September 7, 2015
The key to resolving Europe’s refugee problem does not lie in Brussels. It lies in ending the Syria conflict. But even then, conditions prevailing in the wider Middle East will continue to compel people to seek a better future on the shores of Europe if they are lucky to get there. The unbearable suffering inflicted by the Syrian conflict has only raised numbers dramatically creating an immediate challenge for Europe. And once again, Chancellor Merkel’s leadership is making a difference.
According to OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) over 200,000 people have been killed and over one million injured in the Syrian conflict. More than half of all Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, often multiple times, creating the largest displacement crisis globally. Inside Syria, 12.2 million people remain in need of humanitarian assistance – a twelve fold increase since 2011 – including more than 5.6 million children. 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced by this conflict. An estimated 4.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in hard to reach and besieged locations. Palestine refugees are particularly affected, with 560,000 in need of assistance and 64 per cent of registered Palestine refugees displaced, 280,000 internally and a further 80,000 abroad. In addition, Syria’s development situation has regressed almost by four decades. Since the onset of the crisis in 2011, life expectancy is estimated to have shortened by almost 13 years and school attendance dropped more than 50 per cent. The Syrian economy has contracted by an estimated 40 per cent since 2011, leading to the majority of Syrians losing their livelihoods. By the end of 2013, an estimated three in four Syrians were living in poverty, and 54 percent were living in extreme poverty.
In an earlier spot (1) I listed the basic reasons why there should be a strong push for a political/diplomatic solution to the conflict. Europe wants to reduce the influx of refugees and worries about home security. Russia and China do not have a refugee problem but must be concerned with the prospect of the Islamic State (ISIL) making new inroads into their country. The broad picture does not serve US interests. Regional countries, neighbors more than the others, bear the brunt of the conflict but have become part of the problem. Those who have burned bridges with Assad need to remember that Dayton Peace Agreement was signed by Slobodan Milosevic.
The UN Security Council has displayed rare solidarity on Syria on two recent occasions. And, there is intense behind closed doors diplomacy. This endeavor must achieve the two fundamental aims of the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012 which are the cessation of armed violence in all its forms and the launching of a Syrian-led transition. For this to happen, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, the EU, individually and collectively need to use all the carrots and sticks to knock some belated sense into Syrian factions. The question is whether the US and Russia would be able to agree on a common course or not.
The upcoming UN General Assembly offers a good opportunity for progress and reclaiming lost moral ground for the Organization. If and when that happens, Arab nations would have to join hands in creating a unified Arab ground force to deal with the ISIL (2). Gulf States which have found an easier target in Yemen should support and participate in such an effort. They must also receive their fair of Syrian refugees in the name of Arab solidarity if not for anything else.
Regardless of his many shortcomings and failures one must credit President Assad for his self-fulfilling prophecy. In October 2012 he said that Syria’s downfall would put the entire Middle East on fire. And as that happened, some just watched while others poured oil on the fire.
(1)“From Arab Spring to Europe’s Autumn of Refugees”, September 3, 2015.
(2)“Time to Put Arab Boots on the Ground”, 7 June 2015.