An examination into the war and refugee crisis in Syria

Refugees struggle to cross the border into Turkey.

Taylor Fatherree, Contributing Writer

On Sept. 2, 2015, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned after his Syrian family tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to nearby Cyprus. A picture of his body on a Turkish beach shocked the world: facedown and too young to ascribe identity to, he was everybody’s child. Kurdi’s death depicted the desperation of the refugee crisis coming out of Syria, and provoked a popular interest in what his family was running from.

The war in Syria began on the heels of a peaceful protest against the government in spring 2011. President Bashar al-Assad responded with force, and dissent morphed into armed resistance. Various rebel groups make up this resistance today, but they by no means project a unified voice.  The self-proclaimed Islamic State has used the instability to carve out parts of Syria for its caliphate, instituting draconian laws and punishments.

The group shocked the world with its use of terror tactics and videotaped beheadings. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, al-Qaida or the pejorative Daesh, is fighting the Syrian government, the Kurds and other rebel groups to gain territory. Assad sought to use their presence as part of his own legitimacy, declaring himself to be fighting against “terrorists” without differentiating between the extremist group and the many other groups comprising the rebel opposition.

Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian arm, is also fighting the government for a piece of the country. The Kurdish minority has been able to take control of three autonomous zones in Northern Syria as a continuation of its long struggle for independence in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has refused to give up power, engaging in conventional warfare as well as raping and killing civilians.

The Lebanese militia Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, is fighting on behalf of the Syrian government. A U.S.-led coalition including France, Jordan and Arab Gulf states has engaged in airstrikes intended to destroy ISIS, while also calling for the removal of Assad. The U.S. has backed selected rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army with arms and training, putting itself opposite Russia and Iran in what some have called a proxy war. Similarly, the Sunni Arab Gulf states are backing a contrary side to Shiite Iran (Assad is Alawite, which is a sub-sect of Shia Islam), highlighting the tension between the groups concerning influence in the region.

To understand why the Syrian refugee diaspora has been called one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time, one need only look at the numbers. Kyung-Wha Kang, a United Nations assistant secretary general, said in January 2016 about 400,000 Syrians were “trapped in besieged areas by government and allied forces, ISIS, non-state armed groups and the al-Nusra Front,” leading to starvation, with aid convoys unable to reach numerous destinations.

This complex fabric of conflict and danger has led more than half of Syrians in the country to flee their homes, with droves of people leaving the country and even more internally displaced. The UN high commissioner of refugees has 4,837,208 Syrian refugees currently registered.  Most of these refugees are in nearby Middle Eastern countries, with Turkey taking the most and Lebanon coming in second at more than one million Syrian refugees.

Jordan and Lebanon, both of which have large numbers of Palestinian refugees as well, have complained of the crippling effect so many refugees have on its infrastructure.  The Persian Gulf Arab states have taken none. As of November 2015, the U.S. had taken in fewer than 3,000 Syrian refugees, all vetted through a rigorous process taking 18 to 24 months on average.

Many of the remainder fled their homes and refugee camps to reach Europe, often in precariously overloaded boats from Turkey’s coast to nearby Greek islands. After reaching the European Union, refugees are eligible to file for asylum, and they attempt to make their way further into Europe, often with the hopes of reaching Germany or Sweden, which have historically been asylum-friendly countries. In 2015, Germany received more than 476,000 new asylum applications, but asserts that more than one million people have entered the country.

Syrians don’t make up the entirety of these numbers, but are by far the largest group.  The EU has been scrambling to find a solution to the flow of migrants, citing the strain on member countries, security concerns, a robust smuggling trade and the danger of crossing the sea to get to the EU.  According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 3,700 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2015.

On March 18, 2016, the EU and Turkey reached what is being called the “One In, One Out Deal.” The deal is specifically for Syrian refugees and requires all those illegally entering the EU from Turkey to be sent back. Then, for every Syrian refugee sent back to Turkey, one will be resettled in Europe after a vetting. This measure is only in effect until 72,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the EU.

Part of Turkey’s incentive to agree to the deal, despite already hosting huge numbers of Syrian refugees within its borders (2.7 million, according to Ankara), is the promise of a new look at its longtime application to join the European Union.  Turkish citizens may also enjoy relaxed restrictions on European travel, and Turkey requested six billion euros in aid.

Human rights group Amnesty International slammed the deal. The Head of its European Institutions Office Iverna McGowan said, “EU and Turkish leaders have sunk to a new low, effectively horse trading away the rights and dignity of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Responding to EU explanations that the deal would be legal under EU law by designating Turkey as a “safe third country,” McGowan said, “Turkey has forcibly returned refugees to Syria and many refugees in the country live in desperate conditions…By no stretch of imagination can Turkey be considered a ‘safe third country’ that the EU can cozily outsource its obligations to.”

Proponents of the deal argue it will promote safe and legal migration and protect EU countries from being overwhelmed, and so the debate rages on.

As it is now, thousands are stranded in Greece and living in refugee camps throughout Europe and the Middle East. For their suffering to be ameliorated, a shift will have to be made from fear to humanitarian obligation.

The EU has every right to protect its security, but will have to ask itself if doing so in this way compromises its stated values, including the protection of human rights. Arab Gulf states will have to take some refugees, however small and symbolic the gesture may be.

Santa Rosa Junior College students will have to take a look at the numbers of refugees and the intense security screening they go through to come to the U.S. Perhaps then we can urge our representatives and policymakers to stop squabbling about whether or not to take 10,000 refugees: and encourage them to take more.