israel to take any refugees. First of all, they’re Arab. You wouldn’t expect the Jewish state to accept even more than it already has, would you? Not when it’s done its best over 65 years to get rid of as many as it can. Just to confirm that, Bibi Netanyahu announced that little, ol’ Israel couldn’t possibly be expected to participate. Whatever you do, don’t bring up the suffering of Jewish history. Don’t bring up the Holocaust. Don’t bring up Jewish refugees fleeing Europe to help build the new “Jewish state.” That would be oh so inconvenient. Not to mention that Israel isn’t treating the 60,000 African refugees already in its midst very well. Why would Syrian refugees want to live in a place that would put them in internment camps and treat them like dogs?
There is only one way to solve this crisis at its root. Over the long-term, country by country, we must help build infrastructure and institutions to enable stable governance. We must build on what is there–what exists on the ground. We must encourage populist political development. We must oppose autocracy even if it offers temporary stability. But we must not try, as Bush-Cheney did, to graft artificial American concepts onto an Arab tree.
Most importantly, we must dump the poisonous counter-terror policy which has substituted for a U.S. foreign policy towards the region. We need constructive engagement, not drone missiles. Treat Arabs and Muslims like human beings and not terrorists, or a problem needing to be solved.
In countries like Syria, where the popular movement could not overthrow a dictator, there must be a form of negotiated resolution. Given how much blood has flowed under the bridge, it’s hard to see how this can succeed without political will, or even cracking a few heads of the intransigent. There are now so many outside parties meddling in Syria, so many forces with such contradictory interests, the place will be a mess for years to come. It reminds me of the sixteen long years of the Lebanese civil war. Ironically, one of the forces which finally stabilized Lebanon was the autocrat, Hafez al-Assad, who family now faces a civil war of its own.
Ultimately, all the foreign powers intervening in Syria must leave. This may be where the potential of improved relations between the U.S. and Iran could help ameliorate the situation. If we can negotiate an understanding to remove Hezbollah and Iranian forces in return for a negotiated political outcome, it could show the way for all the Sunni interventionists in Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to butt out.
Russia, which is now sending direct military aid and troops to enter the fray, will be much harder to deal with. Putin has shown himself more than willing to throw his weight around in the Ukraine. International opprobrium doesn’t concern him. In fact, he appears to feed on it. He seems to be doing more of the same in Syria. With hardened Pharaonic hearts like Putin’s, the only language he will understand is a bloody nose. The Russian Bear was humiliated in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Must it face a similar poke in the eye when it extends its military adventurism into the Middle East? If so, how does the world confront Russian intervention in a way that doesn’t fuel the slaughter?
The danger of Russian escalation is that the countervailing Sunni forces will ratchet up their intervention. Then we will have something closer to Rwanda than Srebrenica. Something approaching genocide. Can the world countenance this? Or can the world extricate itself from this madness? Can Syria’s domestic forces, including the government and rebels come up with a modus vivendi that will last? Of course, they have failed over many attempts during the past four years. So there is little hope that anything may change.
But how long will it take the Europeans before something gives? 500,000 dead? 1-million? Instead of the projected 300,000 Middle Eastern refugees boring down on Germany–perhaps 1 or 2-million? Rwanda’s genocide was stopped (albeit by an autocrat now responsible for his own more massive genocide in Congo). Genocide in Kosovo was stopped. Serbia was stopped after Srbrenica. What is the way to end the Syrian madness? Action and courage are not called for, but demanded.
This article was published at Tikun Olam.