10 Sep 2015

Bad and getting worse: why politicians must grasp the Syrian nettle now

So with every day that passes the EU and the sort-of EU (Britain) go through another spasm caused by the latest TV images of the suffering refugees and migrants.

This is a disturbing method of formulating policy at the best of times. Though whatever policy there is seems at best to be a work in progress. Not that much “policy” is being forged, mind.

The newspapers here in Lebanon carry large ads from the Danish government explaining just how unpleasant life will get for Syrians going there to live, as the benefits are slashed.

But it still all looks like nirvana from Beirut, where the government is quietly hellbent on pushing as many of the two million or so Syrians here, out of the country. Which means into Europe.

So when, understandably moved by pictures like little Aylan dead on the beach, people put up the welcome signs, they should know that what Europe has seen so far is nothing to what may come.

And it’s starting. Aid agencies reckon at least 3,500 Syrians a day leave Lebanon for Turkey and thence Europe. And that’s just the official figure.

The boats wait every single day in Tripoli for buses from the Syrian border nearby and, when full, they cast off for the 12 hour trip.

The paper work is easy – if you can afford it.

Equally another stream converges upon Tripoli of Syrians already in Lebanon and now banned from working, who cannot take any more of it.

And the more refugees and migrants see those welcome signs in Germany and beyond, the bigger the already massive pull is to get out and go.

And that is just what the Lebanese government wants, exhausted by performing an immigration miracle for four years now.

But Europe’s thinking now arguably needs to be rational and strategic as well as emotional. From here there seems to be a need for an understandable policy. Little Aylan on that beach was a crime victim as much as a victim of the times. That seems forgotten.

Where are any of the EU’s naval patrols sent to cruise the horn of Africa for example?

The Royal Navy cruises the Somali coast for pirates or escort tankers from the Gulf, or do all manner of things against drug smugglers – but they are yet to start what would doubtless be a controversial, but perhaps necessary, co-ordinated anti-people-smuggling campaign with our international “partners”?

We need also to understand that perhaps not everyone from Syria is a refugee. Nor the other countries. And it helps nobody to pretend that they are – least of all genuine refugees and those most destitute – the latter group not the majority of the ones coming to Europe now.

Travel the road from Beirut to Damascus and you will see little sign of war.

Much of Damascus, Homs, the coastal Alawite belt and other areas of Syria are completely un-bombed, un-shelled. Several universities still function in the Syrian capital.

By no means everyone flooding out of Syria is a refugee physically in need of shelter from direct war or fleeing for their lives from a brutal government or any of the brutal rebel militias. They are fleeing a country at war – but like all countries at war, not every street, town or stretch of land is a contested front line.

Many thousands cannot work because of war and are in search of a better life anywhere else. Or they flee because of a thousand other war-related reasons, but ultimately they are migrants not refugees.

Further – and here David Cameron makes this point – those reaching Europe are mostly young and reasonably affluent and not by any stretch those in the most desperate need. These are the people who can afford to pay to get here – so at once you are only seeing a certain class of migrant/refugee. That matters.

The poorest, the weakest, those in the most abject need are in hovels across the Lebanese and Jordanian camps, or trapped in Syria.

It is probably right they should get some kind of help from governments beyond subsistence in the ghastly tented cities – and not simply welcome those affluent enough to make the dangerous trip to Greece.

And yes, David Cameron is logically right that if you open the door then more people, many more people, way way more people than the numbers you see now, will want to come. Who can blame them?

It is happening right now as people leave Lebanon propelled by TV and social media images of the welcome they will surely get…

Fine – it is important be ready for that and provide for that.

And where is the public, political pressure on the Gulf States to welcome in the Sunni brothers and sisters whom they love so much as to have refused to take one single Syrian refugee?

The Gulf States aid funding is commendable. Their policy of shutting the door is revolting. I want to hear a Prime Minister tell the oil-rich Princes their conduct is a global disgrace.

Instead, tumbleweeds….

Moreover, perhaps the British government’s argument to keep Syrian refugees in the area so they may return swiftly to help rebuild that county when the war is over, should carry more weight than it does.

If we are not careful only the battered, traumatised civilian survivors and the remnants of the various militias will be on hand for the rebuild which must surely come one day.

But that means redoubling too our efforts to end the war. Here, the dearth of policy is even more stark. The West won’t fight Islamic State militants on the ground, so the Russians will. Reports today of tank-transporting vessels and infantry deploying out from the Latakia coastline.

For Russia has strategic interests and assets in Syria; their only Mediterranean base to defend, just as the US would defend its “interests” from Guam to Guantanamo.

We may be squeamish that it all props up the Assadists in Damascus and it does – but the great coalition bombing of IS has been ineffective.

All the USA is currently doing is complain about how the Russians may somehow cause “confrontation”.

Many are now arguing that the US should take in genuine refugees from the camps. After all, many say the IS blood-cult grew out of the ruins of America’s catastrophe in Iraq.

In the face of the challenge of migrants/refugees the EU has not yet come up with comprehensive policies or a strategy.

In reaching out to those most in need in the camps (but not dying conveniently on beaches on TV) the British government acted with commendable logic, not emotion, to howls of derision from the we-must-welcome-them-all brigade.

So what can be done by the EU – what options are there?

At least consider some of the following possible options:

– co-ordinated international policing of the trafficking criminals

– agree and implement sustainable quotas for genuine refugees and

–  repatriate economic migrants

– insist that Gulf States take in similar sustainable refugee quotas from the camps

– insist that partners to the invasion of Iraq consider shouldering agreed and sustainable refugee quotas from the camps

– urgently fund in full the UN in-region Syrian refugee programme currently just 35 per cent funded including immediate cash injection of the $334m needed today

– urgently increase international government finding of Syrian camps across Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan

– challenge the lie that Russian assistance and intervention in Syria is new

– accept that the coalition air bombing of IS has failed and consider assisting the Russian ground offensive against IS. Assad can wait – we have completely failed to effect change there in four years anyhow

– consider other military options within Syria like the creation of safe havens for subsequent possible return of refugees

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