By James LeGrice of Insight Consulting Group
Europe is no longer insulated from Syria’s civil war. This month, refugees, mainly from Syria, arrived in Greece at a rate of over 5,000 per day. They join half a million who have fled Syria and other conflict zones this year to a European Union drastically unprepared for an exodus of this magnitude. There is a risk now that European nations will opt for quick solutions to deliver short term results at the expense of long term challenges. Europe is divided on how to accommodate, and whether it even should accommodate, the refugees.
Europe is no longer insulated from Syria’s civil war. This month, refugees, mainly from Syria, arrived in Greece at a rate of over 5,000 per day. They join half a million who have fled Syria and other conflict zones this year to a European Union drastically unprepared for an exodus of this magnitude. There is a risk now that European nations will opt for quick solutions to deliver short term results at the expense of long term challenges.
Europe is divided on how to accommodate, and whether it even should accommodate, the refugees. Germany has been the most embracing. In August, it suspended a protocol forcing refugees to seek asylum in the first EU country they enter, meaning that Syrians entering Europe in Greece or Italy can claim asylum in Germany. In total, Germany is expected to take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that “the world sees Germany as a country of hope” and has spoken of the positive change and job growth that an influx of migrants could bring.
This position has stirred controversy, most notably from Hungary, one of the major transit points on the route to Germany. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, has described the refugee crisis as a “German problem” rather than a European one, and said that the priority should be to secure the borders of the European Union. Hungary has already completed a wall along its border with Serbia.
Indeed, it was not long before Germany, overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees entering the country, had to temporarily close its border and suspend the train services from Austria used by migrants.
Germany led the push for an EU-wide mandatory quota system to share responsibility for accommodating 120,000 refugees. This was approved in principle at an emergency EU summit, controversially through a majority rather than unanimous vote. Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia all voted against the quota system, but will still be required to take a share of refugees. Slovakia’s Prime Minister has said he will challenge this in court.
The UK exercised its right to opt out of the quota system, and instead announced that it will resettle 20,000 refugees currently living in camps in Syria, Turkey and Jordan by 2020. Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticized for offering too small a response to the crisis, though he has maintained that the real solution to the problem lies in resolving the Syrian civil war. The British position also urges a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, and cautions against empowering the human trafficking networks at the expense of the official UN body responsible for refugees.
When the European response is compared with the experience of Syria’s neighbours, who have been handling the bulk of the refugee crisis, it is clear that the proposals so far offer very short term measures. Turkey has taken in over 1.5 million Syrians over the course of the war, and nearly a third of Lebanon’s population are now Syrian refugees. Europe was caught off guard by the recent spike in migrants, and if numbers spike again the agreed quota system will not be able to cope. There is a risk of a refugee backlog, with migrants potentially stranded in limbo in the Balkans.
That presents a unique and less discussed challenge of its own. Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo have not fully recovered from their own conflicts of the 1990s. The Balkan wars between Christian and Muslim ethnic groups were just as brutal as the Syrian war and generated their own refugee crises. While the conflicts’ causes have largely been resolved, some tensions still remain between Christians and Muslims in these countries. A backlog of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees stranded in this region risks escalating those tensions and reopening old wounds. This could undo years of constructive international efforts to bring peace and stability to the former Yugoslavia.
The refugee crisis underscores the importance of European countries taking a lead in bringing the violence in Syria to an end, but again there is a risk of short term decision-making in regards to Islamic State which could escalate the refugee crisis.
This month, France conducted its first air strikes against Islamic State in Syria. While it has been bombing Islamic State in Iraq with the US-led coalition, France has avoided targeting the terrorist group in Syria due to concerns of indirectly supporting the Assad regime.
Britain likewise has confined its operations against Islamic State to Iraq, however it admitted this month to using a drone strike against two British jihadists in Syria plotting attacks in the UK. Britain may soon be joining France and the US in manned air strikes within Syria pending a far from certain Parliamentary vote.
The need to defeat Islamic State in Syria combined with Russia’s recent military intervention in support of Assad, have begun to shift European nations’ positions on the future of the Assad regime. Germany and the UK still maintain that Assad must go, however their foreign secretaries have recently supported talks with the regime. Furthermore, in comments to reporters at the UN General Assembly, David Cameron suggested that Assad could remain during a transitional period. Spain and Austria have gone further and advocate a role for Assad in a temporary solution during the combined fight against Islamic State.
While regime collapse could strengthen the various jihadist groups active in Syria, European countries will need to focus on long term goals if the refugee crisis is to be stemmed whilst simultaneously defeating Islamic State.
The Assad regime and Islamic State have largely avoided major confrontations with one another, preferring instead to focus on their mutual enemies in the other rebel groups. If the regime is confirmed as a legitimate partner in the fight against the terrorists, the war may enter its most violent stage yet. As an international pariah, the regime used indiscriminant bombing and chemical weapons against cities held by moderate rebels. One can only speculate how, backed with international support, the regime will act against cities held by Islamic State extremists. A regime-led offensive could dramatically increase the number of refugees attempting entry to Europe.
European countries will therefore need to have a clear position on the future role of Assad and how the regime fits in with efforts against Islamic State, bearing in mind that the regime’s Russian and Iranian backers are unaffected by the refugee crisis. Ambiguity to ease short term diplomatic gains could involuntarily authorise a leading role for the Assad regime in the fight against terrorism. The shift in attitudes has already led Iran’s President Rouhani to say that “everyone has accepted that President Assad must remain so that we can combat the terrorists”.
Syria’s war has come to Europe and will stay for some time. Leading European governments may have hoped to focus on internal affairs over the coming years, but must now come together to find comprehensive solutions to the pan-European refugee crisis and the threat of Islamic State. Clear long term planning is needed to sustainably settle migrants, secure European borders, and responsibly bring peace to Syria. The “easy” ways out could create bigger problems later on.