More than two weeks have passed since the lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach, forcing the world to confront the tide of Syrian asylum seekers massing at Europe’s borders. In the grim aftermath, the international response has both impressed and disappointed, as millions of hero-citizens have taken to the streets to demand compassion and offer support—and millions of others have countered with bigotry. A few countries have cracked open their borders; too many others have slammed them shut. Yet, as debate has raged over how best to respond to the crisis, there has been shockingly little discussion as to why the refugees are fleeing Syria—and how the last four years of botched international policy has helped trigger the refugee exodus.
Of the thousands crossing the Mediterranean, most are fleeing the orgy of violence unleashed four years ago by President Bashar al-Assad against the citizens of his own country. That violence burst into view with the death of another young boy, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, whose brutal murder at the hands of police in the town of Daraa served as a kind of bloody prologue to the drowning death of Aylan Kurdi. Much like Kurdi, al-Khateeb was swept up by events far bigger than he was; after joining friends and family at an April 2011 protest, he was detained and then tortured. As images of al-Khateeb’s mutilated young body circulated across the Internet, mass protests erupted across Syria—from Daraa to Damascus, Aleppo to Homs—only to be met by the full, punishing force of the Assad military.
If the world’s powers had set their red line then, at the torture of al-Khateeb and the regime’s decimation of Daraa, it is possible that there might have been no refugee crisis today. But instead of supporting the revolution when it was a largely unarmed affair, the globe’s power players turned Syria into a geopolitical chessboard, actively sponsoring various sides of the conflict without concern for the civilian population. The United States and its Gulf allies pumped money and weapons into a murky constellation of rebel factions, empowering Al Qaeda affiliates that indirectly spawned the rise of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran funneled weapons, training, and funding to Assad and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, ensuring that the regime stayed afloat even as it subjected an untold number of Syrians to industrial-style torture and the terror of barrel bombings.
The result of all this shadow warmongering has been the disaster unfolding today. Syria now is a failed state. According to the United Nations, nearly 250,000 people have been killed, and 10.6 million people—almost half the country’s pre-war population—have been forced to flee their homes. And, thanks to unending posturing of the big powers, the diplomatic horizon has been so diminished that the only solution the great powers have been able to agree upon so far has been the need to defeat ISIS.
This was woefully evident at as an August 17 United Nations Security Council meeting, when the veto-wielding powers were able to find consensus only by emphasizing the ISIS fight, leaving the far more crucial question of the future of the Assad regime and the Syrian state off the table. More recently, Russia’s military involvement in Syria has reinforced the impetus towards a common strategy between the United States and Putin. Despite their longstanding differences, they may yet find common ground in their mutual goal to preempt an Islamist victory. The question is, will a possible alliance lead them only toward an intensified military campaign against ISIS, or will it lead to a meaningful conversation about political solutions to the larger crisis?