Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Refugee/Migrant Crisis

Syrian Refugees in Greece
Refugees crossing from Greece into Macedonia. Image: Giannis Papanikos/Associated Press

Brad Nelson: Let's start with the basic question: In your view, what's causing the waves of migrants and refugees to swarm to Europe?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Europe is relatively close and willing to put up with them? The Gulf countries simply don't care enough, though not without reason: an influx of millions of refugees would create a huge demographic nightmare. Despite the rhetoric of "religious and Arab solidarity," the demographic politics remain critical. Think about Jordan, which never grants the Palestinians citizenship, with the Palestinians severely underrepresented in the parliament (see here). The delicate tribal politics (see here and here) would be upended by millions of refugees who don't have any loyalty to any tribe.

So religious and Arab solidarity could all go to hell, because by the end of the day, it is realpolitik that counts.

BN: Yeah, that's one aspect of it--the why Europe, as opposed to other countries, regions. The other part is what they're leaving behind. And that's violence and repression in places like Eritrea and Sudan and Syria and Afghanistan and Libya. That's the obvious group of people, but not the only ones. Interestingly--and this is something that's rarely noted--some of the migrants, although probably a small slice of them, are actually from Europe. These are people from struggling European economies like Greece looking to escape poverty and find a better life in a fellow EU nation.

I'm curious to hear your take on the domestic political fallout from refugee/migrant crisis. What do you think happens politically as a result of all this?

YS: Well, the photo of the dead Kurdish boy helped to galvanize public opinion, especially in Europe, in support of the refugees. But that image could only help for so far and for a very short time period. And Merkel did realize that - the backlash of seeing thousands of refugees at the train stations going to Germany was badly damaging to Merkel.

Merkel is probably one of the most ablest chancellors in Germany, in terms of her astute ability to gauge public opinion. She had to do something about the refugee problem, or at least give an illusion of control, otherwise her party would riot -- and that actually had already happened.

BN: I'm interested to see how this plays out domestically across Europe going forward. Already, the right is rising and expanding in various European countries, and this crisis could further tip the balance in that direction. For years the European right has complained about immigrants overburdening state resources, threatening Europe's traditional way of life, and contributing to Islamic extremism and terrorism. It's no surprise, really, to see spikes in populism, given that European economies have struggled with growth and debt and unemployment problems. Well, for the right, the refugee/migrant crisis probably exacerbates those three aforementioned points. And if we see right-leaning, perhaps even far-right, governments popping up into power as a result of this fiasco, what happens then? Predictions?

YS: Worst case scenario: collapse of the EU project.

But at the same time, while the share of people voting for the right has been increasing, most of the "right-leaning" governments have not done much to rock the boat. For example, look at Hungary: even though there are a lot of complaints that the government there has been curtailing freedoms, it is still interested in staying with EU. In Norway, the Progress Party, which is in the right part of the spectrum, is actually part of the ruling coalition and as far as I know, behaves quite responsibly.

I think, while far-right parties might benefit from the anti-immigrant backlash, should they actually become part of more European governments, they would actually behave rather responsibly. However, I might be wrong, because there were two cases that would serve as counterarguments: the Fascists and the Nazis.

BN: Let's move the discussion to the elephant in the room, at least it's an elephant in American policy debates. Does the US bear any responsibility in this mess? And if so, what should Team Obama do about it?

YS: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that this entire refugee crisis could have been contained to some degree had the entire region not been engulfed in war for the past several years. The "red line," declared by Obama, was a major policy blunder. It emboldened the Syrian regime, led to the rise of ISIS, and worse, destroyed any hope for quick a resolution. After all, people don't start leaving until they think that there's no future in the land!

But to dump everything on Obama's lap is also wrong, because at the end of the day, there's really few things that he could have done, aside from putting boots on the ground, which would also be unpopular. So his options have been limited.

These two might sound contradictory, because on one hand I essentially said that the US could have done much and on the other hand, there are political constraints. The political constraints happen due to inaction: that after a while of doing nothing, the problem snowballed, and at a certain point there was nothing Obama could have done, except if he was really willing to bear significant political costs. Had Obama grown some spine and acted earlier, at least during the "red line" fiasco, that could have limited the refugee problem.

BN: Here's my take. Of course, the main blame rests with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Assad and his henchmen. That said, for a while now, I've thought--though I don't remember if I made the case on this blog--that the US should have created and enforced safe zones in Syria.

No, they wouldn't be a panacea, because, given the number of people fleeing the area, the safe zones would eventually fill up and the refugees would have look elsewhere for sanctuary. Plus, sure, safe zones would be difficult to execute in practice, and they would've run the risk of America getting sucked into the civil war there.

Nevertheless, the risk was and probably still is worth it, as it would've helped alleviate some of the political and security and humanitarian problems we see now--in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and throughout Europe. Moreover, if the US was simply creating humanitarian corridors, not militarily intervening in the fight in Syria, I think Obama could have gotten several countries plus a number of international institutions and organizations to assist with the effort, boosting its chances of "succeeding."

YS: The question, of course, is whether there was the political will to do something if the safe zones became endangered. By definition, the safe zone is another red line, and Obama has demonstrated little appetite to act strongly. He is a very safe player, a cautious president, and he never take risks. If you look at his accomplishments, none of them entails taking any risk. Putting a safe zone means taking some risks of escalation from Assad.

I think aside from Obama administration's own reluctance to get involved, the other reason why the safe-corridor doesn't exist is Turkey. Face it, the corridor would benefit the Kurds the most, strengthening the de-facto Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq, which Turkey is loath to see.

BN: You're right. There's the chance that a safe zone plan could force the US to become ever more involved militarily. That's the risk. But by not taking that gamble, the US has been complicit in thousands of people getting hurt and killed, and in millions more fleeing their homes to nearby countries. I also think there were things the US could have done to reduce chances of escalation, had such humanitarian corridors been created. For instance, the US could have communicated to Assad that it wasn't seeking regime change, that it was only interested in the welfare of the people caught in the crossfire of violence. It also could have pledged to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, that safe zones were not a prelude to the break-up of those states. Would those pledges be credible? Maybe, if the US was willing to put in the effort to create a real, viable international coalition that included neutral parties like the UN.

YS: You do realize by proclaiming that the US doesn't want a regime change in Syria, the US would have handed Assad a huge diplomatic coup, which he then would broadcast all over the region, and that, in turn, would piss off the Saudis and the Turks, and whoever else out there?

BN: If giving people an opportunity to be safe is the goal, does that matter? Probably not--at least it wouldn't to me, if I was in Obama's position. I think we're getting at problem with leadership decision-making, especially as it works nowadays in the US.

At times leaders think that by making a decision--or avoiding one--they can have their cake and it too. It would be nice, I suppose, but real world politics rarely works that way. Most decisions, or the absence of making them, will make some people/groups/states happy and anger and alienate others. The trick is to win the balance. Obama thought he could win all sides--here in the US and abroad--by staying out of it and acting as a peripheral player, by being the anti-W. Bush. My main point: no matter which way Obama moved in Syria, there would've been challenges and difficulties. He choose the simplest path, to do almost nothing. That backfired massively. Inaction allowed the rise of ISIS and other extremists, the elimination of the so-called moderates, the probable permanent fracturing of Syria, and now, the strengthened position and centrality of Russia in this bloody mess.

YS: While the goal is noble, it would have riled up the Saudis even further (well, with the Iran deal in pipeline, they'd be pissed off anyway). But now that I think about it, in a de-facto way, Obama has given the assurance that Assad's position is no longer in danger -- just look at the"train the moderates militia" fiasco, where many simply refused to join because one of the requirements is that the militia can only be used to fight ISIS, not Assad. So maybe you are right, that Obama could have told Assad that he is no longer in danger as long as he goes along with an international effort to keep the refugees safe.

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