The refugee crisis now confronting Europe, with hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants pouring across multiple borders, has opened up deep fissures in the European Union. The crisis threatens to tear the EU apart, but it’s truly global in nature, with roots in decades of conflict, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Eritrea; in the multiple upheavals stemming from the Arab revolutions, from Libya to Yemen; and in the regional instability and extremism brought about by the US invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq. But the greatest source of refugees flooding into Europe now is Syria, and that demands a rethinking not only of EU and US refugee policy, but also their approach to Syria’s civil war.
About half of Syria’s population—nearly 12 million people—has been displaced after four years of brutal conflict, with some 300,000 dead and more than 4 million now having fled the country. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the pronounced increase in Syrians fleeing to Europe this year has multiple causes, chief among them despair at the crisis in their home country ever being resolved, combined with a steadily declining flow of aid to refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The UN’s current interagency aid plan is less than 40 percent funded for 2015, even as some countries bordering Syria have imposed tight restrictions on refugee employment.
The humanitarian catastrophe has spurred renewed demands for world powers to address the civil war, and the UN General Assembly session this September was an opportune moment to do so. Indeed, US and Russian diplomats have expressed increasing willingness to cooperate in resolving the crisis, and Washington and Moscow share a common goal in stemming Islamist extremism and achieving stability in Syria and Iraq. But the dueling UN speeches by President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin exposed once again the deep divisions between the two countries.
Those divisions reflect and are compounded by the sectarian divide in the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, along with Turkey, have lavished arms and aid on rebel forces fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, while Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah have steadily increased their supply of arms, aid, and advisers—and in the case of Hezbollah, ground troops—to Assad’s regime. Putin has now raised the ante by announcing an intelligence-sharing agreement among Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria with the avowed aim of fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), but one that seems intended just as much to shore up the Syrian leader. In fact, Russia carried out its first airstrikes two days after Putin’s speech.
While the conflict may appear to be as intractable as ever, there are concrete measures that nations can take, both individually and collectively, to relieve the agony, even as they must urgently renew talks toward a negotiated solution. First, the UN and other aid agencies need an immediate vast increase in funding. World powers may disagree on how to resolve the conflict, but nothing is preventing them from addressing the humanitarian crisis, which increasingly threatens the stability of Jordan (now hosting 600,000 refugees), Lebanon (more than 1 million), and Turkey (about 2 million). Second, the United States and European countries must increase, by orders of magnitude, the number of refugees they accept for asylum. The United States could easily absorb at least 100,000—many more than the paltry increase recently announced by the Obama administration.