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Syria: a call to alms?

September 5th, 2015

One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. Trite and perhaps misattributed though that quote is, it has probably never been more true than this week when the image of one young boy on a Turkish beach did more to highlight the plight of Syrian people than any number of reports of the death toll in the conflict (about 240,000 so far, including 12,000 children), or of the number of displaced people (more than 12 million – half the population of Syria – with more than 4 million outside the country). Numbers are abstract; Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless, crumpled but seemingly uninjured body was shockingly real.

Inevitably, public revulsion at the sight of innocent and unnecessary death prompts generates an emotional response that ‘we must do something’. And here is the point at which politicians earn their money because the public’s demands are wrong and they need to be told so.

For the fact is that being more open to refugees is largely unrelated to the problem at hand and some would in all probability make it worse. The breast-beating that Britain should ‘take more’ and the unseemly bidding between countries for moral virtue with public money has little to do with improving the lot of those millions displaced. Indeed, effectively encouraging illegal entry into the EU will in all probability lead to more drownings, more misery and more money being channelled into organised crime and terrorism. It is also a solution most open to the fit and healthy and the moderately well-off; the poor and the weak will still be left behind.

So if the public really want to help rather than to do something that will make itself feel better then the problem needs to be dealt with at the point where those fleeing Syria become refugees, not after they’ve already travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles.

The reality is that relatively few Syrians become asylum seekers in Europe. Of the more than four million displaced outside their country, 1.6 million are in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon (a country of only 4.5 million in normal times), over 600,000 in Jordan and 250,000 in Iraq. In other words, the vast majority have stayed in the countries bordering Syria. It would be far better to focus the humanitarian effort on improving the living standards of the refugees in these countries – providing better accommodation, better medical facilities, education for children and care for the elderly and vulnerable – rather than rewarding the winners of the trafficking lottery.

There will no doubt be those who will note with cynicism that such an initiative (which Britain does quite a lot of already, as it happens), could be viewed as a means to appease the anti-immigration lobby and keep the refugees out. To do so, however, would be to place the perceived moral virtue of those making the case above the needs of the refugees. Usually, it is better to be wrong for the right reason than right for the wrong one (as if your values are right then chances are that so the majority of decisions will be in the long term). This is an exception: the stakes are so high with regard to the effectiveness of whatever policy is decided upon that here it is better to be right for the wrong reason.

Not that the anti-immigration lobby is wholly wrong. ISIS has already said that it has smuggled fighters into Europe as refugees. Whether it has and indeed whether it would need to when it’s recruiting fighters from Europe is obviously unknown but there can be little doubt that it would only take one or two outrages carried out by their supporters given asylum to turn public opinion on its head again. That might be a risk worth running were a policy of offering mass refuge the only means of preventing a disaster – but it isn’t.

However, even dealing effectively with the refugee crisis is not really getting to the root of the problem, which is the war itself and it is that to which the international community should put their collective minds.

At some point, the war will end, either in stalemate or in victory for one side or another. Early on in the conflict, it might have been possible for a moderate anti-Assad force to have won. No longer. The only realistic alternatives now are ISIS and the Assad regime. Clearly, neither is palatable to Western opinion but that does not mean that neither is preferable. For all that Assad leads a bunch of thugs, they are considerably better than the murderously oppressive alternative. It would clearly be embarrassing to Western leaders to have to back Assad having previously (and rightly) condemned his actions but what are the alternatives? Do nothing and let the war drag on resulting in more death, more destruction and a political outcome almost certain to be no better? Create and sponsor a third viable force – but how and from where? Back ISIS? Intervene directly on the ground and suffer thousands of casualties? Attempt to broker a peace between two sides who clearly don’t want it and won’t keep it? When all the options are bad you look for the least bad.

To take such an option would inevitably lead to a great deal more criticism from the morally righteous but the only realistic practical alternative – to do nothing other than try to ameliorate the worst effects of the war – amounts to the hoping for the same outcome while doing nothing to bring it about; something that smacks not only of moral cowardice but of rank hypocrisy too given that a prolonged war almost certainly means a more deadly and destructive one. An ISIS victory would also pose a direct threat to the security of virtually any country in the world.

So what of those who took to Twitter and Facebook in response to the photos from Bodrum this week? In the first place, that outpouring of sympathy needs to be redirected into an effective aid solution – idealism without application is nothing – and there both media and governments have a role to play in widening the focus beyond the Mediterranean. But the bigger and the more difficult piece is in accepting and explaining that no solution available in Syria is really satisfactory. At the moment, no-one, not in Europe and not in North America, seems willing to do so – so the killing will go on, more innocents will die and the chaos will spread.

David Herdson