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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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, 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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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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