Refugee Crisis: Are those most responsible the least affected?

Many blame terrorist groups for the tragedies prompting migration out of the Middle East and Africa. That is not wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth

By: /
September 8, 2015
Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees on the move in Serbia. (Reuters)
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Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

The tragic photo of the Syrian little boy washed ashore in the Mediterranean is truly shocking. So are the video clips of the mass of asylum seekers and immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in Budapest’s central train station, and young people cutting through barbed wires, barriers and walls that have been erected to keep them away from Europe.

These ordeals have been continuing for a long time. Innocent people drowning by the thousands in the Mediterranean, suffocated by the hundreds in trucks smuggling them to “safe zones,” did not catch much of the attention of the world. No camera showed the real refugee crisis in the neighbouring countries of Syria, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where numbers are not counted in hundreds or thousands, but millions. And forget about thousands of women enslaved, raped and sold in open markets by brutal self-declared Islamist gangs.

These ordeals in the Middle East and Africa have been caused by wars, civil wars, unequal development, and man-made droughts. But who is responsible for these tragedies?

The path to disaster

Western governments, including the present Canadian government of Stephen Harper, and the usual pundits linked to major well-financed “think tanks,” blame the undemocratic and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East and Africa, and point to terrorist groups like ISIS, and Al-Qaeda. They are not wrong, but they don’t tell the whole truth. What these half-truths don’t reveal is that of all the dictators, autocrats and despots in the region, Western governments only deal with the rogue and non-friendly ones, and also do not explain who has been partly responsible for the emergence of these brutal Islamist fundamentalist organizations.

I put aside other theatres of wars and conflicts in the Middle East, such as what has been happening in Gaza with thousands killed, cities in ruins, disease and malnourishment of children so rampant; or what was done in Iraq, all the devastation, killings, and disintegration of a nation; or what is happening in Yemen. I will only briefly focus on Syria and Libya.

Several years ago, when the sparks of the “Arab Spring” reached Syria, the global and regional adversaries found an opportune moment to start a proxy war. Americans unhappy with the last Russian stronghold in the region, and Saudis unhappy with the strong influence of the regime of the Iranian mullahs there, took advantage of the genuine uprising of Syrians against their brutal dictator, got involved in a war and added fuel to the fire. The U.S. government and its Western allies, along with Saudis and the tiny Arab sheikhdoms, financed and armed dissident groups, many of them religious fanatics. And the Russian and Iranian governments and their regional allies like Hezbollah came to the support of the Assad regime. A most horrific civil war devastated Syria.

At that time, few commentators, myself included, warned that this was going to be more disastrous than the invasion of Iraq. On a panel for a very respectable Canadian TV current affairs program, in response to the Canadian and American pundits, who directly or indirectly were advocating a military involvement and were anticipating the quick fall of Assad, I warned that the war would drag on for years and the U.S. and its allies may end up negotiating with the dictator. They were amused by the thought of this seemingly outrageous comment.

Four years later, we witness in horror 250,000 Syrians killed, seven million displaced, four millions refugees, an ancient civilization in total ruins, and a new brutal fundamentalist force, ISIS — itself a direct product of the failed U.S. policies in the region — firmly established, but the dictator remains in power. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies are also in a stronger position, utilizing their gains here in their negotiations with the West on other major issues like Ukraine and the nuclear deal.

A call for diplomacy, not war

Innocent Syrian people are caught between a merciless brutal dictatorial regime on the one hand and a bunch of fundamentalist and undemocratic terrorist and opportunist groups on the other. Nothing has remained of the genuine democratic forces that initially dared to challenge the Assad regime. Still diplomacy remains the only solution to the Syrian problem, but all those who started, supported and fuelled the war continue their wrong-headed policies. Hence, we have the shameful continuation of refugee problems and continued humanitarian disasters.

In Libya, calls for the fall of the dictator who had started a massacre of the dissidents, were followed by a bloody military invasion. In a tribally soaked society soon the country turned into total anarchy. After the fall of the dictator, while the warring coalition, including the present Canadian government, was celebrating another mission accomplished, a major civil war ensued, and Islamist terrorist organizations not only took over part of the country, they also moved to destabilize neighbouring countries. Libyan anarchy — now with two governments in place and multiple regions under warlords — left open the largest border of Africa in the Northern rim, leading to mass exodus of many young Africans suffering from drought and unemployment, both the results of decades of wrong headed neo-liberal policies in the region.

The big irony of the whole situation is that those who have been equally if not most responsible for the current mess, are least affected by the problems they created. With the exception of Turkey, which has been one of the culprits in this saga and is now suffering under the burden of refugees and the renewed conflicts with Turkish Kurds, others have had none of the problems. Saudi Arabian government and the Arab sheikhs who have been generously financing the war and the jihadists and propagating their version of Islam, do not even pretend that they are willing to accept some of these refugees. The British government under David Cameron, who was among the first to call for the invasion of Libya, is the most secure in terms of the pressures of unwanted refugees. So are the U.S. and Canada, and to lesser extent France. The other side of the irony is that those least responsible, including Italy and Greece, are facing most of the problems of the refugee influx.

Most of the Western governments now talk of “moral” responsibility. Morality is not an issue here, they are simply in part responsible for the mess and it is their obligation to first take care of the disastrous situation of refugees, and secondly end the war through negotiations and diplomacy.

They should admit that military options have failed, and have only benefited Islamist fundamentalists — including the Iranian regime — and of course the war machine industry.