Friday, September 11, 2015

Syria's Refugee Crisis - Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Unfortunately, thanks to the images of a tiny, dead child on a Turkish beach, the world's attention has become focused on the refugee/migrant crisis in Europe.  While Europe is on the front lines of the mass movement of what could turn out to be millions of displaced Syrians and Iraqis and has already agreed that it will relocate 120,000 people in clear need of international protection (on top of the 40,000 that were proposed in May 2015), it is rapidly becoming apparent that both Canada and the United States have paid little more than lip service to the problem, even with the United States recently committing to take in at least 10,000 refugees over the next year. In the case of the United States, there have long been attempts to defuse the problem by issuing this statement which stated that:

"The administration is actively considering a range of approaches to be more responsive to the global refugee crisis, including with regard to refugee resettlement.  We are also in regular contact with countries in the Middle East and Europe who have been greatly impacted by the increased refugee flows."

Here's what the State Department had to say about Syria in early August 2015:

"The United States supports the Syrian people’s aspirations for a democratic, inclusive, and unified Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Asad has violently suppressed what began as a peaceful protest movement in Dar’a in March 2011. Asad has proven through his brutal and repressive tactics that he has lost all legitimacy, and he must go as part of a genuine political transition. Asad’s continued tenure only fuels extremism and inflames tensions throughout the region. There can never be a stable, inclusive Syria under his dictatorship.

The United Nations estimates that at least 250,000 people have been killed since the unrest and violence began four years ago. More than four million people are now refugees in neighboring countries. Inside Syria, nearly 7.6 million people are internally displaced and more than 12 million people remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Despite the adoption of UN Security Council Resolutions 2139, 2165, and 2191, the UN and others in the humanitarian community continue to face significant challenges reaching many people in need in Syria. Obstruction and ongoing violence by the regime, opposition, and terrorist groups are continuing to hinder the delivery of urgent, life-saving assistance to those in need inside Syria. All parties to the conflict in Syria must allow safe, unfettered access to all in need."

The crisis in Syria has created a situation that has resulted in 7.6 million internally displaced Syrians, mainly in the Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Deir Ex-Zor and Idlib regions.  The number of Syrians that have fled to neighbouring nations has surpassed 4 million and the UN High Commission for Refugees expects that number of reach around 4.27 million by the end of 2015.  As of mid-2015, the following nations have a significant number of Syrian refugees:

Turkey - 1,805,255
Iraq - 249,726
Jordan - 629,128
Egypt - 132,375
Lebanon - 1,172,753
North Africa - 24,055

As well, more than 348,000 Syrians have made asylum applications in Europe.

To assist in this crisis, State Department spokesman John Kirby recently said that the United States will accept between 1000 to 2000 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2015  and between 5000 and 8000 Syrian refugees in 2016.  To put this number into perspective, Germany expects to accept 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015, four times more than it accepted in 2014.  In light of the millions of displaced Syrians, why is the number of refugees that will be absorbed by the United States so low?  This letter from the House HomelandSecurity Committee to President Obama in June 2015 may help to explain why:

Let's emphasize this paragraph:

"We are increasingly concerned by the decision to accelerate the resettlement of thousands of Syrian refugees here in the United States despite the serious national security implications of doing so.  There is a real risk that individuals associated with terrorist groups will attempt to exploit the refugee resettlement program in order to gain entry into our country.  Terrorist networks are constantly probing our defences and would not hesitate to manipulate a program meant to save those fleeing violence for the purpose of infiltrating operatives onto American soil." (my bold)

So, what has the United States done and what is it planning to do?  Again, I refer to what the State Department had to say about the Syrian situation in early August 2015:

"To help those affected by the crisis in Syria, the United States has contributed more than $4 billion in humanitarian assistance – the most from any single donor. These resources support international and non-governmental organizations operating under the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence, and neutrality to assist those in need who have been affected by the conflict both inside Syria and across the region.

The United States is also providing more than $400 million in non-lethal support to the moderate Syrian opposition. This non-lethal assistance is helping the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), its component bodies, and affiliated opposition entities, as well as local opposition councils, and civil society groups provide essential services to their communities, extend the rule of law, document abuses, and enhance stability inside opposition controlled areas of Syria. These funds are also being used to provide non-lethal assistance to vetted units of the moderate armed opposition, to help them to defend themselves and the Syrian people against attacks by both the Asad regime and violent extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Non-lethal assistance is being provided to a range of civilian opposition groups, including local councils, civil society organizations, and SOC-affiliated entities to bolster their institutional capacity, create linkages among opposition groups inside and outside Syria, and help counter violent extremism. These efforts enable the delivery of basic goods and essential services to liberated communities as they step in to fill voids in local governance. In addition to civil administration training programs, we have provided opposition groups with a wide array of critical equipment, including generators, ambulances, cranes, dump trucks, fire trucks, water storage units, search and rescue equipment, educational kits for schools, winterization materials, and commodity baskets for needy families in the local community.

The United States is also helping to strengthen grassroots organizations and local administrative bodies– a foundation of democratic governance – as they step in to fill gaps in local governance and provide basic services, including emergency power, sanitation, water, and educational services to their communities. U.S. assistance also is being directed to maintaining public safety, extending rule of law, documenting human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, and mitigating sectarian violence.

U.S. non-lethal assistance includes training and equipment to build the capacity of a network of thousands of grassroots activists, including women and youth, from more than 400 opposition councils and organizations from around the country to link Syrian citizens with the national- and local-level Syrian opposition. This support enhances the linkages between Syrian activists, human rights organizations, and independent media outlets and empowers women leaders to play a more active role in transition planning.

Support to independent media includes assistance to both television and radio stations; mentoring from Arab media experts to broadcast professionals inside Syria; training for networks of citizen journalists, bloggers, and cyber-activists to support their documentation and dissemination of information on developments in Syria; and technical assistance and equipment to enhance the information and communications security of Syrian activists within Syria." (my bold)

Unfortunately, of the $4.53 billion required for refugee programs implemented by the United Nations and other NGOs, only $1.06 billion or 23 percent of the total needed had been received by  the end of May 2015.

Syria's refugee crisis is extremely geopolitically complex, largely because so little was done to uproot Bashar al-Assad from "his throne" back in 2011 when it became clear that human rights violations against Syrian civilians were the order of the day.  This has resulted in the creation of a power vacuum which has allowed an influx of Islamic State fighters who now control significant parts of Syria as shown on this map:

This has left millions of Syrian refugees caught between a rock (Assad) and a hard place (the Islamic State).  It has become apparent that the United States is reluctant to accept more than a token number of Syrian refugees.  Obviously, the provision of American humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to civilian opposition groups has been a colossal failure; apparently, when people are hungry and living in fear, the last thing that they are thinking about is forming a grassroots movement against both their President and the local arm of the Islamic State which now controls their lives.  Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this lengthy crisis that has had a very high cost  for millions of Syrian refugees.


  1. Obviously, the provision of American humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to civilian opposition groups has been a colossal failure...

    Oh, gosh. The Us am the bad, terrible country again. We should just quit trying to help. Syria is in the EU's, not ours. The EU's all growed up know, what with their lavish welfare states and all. Maybe they should put on their big boy pants on and deal with this problem all by themselves. It should be entertaining to watch. Meantime, the US should take zero Syrian refugees. Zero, meaning 0. Zip. None. Nada. Let the enlightened and oh-so-lefty EU lead the way.

    1. Syria in the EU !!!! Really, it's in the Middle East not Europe, geography not exactly your bag uh..

    2. That would be awesome if US fucked off to where they come from. Everyone would be better off. That is the best idea I have heard in a long time.

  2. About two years I wrote a piece advocating the only and most likely solution for Syria would be to break the country into two parts. If Assad remains in power those who have suffered and been displaced will never forgive him and live under his rule. A change in ruling factions is also not a viable solution in that it would probably unleash a wave of killings, and reprisals. Remember the Shiite-related Alawites rightly fear an Al Qaeda led triumph as the worst possible outcome, they would make the mass killing of Alawites their first priority.

    The secular leaders of the Syrian rebels, clustered in the exile group known as the Syrian National Council, also must worry about the extremist threat they themselves would face if the Assad government fell. It all appeared a massively ugly mess and little has changed. More on why I finally came to this solution and why it still remains the best option in the article below.

    1. Two isn't enough. The Kurds need piece as well. A 3 way split is what will actually happen over time. Whether its de-facto and the map stays the same or its three new countries with lines drawn on the maps this is what will likely occur. It will take an outside country to invade if the map is to stay the same and if the US is dumb enough to get rid of Al Assad they would need to stay for at least 10 years or more.

    2. Maybe you'd go for a reprise of the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa? The (friendly) Emirs get the rest.