It’s been infamously dubbed the “worst refugee crisis since WWII”, as thousands fleeing war in Syria embark on the treacherous journey to Europe in search of respite. Yet for all the grand humanitarian gesturing by Europe, few analysts and even still fewer leaders are willing to publicly acknowledge the root cause of the predominantly Syrian refugee crisis: the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Since the initial uprising against the regime began in 2011 almost 50% of Syria’s pre-war population have been internally displaced, whilst 4 million Syrians have fled. Although the majority of refugees sought safe haven in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the unrelenting violence perpetrated by Syrian government forces ensured the spillover would inevitably reach Europe’s shores. And it did, quite literally, culminating in the searing images of drowned infant Aylan Kurdi last week.
Although the crisis seems to have jolted European hearts into action, heads remain stubbornly fixated on forces symptomatic of the larger issues at hand, namely the group known as Islamic State (IS). The International Coalition’s determined pursuit of the marauding self-styled jihadis is rightfully justified by its humanitarian credentials. And yet this begs the question: if the concern for human life were indeed paramount, then why isn’t the Assad regime, which in 2015 alone has killed 7 times more civilians than IS, pursued just as vigorously – or better yet – pursued at all?
While the answer to that lies entangled in the complex decision-making of our superiors, one thing remains abundantly clear: until Assad’s murderous tyranny is halted, the refugee crisis facing Europe will continue to both expand and deteriorate. The facts paint an extraordinarily clear picture. Of the documented civilian deaths in Syria since 2011, a staggering 97% of victims were killed by Assad government forces, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). Thus, if Europe is to have any success in stemming the flow of refugees, it must look beyond their unsustainable and financially costly absorption and towards tackling the perpetrators of their plight.
Yet by no means is this a straightforward task. Any hawkish military intervention is likely to only exacerbate the crisis. One only needs to look to the turmoil currently engulfing Libya to realise the reckless laissez-faire approach by Western countries to humanitarian crises is extremely short-sighted and destined to fail without adequate provision for post-conflict peace-building.
Unfortunately there is no quick fix to the civil war now entering its fifth year. The complex dynamic on the ground involving various incohesive belligerents, their regional state-sponsors as well as the international forces invested in the conflict endlessly complicates a deteriorating situation.
However, the magnitude of the ongoing refugee crisis demands an immediate response that directly addresses it’s causes. The dogmatic non-interventionism of the West that triumphed in 2013 retains validity, yet the moral and political imperative here lies with concerted action. Here, the complexity of the political and military situation on the ground can prove advantageous. Rather than subscribing to the pacifist-interventionist binary paradigm traditionally dominating the discourse, policy-makers should adopt more nuanced positions befitting reality.
This could involve the ‘hard military force’ David Cameron referred to, taking the form of a defensive “no-fly zone” increasingly called for by Syrian civil society groups and human rights organisations, as well as international institutions such as the International Crisis Group. Considering the International Coalition is already operating in Syria against IS, it’s certainly not beyond its capabilities to expand its mission to encompass the Syrian Arab Air force – Assad’s major instrument inflicting misery. Global opposition to the regime’s use of barrel bombs, crude explosive devices filled with shrapnel and dropped predominantly on civilian areas, counts for little so long as the bombs remain the largest cause of civilian casualties.
A second approach to tackling the refugee crisis could involve supporting Syrian civil society and the political opposition with the governance of areas currently liberated from Assad. Refugees continue to flee rebel-liberated areas such as Idlib due to the ineffective and chaotic nature of self-rule, alongside the continued use of barrel bombs by Assad. Addressing such a failure by creating a safe-zone, as favoured by the Turkish government and Syrian opposition, would create a safe haven in which refugees could return to and in which local governance could operate without attacks from Assad. Such a policy would work to alleviate the current refugee crisis, whilst also contributing to creating the foundations for the essential long-term Syrian-led reconstruction of Syria, in the seemingly inevitable and eventual post-Assad era.
To borrow UK PM David Cameron’s words, if there is to be a long-term solution to the refugee crisis, then Europe must act with its “head and its heart.” Simply taking in more refugees, while morally commendable, will only perpetuate an unsustainable reality. Europe must think – and act – decisively. To end the Syrian refugee crisis, alleviate the suffering of millions and facilitate the healing of a torn nation, then we must pursue its primary culprit: the Assad regime.
Islam el Naayam & Harry Shotton