Long-term view is admirable but we need action now to avoid a human catastrophe, writes Peter Jones
Try to understand the religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the people who, up to 2011, lived in the piece of the planet we call Syria, and you rapidly conclude that there never should have been such a country. You also realise that if there is to be such a country again, it would have to be an exemplary model of toleration, individual freedom, equality, and rule of law free from political interference. These are not qualities for which the Middle East is noted. In short, Syria is a failed state that has no chance of being resurrected.
The extent of the failure is horrific. In 2011, there were estimated to be about 23 million Syrians. After five years of civil war, at least 200,000 are estimated to have been killed but it is so difficult to count the bodies that the real death toll may be more than twice that. At least a million have been injured but again the tally may be much more.
Facilities for treating the injured are scant. More than half of the country’s hospitals have been damaged and a third are derelict. As Syria’s once excellent health services have declined, so has average life expectancy, down from 75 pre-war to about 55 now. Some 4,000 schools are now unusable and three million children are getting no education.
The UN, which produces these numbers, reckons that unemployment is now above 50 per cent and that 80 per cent live in poverty. In terms of economic and social development, Syria has gone back about 40 years.
The result is exodus. Some four million people have left Syria and another eight million have fled their homes for other areas or are “internally displaced” in the dry refugee jargon. So bad is the conflict that around 250,000 Syrians think war-torn Iraq is safer.
There is absolutely no sign that things will get any better; they can only get worse. So it is also for the refugee crisis. We think it is bad, and it certainly is. About 500,000 Syrians have sought asylum in EU countries since 2011, but as the civil war rages on and conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey deteriorate, as they will, many many more will seek refuge in Europe.
Who can blame them? Wouldn’t you do precisely the same if you were in their shoes?
There is, surely, no alternative to accepting them. To send them back, as some comments on a previous column discussing the migrant crisis suggested, is to condemn them, at best, to abject misery, at worst to death. It would as humane as packing them into Nazi-style concentration camps.
But of course western European politicians, with the singular exceptions of Germany’s Angela Merkel and Sweden’s Stefan Löfven, are highly reluctant to accept them, fearful of domestic opinion which believes there are not enough houses and jobs for themselves, let alone refugee asylum-seekers.
That’s why David Cameron says Britain will only accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, 4,000 a year, which is probably going to be about 2 per cent, maybe even less than that, of the Syrians who will be streaming to Europe in that time. It is in stark contrast to Mrs Merkel who has virtually flung open Germany’s doors despite more 300 attacks by anti-migrant extremists on migrant hostels this year.
Mr Cameron says, somewhat vapidly, that it would be better to solve the conflict that is causing the influx.
The talk of military action as part of that conflict resolution which is now coming out London, Paris and even Australia is not just ridiculous, but is much more liable to make things even worse.
The action, I presume, is aimed at Islamic State (IS) fanatics. But exactly how do you bomb from the air (which is all that is being talked about) zealots who live amongst a terrorised population without killing some of the people you are trying to protect? You can kill a few if you catch them in the open, as with the deaths of the British IS recruits announced yesterday by Mr Cameron, but killing an entire movement with air strikes looks highly improbable.
But it is a gross mistake to assume that if IS was somehow made to disappear, the conflict would be over. Let’s remember that civil war was already raging before IS showed up, and President Bashar al-Assad, the attempted removal of whom was the cause of the conflict, is still in place.
Not only is he still bombing and gassing his own population, there is also strong evidence that he is now strongly backed by the Russians who seem to have done what western leaders say they will not do and that is to put military boots on the ground alongside Assad’s forces. Well, let’s assume that Assad and his cronies were also to disappear. Would that solve the problem? Unlikely, because the civil war is much more than a battle by the two groups on either side of the great Sunni/Shia division in Islam. The Sunni majority (about 65 per cent of the pre-2011 population) want an end to repression by the Shia minority (perhaps 15 per cent of the population) of which Assad’s Alawite sect is the biggest group.
But within the Sunnis, there are many ethnic groupings, most notably the Kurds (about 8 per cent) living in two separated areas in the north and north-east. They have no interest in a Sunni-controlled Syria, they just want self-rule, to which Turkey – with its own Kurdish minority also wanting self-rule – is opposed to the point of violent action.
Then there are Christians, about 10 per cent of the pre-2011 population, but who have mostly fled to an overwhelmed Lebanon. There are also Muslim people who don’t fit easily into the Shia/Sunni division, such as the Druze who regard Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, as the prophet, not Mohammed.
If you can make sense of that lot and reconcile external Russian/Turkish/EU interests, you should be UN secretary-general. Personally, I think it is a lot simpler and cheaper to accept the self-evacuation of the country and leave those who want to fight to kill each other. Then and only then a solution – partition into self-governing mini-states – might be possible.