When the broken body of three year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach, the refugee crisis that had been building on the European horizon came to a thunderous head. Fleeing the violence in Syria, he and his family – natives of Kobani – risked everything for the hope of a better life. They decided, as so many have before and will continue to do, to pile into overcrowded and unstable makeshift boats, a risk that cost the lives of Aylan, his brother Galip, and mother Rehen. Only his father, Abdullah, survived.
Aylan’s story, though tragic, is frighteningly common. While countries neighboring Syria have long borne the brunt of Bashar al-Assad’s systemic targeting of civilians and infrastructure, European countries were largely spared the humanitarian catastrophe of the war in Syria, save for the sporadic attacks launched by returned fighters or sympathetic supporters among their native populations. In contrast, countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have been dealing with Syria’s refugee crisis since the beginning, now hosting several million Syrian refugees between them. Although discord is apparent in comparing the response of states like Hungary to that of Germany or Sweden, wealthier European states have begun to step up their humanitarian response, with Germany pledging resources and promising to accept an ever-expanding number of refugees into their borders, as other states offer somewhat smaller offers. Our shared humanity and morality compels us all to respond to the crisis with concerted effort and compassion, doing whatever is necessary to repair the damage inflicted on the lives of millions of refugees. However, without addressing the underlying cause of the refugee crisis – the war in Syria – European action will only treat the symptoms, not the problem.
As the war in Syria approaches its fifth anniversary, the country – and the opposition that arose to save it from the clutches of a blookd thirsty dictator – lies in ruins. The initially peaceful and unified opposition to Assad’s rule quickly deteriorated into armed conflict, with regional and sectarian differences manifesting themselves in an ever growing list of militias representing various regions, ethnicities, and creeds. While the Islamic State (ISIS) remains foremost among these in the minds of Western observes – due chiefly to their brutal acts spread via social media – the truth is that a great number of militias exercise authority across Syria, often violently, with many belonging to a number of extremist factions. This is particularly true when discussing the groups that have been most successful in acquiring and holding territory, namely the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, both members of Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). These groups do not have the same notoriety as ISIS but also exact draconian punishments on those living within Syria, often for the most minor of infractions. A number of nationalist groups, with views more amenable to Western backers, do continue to operate in the southwest of the country, but their proximity to the capital and moderate beliefs have made them easy targets for the regime. In short, the ideological bent of the most effective fighting forces in the conflict make cooperation unappetizing or impossible.
Although the West’s attention is mostly focused on the worrying rise of radical groups within the conflict, one fact is undeniable: most refugees are fleeing the regime. The regime’s tactics – including the use of indiscriminate barrel bombs, which kill hundreds if not thousands every month – have laid waste to the civilian population and the infrastructure that they rely on for their survival and livelihoods. To be clear, most Syrians are not in love with ISIS. They are, however, most fearful of the actor who attacks them with the greatest frequency and ferocity: the Assad regime.
In order to stop these air raids, which destroy the possibility of life, freedom of movement, and livelihoods for Syria’s millions of residents, it is necessary control Syria’s airspace. Despite the ever shrinking area that Assad is able to actually exert control over, the Syrian Arab Air Force faces little opposition from armed groups within the country. While the downing of planes carrying pilots is dramatic and captures the attention of onlookers everywhere, the Syrian air force’s technological advantage ensures that it will remain unchallenged in the absence of a major intervention from outside powers.
In order to mount effective control of Syria’s airspace and deny the regime the possibility of further carrying out aerial attacks across the country, Turkey, the United States, and Arab and European allies need to implement an effective no fly zone over disputed areas, the areas that the regime is most likely to attack in an effort to maintain control. The recent developments in Turkish-U.S. military cooperation should prove encouraging on this front, but this is far from a foregone conclusion and will require constant, concerted effort. Moreover, such a move would complicate the US realtions with the various actors in the region, forcing them to balance complicated equations with Ankara, the Syrian opposition, Kurds, the Assad government and ISIS. It is also important to understand that a no-fly zone could serve to stop humanitarian suffering in affected areas without necessarily effecting the regime change that Turkey and the Gulf states would like to see
Indeed, seeking regime change in Syria has always been a priority for Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. These states seek to install a Sunni-friendly ally in an increasingly sectarian region, pulling the state away from Iran’s influence. To this end, they have spent millions equipping innumerable factions of varying degrees of fanaticism with arms and other killing machines. To the consternation of the US, many of these factions share little in common with the West other than their resolute opposition to the Assad government. And to the frustration of onlookers everywhere – especially within the Arab world – Gulf states, renowned for their wealth and oil deposits, have steadfastly refused to accept refugees, citing a variety of reasons, including legal obstacles and small indigenous populations. While the world is right to recognize and criticize this contradiction, it is unlikely that Gulf states will change their tune anytime soon. The majority of states participating in the war against the Syrian government have shown an uncommon strength in standing up to international pressure in spite of public humiliation, and there is no reason to think that a policy that will cost billions and could fundamentally change the nature of their states via population shifts will be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.
Whether Gulf intransigency in accepting refugees is shrewd policy or morally bankrupt escape artistry, it is and likely will remain reality. Because of this, European and non-Gulf MENA states must continue to do all that is possible to alleviate the suffering of refugees, as they have for years. While refugee resettlement is done in the hopes that it is temporary, Europe, Lebanon, Turkey and other states cannot afford to have millions of refugees living amongst them while being forced underground or enduring the stigma of ‘the other in our midst’. Such situations breed distrust among both populations, as well as discontent and violence. Given that refugees are a reality for Germany, Lebanon, Hungary, and other states, they cannot afford to undertake symbolic moves that will haunt them for years down the road.
While Gulf states are not likely to begin accepting refugees in large numbers in the near future, allies can continue to pressure them to maintain high levels of support for humanitarian causes, as well as coordinating with the U.S. and other military allies in the region to deny Assad unchallenged aerial authority and, hopefully, reduce the suffering left in the wake of his bombing raids. Gulf states, despite the recent dips in the price of oil, might be even more willing to donate money to humanitarian causes with the knowledge that there was a concerted plan in place that served their ends to ultimately oust Assad.
Reality, playing out daily in drownings and daring border crossings across the Middle East and Europe, is grim. One could be forgiven for placing head in hand, sobbing in disbelief, and – ultimately – giving up, saying, “what could possibly stop this?” While the situation is unbearably desperate, ignoring reality would prove to be even more damaging. While a number of states have shown hostility to consensus, pragmatism, and refugees – even including outright racism and sectarianism – a solution that insists on a non-reality will fail every time. European states are finally feeling what states neighboring Syria have been dealing with for years. They must, as other states have, answer the call. Now is not the time to point fingers at hypocrites or those seeking war. Humanitarian assistance must remain the priority for every state touching this crisis, and any military measures that are undertaken must keep eye on alleviating the suffering endured by millions of Syrians every day, as well as bridging common ground between Syria’s allies, enemies, and those who merely want to reduce the humanitarian suffering within the theater of the conflict. Even among these fractured lines in an often fractured region, there is still common ground to be found.