The United States Must Help Solve the Syrian Problem

There are two major political problems in the Middle East; the belligerence of ISIS and its threat to the civilized world; and the Syrian civil war that has killed more than 250,000 and led to the displacement of millions. The international community, including the U.S. State Department, should concentrate its attention on resolving both of these problem, the barbarism and crimes of ISIS and the bitter conflict in Syria and the havoc it has created.

The two issues are connected. It was the unwillingness of the Western democracies, especially the U.S., to help the peaceful uprising in Syria in 2011 and to confront the murderous Syrian President Bashar Assad and his brutal military that in a cynical fashion allowed the anti-Western and anti-Israeli ISIS to develop and form its Caliphate in control of land in Syria and Iraq.

U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart has told Congress of the danger of ISIS, from Libya to the Caucuses, which has stepped the “pace and lethality” of its attacks in Mali, Tunisia, Somalia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.

Even Bernie Saunders recognizes the need to fight ISIS, though by ground troops of a coalition of Arab nations, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, not by the United States.

The horror in Syria, already in the fifth year of its civil war, continues as Russian air power together with Iranian troops is aiding the regime of Assad to defeat the rebel opposition of the Free Syrian Army. The two issues are connected in that Russia, that has been striking mainstream rebels, claims to be targeting ISIS. The military slaughter goes on, and so does the tragedy of increasing numbers of refugees forced to flee the country in order to survive. The civil war has become an international imbroglio, and so now has the migration crisis. The optimum to be hoped for a solution is a successful peace conference about Syria and Assad: the minimum is creating a safe zone in Syria to shelter those displaced from their homes.

The number of displaced people in Syria now amounts to 13.5 million, and the number of refugees from Syria is 4.2 million, and the numbers increase expeditiously. The Russians airstrikes in Aleppo in February 2016 have helped the efforts of the regime to retake the city from rebel forces but they have led to an intensification of the exodus of civilians, almost 30,000 who have fled towards Turkey which is already hosting 2.5 million refugees. Turkey is expecting 600,000 Syrians to arrive at its borders.

Migrants or refugees have entered Europe by various routes, over land from Turkey, through Russia into Scandinavia, and by sea. The number reaching Europe by sea has increased tenfold over last year. In the first six weeks of 2016, more than 76,000 migrants arrived in Europe by sea, compared with 11,000 in the whole of 2015. Most are arriving in Greece and fewer in Italy.

Some help has been coming from Frontex and from NATO. Frontex, the EU agency, has the function of coordinating the activities of the EU countries to secure their external borders. It has deployed about 300 officers and 15 vessels to Greek islands to help patrol the seas and register the migrants, about 885,000 of whom have entered Europe by sea.

NATO has attemtped to help by means of naval and air patrols in the eastern Mediterranean though it is not directly involved in aiding the refugees. It is considering, “very seriously” in the words of Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenburg, launching naval mission to monitor this exodus by sea. NATO would thus help with surveillance of sea traffic in the Mediterranean and would assist the Turkish coastal authorities and Frontex. The Obama administration has not yet announced its decision on whether to participate in such a mission.

Everyone agrees that the refugee problem is acute. The devastation can be witnessed at the Turkish border as 35,000 Syrians are sheltered in tents and in cold and rainy weather. Yet, Turkish Deputy Minister Numan Kurtulmus on February 8, 2016 announced, if in unclear fashion, that Turkey had reached the end of its capacity to absorb refugees, but would still take in Syrians who might otherwise be massacred in Syria.

How to deal with the unending flow of refugees?  It has become an international problem. The London Conference of leaders of 60 countries and international organizations held on February 4, 2016 agreed on the raising of funds to deal with the flow of refugees. It raised $11 billion in pledges, $5.8 billion for 2016 and $5.4 billion for 2017-20. The figures are informative in the comparative lack of generosity of Arab countries. The U.S. will provide $891 million, the UK $1.9 billion, Saudi Arabia $200 million, and the UAE $137 million.

Germany has been in the forefront of humanitarian aid. Since the 1950s it has been trying to assimilate the millions of guest workers, mostly from Turkey: Muslims now account for more than five per cent of its population. Germany, which accepted 1.1 million refugees in 2015, has pledged to provide $2.5 billion in humanitarian aid at the London conference.

But the European countries are seeking protection in drastic fashion. They are preparing, or thinking of preparing, border controls. France and Belgium face an almost impossible task in preventing migrants in and near Calais and Dunkirk from attempting to mount trucks headed for the UK. France built high razor wire fences around the entrance to the Channel Tunnel and has used more than 1,000 police to deal with the migrants who are in camps in the area. The large camp outside of Calais contains at least 6,000 people

Macedonia is building a second barrier of razor wire along 19 miles of its frontier, parallel to the existing one, to stop any more migrants from Greece. Already in 2016, 68,000 have entered Macedonia on their way to Germany or Austria. Yet, in spite of this, Macedonia will not fully close its border.

Political views are changing. Austria has announced its decision to control the flow of migrants. In 2015 it had received 90,000 applications for asylum. It has now said it will limit acceptance to 37,500. Yet now, Chancellor Werner Faymann, leader of the Social Democratic party, surprisingly went further. In September 2015 Faymann had criticized the Hungarian management of refugees, comparing it to their activity in 1944 in the Nazi deportation of Jews to their death. In February 2016 he has called for all refugees to be sent back to Turkey.

Austria already has border controls at Spielfeld, a crossing point in the south east of the country, with Slovenia. Yet again, there is ambiguity in policy. Austria believes that border police should save those in Mediterranean Sea who are on their way to Greece, but nevertheless should send them back.

The stream of migrants resulting from the Syrian conflict has become unmanageable for European countries who are responding by humanitarian aid and by protection of their borders. Generous humanitarian aid and attempts to alleviate suffering are commendable, but they are insufficient to resolve the problem. European countries and the international community in general should implement the commitments for aid. Bit it more imperative to pursue a political solution of the Syrian conflict.

This is the role for the Obama administration to play. It should at the forthcoming Geneva Conference on February 25, 2016 play a leading role together with Russia in finding a political solution and an end to a war that has been so cruel to Syrians but is also perplexing Europe. Political fences are preferable to and cost less than military ones.