Syrian Origins of the Refugee Crisis: The Cost of No Policy?

Syrian flag in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

23.10.2015

Why did so many refugees enter Europe in 2015? According to Frontex, the European agency in charge of external borders, the number of “migrants” who crossed into Europe rose from 282,000 in 2014 to 710,000 in the first nine months of 2015. This will probably rise to over a million by the end of the year. Data are uncertain and differ: the UNHCR estimates that 590,000 “migrants and refugees” arrived in Europe by sea in the same period, 54% of them feeling the civil war in Syria.[1]

The refugee crisis is largely a consequence of failed foreign policy towards Syria. The European Union’s border system has been overwhelmed because member states have let the Syrian crisis aggravate since 2011, underestimating its consequences for Europe. Other civil wars have also played a lesser role. Afghans constitute the second most numerous nationality, accounting for 15% of the refugees. The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, the failure of the current government and the steady rise of the Taliban are causing a young generation of Afghans to flee the country. Facing violence and unemployment, they either cross through Iran or fly into Turkey in the hope of reaching Europe. The civil war in Libya has also played a role, especially given that the EU had been funding the Gaddafi regime to manage the flow of refugees from Africa. Eritreans, Nigerians and Sudanese represent approximately 10% of the refugees.

The civil war Syria is key to understanding the refugee crisis. The situation is often described as chaos, anarchy and turmoil, as if it were unavoidable, as if no policy could have influenced it. The artificiality of the post-Ottoman borders, following the Sykes-Picot agreement, is frequently referred to in support of the argument that the country cannot be reassembled. This ignores the claims of the main armed actors, who, with the exception of the Islamic State, are fighting for Syria and not for Islam, an Arab nation, or for the Alawite sect. Even the Syrian branch of the PKK, the PYD, has confined its demands to federalism rather than independence. Another tendency is to refer to the supposedly violent dispositions of Arab Muslims and the sectarian nature of the Middle East as proof that current events are an expression of an inherently radical dynamics.

In reality, the Syrian crisis is the result of an interaction between the strategies of Syrian actors and the interventions of regional and international powers. On one side are Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia; on the other, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The EU and the US has let these powers influence who leads the insurgency and what the final outcome might be. Syria is of limited interest to the US, which it has mostly viewed through the lens of anti-terrorist operations; hence the ineffective aerial campaign and the fiasco of the US trained group of Syrian fighters known as Division 30.[2] For Europe, however, the Syrian civil war is a strategic issue. Its lack of foreign policy effectively meant it now has to deal with it domestically, in terms both of security and refugees. EU has long hoped that refugees would continue to be managed by neighboring countries. This strategy has failed with the refusal of Turkey to let the Syria be dealt with as a humanitarian crisis and not a civil war.

The Syrian Regime’s Strategy

The first wave of refugees to neighboring countries was caused by the Assad regime’s systematic bombing of civilian areas under rebel control. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians started in spring 2011, before any armed opposition existed. On 13th August 2011, for example, the Syrian Navy bombed the southern, Sunni-populated neighborhood of Latakia. Elsewhere, in Deraa, Homs or Hama, tanks and snipers were repeatedly used against peaceful demonstrators.[3] When the opposition took arms to respond to the military repression, Damascus withdrew from large chunks of its territory and increased its violence.

In territories outside its control, the Assad regime deliberately targeted civilian buildings and indiscriminately bombed populated areas. Most schools and hospitals in insurgent areas were directly hit. The nascent rebel authorities rebuilt some schools and basic health clinics, but had to keep them secret. As soon as their existence became known, they were bombed. Gathering in public places became dangerous, after planes and helicopters began attacking crowds. Cafes, parks and markets were regularly targeted, and even children playing in the street. When I travelled to northern Syria with my fellow researchers Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay, we were struck by how people anxiously scrutinized the sky and reacted with fear to any noise that resembled an aircraft.

In 2013, the regime escalated its strategy of forcing the population out of the rebel-controlled territories by the extensive use of barrel bombs. These metal containers, filled with high explosive, shrapnel and oil, often dropped from high-up by helicopters, are indiscriminate and of little military efficacy. In civilian areas, however, they have a terrorizing effect, killing up to several hundred people per strike and bringing down entire blocks. The result was that the number of people fleeing northern Syria skyrocketed in 2013 and 2014. By forcing refugees into neighboring countries, Bashar al-Assad could put pressure on their governments and retaliate against their policy of providing a sanctuary to the insurgency.

Containing the Problem in the Middle East

Up until 2013, the European countries thought they could avoid the implications of the Syrian conflict. The war first affected Europe through the return of thousands of Europeans who had gone to Syria to fight against Assad. Monitoring such numbers proved far beyond the capacities of the domestic intelligence agencies, and member states ended up focusing their attention on Islamic State. Europe also saw the refugee issue primarily through a humanitarian lens. The EU member states hoped that the influx of people fleeing the war could be contained within the Middle East. By October 2015, two million Syrians had been registered by UNHCR in Turkey alone, with a million in Lebanon and over 600,000 in Jordan. Real figures are much higher, even without the camps on the Syrian side of the Jordanian and Turkish borders.[4]

The management of the Syrian war was partly delegated to UN agencies, in particular the UNHCR. However this agency has been consistently underfunded. So far in 2015, less than 40% of UNHCR funding requirements have been covered.[5] In addition, the UNHCR has proven unable to manage such a large number of refugees. This situation is not new. The UN was also overwhelmed by the mass of refugees in Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in Chad and the Central African Republic after the Darfur rebellion, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the Rwandan genocide.

The management of the refugee situation was also made difficult by the destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war on the neighboring countries. Iraq has again lapsed into civil war, partly as a result of the Syrian crisis. In Jordan, where the Palestinian, Iraqi and Syria refugee populations far outnumber Jordanian citizens, the government has stepped up security. In Lebanon, the political scene is directly affected by the events in Syria, all the more as Hezbollah is a direct participant in the armed struggle. Finally, Turkey is currently dealing with its most acute domestic crisis since the military era in the 1980s and the war with the PKK in the 1990s.

The situation in Turkey is key to understanding why the refugees are now arriving in Europe. Turkey has refused to build refugee camps managed by the UNHCR or NGOs. This decision partly stems from the refusal of the government to let these organization interfere in its internal affairs. However the main reason is that Turkey wants to avoid a de-politicization of the crisis, along the lines of what happened with the Palestinians in the decades after 1948, when the conflict was interpreted as primarily as humanitarian issue. Ankara has repeatedly advocated the removal of Assad, whom it accuses of being responsible for the war and the rise both of the Islamic State and the PKK. It has called for a no-fly zone in Northern Syria, effectively as a way to keep Syrians in Syria, and refused to give in to European demands.

The Implications of No Policy

The refugee crisis is the result of this lack of European foreign policy. The European Union and its member states have condemned themselves to dealing with the effects of the Syrian crisis internally. Europe has collectively underestimated the importance of the civil war and remains divided over it. While Germany regularly attempts to engage with the Assad regime, France and the UK favor the insurgency, providing it with diplomatic recognition but limited support. One of the few consensual issues, the emphasis on minorities, together with humanitarian aid and participation in the aerial campaign against the Islamic State, has left Europe without influence over the course of the conflict. Similarly, time and resources have been wasted in attempts at negotiation processes in a context in which both the regime and the insurgency want to fight and cannot guarantee the safety of the other. As a consequence, and not for the first time, Europe has ended up following the American lead. However it is Europe, and not the US, whose proximity to Syria means it now has to deal with the refugees. This could have been anticipated in 2013,[6] yet European countries choose to ignore it time and time again.

More gravely, by taking a marginal role in the crisis, Europe has let Turkey, the Gulf states, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia determine Syria’s future. It has allowed the most liberal and moderate-minded rebels to be excluded from Syrian politics. One should remember that, in 2013, entire Islamist brigades did not exist. The Muslim Brotherhood represented the center of the political spectrum and takfiris (Sunni Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy) were but a few thousand. An alternative administration had been emerging in the rebel areas, made up of formerly peaceful demonstrators, generally from the Syrian middle-class. In January 2014, this ideologically heterogeneous insurgency started fighting the Islamic State, but received little support from the West. It was only after the fall of Mosul in Iraq that the United States, followed by European countries, decided on historically the most ineffective form of military engagement: an aerial bombing campaign. By that time, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia had long been supporting the regime’s strategy of escalation, while the Gulf States had been funding the Islamist units, even the most radical ones in the case of Qatar.

The current refugee crisis cannot, therefore, be described as the inevitable result of the chaos in Syria. On the contrary, it stems from a lack of consistent policy. The cost of not having a foreign policy is having to deal domestically with crises. Europe will have no alternative if it continues to be a marginal power in the Syrian crisis.

Adam Baczko is a PhD candidate in political science at the EHESS, Paris and a Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM. He has conducted extensive research in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of Congo for his comparative research project on the exercise of justice by armed insurgent groups.

[1] Data from UNHCR or Frontex on the number of refugees are contested. The definition of what constitutes a migrant or a refugee depends largely on the methods of registering and gathering data. The UNHCR probably underestimates the number of migrants that have passed though Italy and Spain. http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php#_ga=1.63702188.2001615450.1443104329

[2] Division 30 was formed, trained and funded by the US Department of Defense to fight the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. The first group that entered Syria was ambushed by al-Nusra Front; the second gave it weapons to be allowed to fight the regime. See: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/trained-syria-fighters-gave-equipment-nusra-front-150926011820488.html.

[3] Human Rights Watch covered those events and reported on a quarterly basis: http://www.hrw.org/node/99345/section/5, http://www.hrw.org/fr/news/2011/06/01/syrie-crimes-contre-l-humanit-deraa, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/11/11/syria-crimes-against-humanity-homs, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/03/15/syria-witnesses-describe-idlib-destruction-killings, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/03/22/syria-government-uses-homs-tactics-border-town, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/03/syria-torture-centers-revealed. See also the Amnesty International report of the same period: http://www.amnesty.org/fr/region/syria/report-2011.

[4] http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

[5] http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

[6] We warned in April 2013 about this risk, along with the phenomenon of returning IS fighters, in our report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/syrian_state.pdf

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    Martin Pollack, geb. 1944 in OÖ, studierte Slawistik und osteuropäische Geschichte. Er war von 1987 bis 1998 Redakteur des “Spiegel” in Warschau und Wien und lebt heute als Schriftsteller und literarischer Übersetzer in Wien und Bocksdorf im Südburgenland. 2011 erhielt er den Leipziger Buchpreis zur Europäischen Verständigung und 2012 den Stanislaw-Vincenz-Preis. Zuletzt erschien von ihm …
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  • Krzysztof Pomian

    Krzysztof Pomian is Professor of History at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń) and Academic Director of the Museum of Europe in Brussels.   Print

  • Romano Prodi

    Romano Prodi war von September 1999 bis November 2004 Präsident der Europäischen Kommission.   Print

  • Lipin Ram

    PhD candidate and teaching assistant in Anthropology and Sociology of Development, Graduate Institute, Geneva
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  • Mykola Riabchuk

    Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies, Academy of Sciences, Kyiv
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  • Edelbert Richter

    Edelbert Richter ist deutscher Theologe, Politiker und war Mitglied des Deutschen Bundestages.   Print

  • Paul Ricoeur

    Paul Ricoeur ist Philosoph und war Professor Emeritus an der University of Chicago und an der Sorbonne. Er war Mitglied der Académie Francaise und Mitglied des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats des IWM. Er starb 2005.   Print

  • Michel Rocard

    Michel Rocard, former First Secretary of the French Socialist Party and a member of the European Parliament for 15 years, was Prime Minister of France from 1988 to 1991.   Print

  • Akos Rona-Tas

    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabic

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    PhD in Political Science

    Visiting Fellow, Ukraine in European Dialogue
    (January 2016 – July 2018)
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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