The heart-wrenching stories and pictures of people fleeing Syria’s bloodletting have stirred debate, anguish and abundant finger pointing. The latest catalyst was the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on Turkey’s coast after the jam-packed boat he and his family boarded to escape Syria capsized. (His mother and brother, aged five, also drowned; their grief-consumed father survived.)
The EU is now bickering over which member state should take how many refugees. European governments’ responses to the soaring inflow, from Syria and elsewhere, have varied. Germany has admitted some 100,000 asylum seekers since 2011. Sweden has received 14,000 from Syria alone since the civil war began there that year. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently allowed several thousand Syrians stranded in (an inhospitable) Hungary to enter Germany via Austria.
She is now pressing other EU governments to pitch in, and in concert. Under an emerging EU allocation plan, Germany will admit 32,000 additional refugees over two years; France: 24,000; and Spain: nearly 15,000—altogether about 60 percent of the EU’s total number. Separately, and under pressure, British prime minister David Cameron eventually agreed to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, the UK having accepted some 5,000 asylum applications from Syria since 2011. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, by contrast, wants to reject the refugees, in the name of defending Christian Europe.
Germany’s generosity has not been the norm in Europe. The data on accepted asylum applications—on average less than half tend to be approved and the process can take up to a year—show that Orban’s spirit trumps Merkel’s in many EU states, notably the eastern regions, Germany’s included.
But Europe is not an outlier. Indeed, moral minimalism is even more evident elsewhere. The scholar and human-rights advocate, Michael Ignatieff, observes in a recent op-ed piece that his native Canada has admitted only 1,074 Syrians; the United States: 1,500; Australia: 2,200; and Brazil: fewer than 2,000. He’s outraged by these paltry numbers, but Amnesty International reports that Russia, South Korea and Singapore are among the economically advanced countries that haven’t allowed any Syrian refugees in, adding that worldwide only 104,410 placements have been offered since 2011—less than 3 percent of the refugees now living in Lebanese, Turkish and Jordanian camps.
Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon struggle to cope with their four million Syrian refugees. Together, Iraq and Egypt host another 381,838. By contrast, the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies condemn Assad’s brutality loudly and routinely, but have not resettled any Syrian refugees. That’s not for lack of resources; their per-capita incomes are among the world’s highest. Despite the tumble in oil prices, Kuwait’s was $55,470 last year, and Saudi Arabia’s was $26,340. (The figure for Jordan, where the number of Syrian refugees is expected to top 900,000 by year’s end, is less than half of Saudi Arabia’s.) True, the Gulf countries have contributed money to UN agencies caring for Syria’s refugees: Saudi Arabia has given $18.4 million; Kuwait: $304.6 million. That’s not chump change, but neither is it generous considering that the former’s foreign exchange reserves totaled $756 billion in 2014, and the latter’s $38.5 billion.
Pundits and activists have proffered various solutions: bomb Assad’s bastions, create a safe haven in Syria to stanch the refugee outflow, arm the “moderate opposition,” admit many more refugees to the West. None of these ideas provides a pathway to ending Syria’s refugee catastrophe.
No country is prepared to bomb Assad unless the United States takes the lead. President Obama has been unwilling, and Americans have not demanded a change of course. War-weary after the long Iraq and Afghan campaigns, they are also rightly skeptical that Assad’s fall will produce calm, rather than continue the civil war.
Moreover, military intervention, a blunt instrument, can sometimes make conflicts worse, as witnessed in Libya, where the 2011 attack against Gaddafi, supported by Ignatieff and many others, has begotten violence and chaos. One consequence: Libya has become a favored departure point for refugees from Africa and the Middle East seeking to reach Europe. This year alone, over 30,000 risked perilous voyages across the Mediterranean to Italy, many in makeshift vessels. Many hundreds have drowned. Smugglers, though, have struck gold.
As for admitting more Syrians and others escaping war and poverty, peruse the comments on articles in leading American newspapers describing the plight of refugees fleeing war-torn countries, and you’ll see that many readers say, in effect, “We have our own poor. Let charity begin at home.” So far, it seems, Pope Francis’s call for compassion toward Syria’s refugees hasn’t moved many hearts, in the United States and even in many parts of Europe.
Calls for wealthier countries to admit more refugees certainly have moral force. The practical problem is that many thousands of Syrians yearn for safety, and a new life, in Western nations. Opening the gates wider will inevitably increase the numbers streaming to Europe, and the numbers who perish while trying. Before long, public kindheartedness will dry up. Angela Merkel is rightly praised for admitting more refugees, but she cannot do so without limits. Ignatieff’s assurance that “tough resourceful management” will prevent a floodtide of refugees won’t cut much ice in the rich countries he calls on to be kinder, especially in Europe, where asylum applications by Syrians alone rose from 70,000 in 2013 to nearly 123,000 in 2014. The overall number of requests for European asylum has risen threefold since 2011, reaching 626,000 in 2104.
This doesn’t mean wealthy countries shouldn’t admit more refugees; it means that, given the magnitude of the problem, it’s not a sustainable solution.
The only way to stop the Syrian refugee exodus is by ending the carnage that has convulsed that country for over four years. While there is no tidy formula for achieving that result, there are good ideas and bad ideas to choose from.
The insistence of Turkey, the Gulf monarchies, Europe and the United States that Assad must resign prior to any peace talks has only convinced him and the armed opposition to keep fighting. Syrians continue to die and to flee in consequence.
As for creating a safe haven in Syria through a no-flight zone, China and Russia oppose this move, so it can’t be made with the Security Council’s blessing. And no state or coalition has the stomach to act unilaterally.
In theory, it’s still possible for the United States and its allies to arm Assad’s foes massively. But the abiding argument of interventionists that there was once a strong, united group of moderates among the myriad Syrian opposition groups, that it could have been armed with the confidence that the weapons wouldn’t fall into the hands of extremists, and that it was betrayed by the Obama administration is an instance, to paraphrase the historian E.H. Carr, of the wish fathering the thought. In any event, the radical Islamists have long since become Assad’s most potent enemies.
The choice, though, is not between intervening full bore and admitting refugees without surcease.
Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, having borne the brunt of the burden of housing and feeding Syria’s refugees, deserve more help from the West and wealthy non-Western countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) are in effect brandishing begging bowls because the money they were promised and desperately need hasn’t materialized. The UNHCR and other relief groups have received less than 25 percent of what they asked for; the WFP has recently cut aid to a third of Syrian refugees for lack of funds. The international failure to provide adequate support is a moral obscenity.
Morality aside, failing to provide adequate help to the three countries caring for more than 90 percent of Syria’s refugees amounts to strategic stupidity; the economic strain could destabilize them, creating more upheaval in an already volatile, violent region, subsequently creating more waves of refugees.
Finally, it’s time to ditch the Assad-must-go precondition for Syrian peace talks. It has proven to be a recipe for continued war—and more tragedies like the death of little Aylan Kurdi.
Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the Colin Powell School of the City College of New York/City University of New York and a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace at Columbia University. His most recent book (coauthored with Eugene B. Rumer) is Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order (MIT Press, 2015); his next book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.