October 4, 2014
The Syrian refugee crisis is now the worst humanitarian crisis after the Rwandan genocide back in 1994. The situation demands an immediate response by the wealthier nations of the world, as well as a workable and lasting solution to the civil war in Syria.
A reassessment of the strategy in the current campaign against the Islamic State is central to stabilizing Syria and solving the refugee crisis. In its current formation, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State is composed of forces that lack the willingness or the capability to shoulder the task.
As a short-term solution, the UN has called for the acceptance of 100,000 vulnerable refugees by other countries. The EU and other rich states have shown little interest.
In the long term, however, any solution to the refugee crisis rests on lasting political stability in Syria. Defeating the Islamic State and other ultra-violent groups is pivotal to this objective.
Millions of Syrians left their homes to escape the indiscriminate bombing and the targeting of civilians by the Assad regime.
The refugee crisis takes on new dimensions
Most of the refugees, as anybody walking the streets of Istanbul these days can see, are women and children. They beg for money, any money, when cars are stopped in traffic at red lights. And they sit diminutively on Istanbul’s sidewalks, playing away forlornly on a little flute, hoping to find the occasional generosity of a passer-by.
However, the refugee crisis entered a new turning point with the fast territorial victories of the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s random violence, mass killing of innocent people and kidnapping and rape of young girls have been the main reasons for the recent exodus of Syrians.
Stopping further displacement of Syrians and reversing the tide of the refugee movement requires the removal of the Islamic State from captured territories in Syria and Iraq.
The current U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State is unlikely to achieve this. Its failure will force the displacement of the Kurds and many more who withstood the violence of Assad’s regime and did not leave their homes.
The situation demands boldness and clear-headedness in making the right choices.
A coalition that includes forces truly opposed to the Islamic State is needed to achieve victory against the group. The moderate anti-Assad forces that President Obama called to arm and train have been destroyed or rendered inconsequential by the regime and the radical opposition groups.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other regional Arab states in the coalition remain committed to using radical Muslim groups in Syria and Iraq in their proxy war with Iran. Their participation in the coalition against the Islamic State is at best cynical.
The Assad government – the best path to success
As difficult as this is to accept, the Assad government, the original cause of the refugee crisis, may be among the only hopes for turning the tide. Assad has every reason to defeat the Islamic State at this point. Success in fighting against the Islamic State hinges upon a tacit or active coordination of activities with Assad and his supporters, including Iran.
Insisting on the removal of Assad from power weakens the possibility of containing or defeating the Islamic State, stabilizing Syria and helping a peaceful and voluntary repatriation of the Syrian refugees to their homes.
Assad needs to be guaranteed a place in the future government of Syria after the defeat of the Islamic State and other radical Muslim groups. This seems to be the only road to success.
The world faced similar choices in the past. Right decisions were made in some cases. The alliance between the Soviet Union and its ideological enemies, the United States, Great Britain and France, proved pivotal in defeating fascism in WWII.
No one had any illusion about Stalin’s brutality at home. It took a long time for the Americans to accept Stalin’s call for cooperation against Hitler. In the end, the Americans and others accepted the offer, working with one ideological enemy, to defeat an immediate and devastating threat to the stability of the world.
We are facing a similar situation today. A Syria with Assad is far preferable to a prolonged civil war, or a country carved up and ruled by the Islamic State. This is true for the Syrian refugees and the rest of us elsewhere in the world.