Europe’s Fear of Refugees Is the Only Thing That Can Save Syria

Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of victory after massacring his population with Russian help. But the EU’s fear of yet another refugee influx could spur action to stop the carnage.

Syria refugees walk after they crossed the Evros river, the natural boundary with Turkey in northeastern Greece, in the village of Pythio, on April 28, 2018.
Syria refugees walk after they crossed the Evros river, the natural boundary with Turkey in northeastern Greece, in the village of Pythio, on April 28, 2018. SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images

Since last April, the Syrian government has been on a rampage, making life in Idlib dangerous once more. Even so, no one wants to live near a hospital. Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his Russian allies have bombed health facilities 521 times since the start of the conflict. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has charged the regime and its allies with having “systematically targeted medical facilities.” Indeed, civilians are more at risk being next to a hospital than being near a front line. And children are more endangered in schools; 87 education facilities have been attacked just since April.

This is a deliberate and sustained assault on a civilian population. But the sheer predictability of the attacks has robbed it of its news value. With Syria out of the headlines as Brexit, Kashmir, hurricanes, and Hong Kong dominate the news, close to 900 people have been killed since the regime renewed its assault in April, one-third of them children.

An additional 576,000 Syrians have been displaced, most of them already refugees. The bombing has targeted homes, camps, bakeries, and markets. It has also targeted water facilities, making diseases common. Over 40,000 people in Idlib have contracted tropical diseases in just the past two months due to the lack of clean water and sanitation.

Yet, at last month’s G-7 summit in France, Idlib went unmentioned in the discussions over global security. In a reversion to an earlier norm, security was defined exclusively in terms of terrorism. By diverting the focus onto nonstate actors, world leaders were able to evade the political complications of acknowledging state crimes.

By bribing Turkey to keep Syrian refugees out of sight, the European Union has been able to keep Syrian suffering out of mind. The West, it seems, is haunted more by the specter of the refugee than by the suffering of children. To break through this apathy, Syrians will have to use the only leverage available to them: The threat to flee toward Europe once again.

Since 2012, a hope has persisted among Western powers that, left to its own devices, the Assad regime will contain the problem within Syria’s borders. The hope of containment, however, has been repeatedly frustrated. On Aug. 20, in the face of intense bombing and artillery fire, rebels in Idlib surrendered the town of Khan Sheikhoun. This was seven years to the day after the then-U.S. President Barack Obama declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line.”

A year later, Assad tested Obama’s resolve with a devastating chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta that killed over 1,400 people. Obama retreated and accepted a face-saving agreement with Russia to disarm the regime’s chemical arsenal. In what he would later describe as a “very proud” moment, Obama had avoided entanglement—but Syrians continued to suffer chemical attacks, as Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin ignored the deal, revealing the costs of diplomacy without leverage.

Having suffered no consequences for its transgression, the regime escalated, intensifying its aerial bombings, imposing starvation sieges, torturing on an industrial scale, and hanging opponents en masse. Roughly twice as many people were killed in the 29 months after the breached red line than in the 29 months before. The regime also perpetrated 250 more chemical attacks, the deadliest of which was on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Having suffered no consequences for its transgression, the regime escalated, intensifying its aerial bombings, imposing starvation sieges, torturing on an industrial scale, and hanging opponents en masse. As the situation degenerated and the Islamic State stepped into the breach, the Obama administration recast Syria as a terrorism issue. It accepted the regime’s narrative that its preservation was necessary for holding jihadis at bay. But while Washington avoided the complications of confronting Assad and upsetting his allies in Tehran, it left the population vulnerable, precipitating a mass flight.

The spillover from this exodus disfigured politics from the EU to the United States, fueling the dramatic rise of nationalist populism. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Britain’s Nigel Farage, and America’s Donald Trump all exploited this fear for political gain.

There is little about Syria’s prolonged agony that was inevitable. A no-fly zone in 2012 could have neutralized the regime’s main advantage—airpower—and possibly saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Limited strikes on military installations in August 2013 could have maintained deterrence and compelled dialogue. But providing rhetorical hope while withholding practical help merely left the population betrayed and the regime emboldened.

If the Western response to Idlib is to avert its eyes and revive the “war on terror,” then what happened after 2013 will pale in comparison to the evils this will unleash. There are 3 million civilians trapped in Idlib, mostly women and children. This is the most vulnerable part of Syria’s displaced population, with neither the means nor a destination for leaving. Turkey is already home to 3.6 million refugees, and its politics is in a populist tailspin, with both the government and opposition competing to malign refugees. And if Europe was inhospitable in 2014, it is now outright hostile.

Idlib’s remaining option is to surrender to the regime, an option tacitly favored by Europe. Much of Europe is eager to see the conflict end so that Syria could be designated “post-conflict” and its people repatriated. Myopic proposals have circulated since 2014 for using reconstruction funds as an incentive to secure Assad’s cooperation. But any time refugees are forced to return to an undeterrable state like Syria, they are being sent to an uncertain future with their properties confiscated, facing possible torture or death. Assad has suffered no consequences for his extensively documented crimes; there is nothing stopping him from committing more.

As the country that will be most affected, Turkey does not want to see Idlib fall. Too weak to confront Russia, it is now threatening to act against the Kurds east of the Euphrates, displacing yet another vulnerable population. Idlib’s fall has the potential to put Turkey at odds with the U.S. government, and Iran’s triumph in Syria could trigger a wider war involving Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The moral hazard in dealing with international crises by deferring the risk onto the victims is immense. But in passively accepting the collapse of every humanitarian norm, the West is also ceding to a brutish new order. The Geneva Conventions were not perfect, and few belligerents haven’t violated them. But they contain ideals worth preserving.

If a state makes the systematic violation of international law official government policy and suffers no consequences, then the ideals are lost to everyone. If Assad isn’t held accountable for his mass crimes, then the precedent would embolden all autocrats. If Iraq taught the world the perils of unprovoked action, then Syria demonstrates the dangers of provocative inaction.

The West never tried, let alone exhausted, all economic, political, and military means to protect Syrians. With no major interests at stake, Western powers had little motivation to act. But now, under the combined pressure of regime escalation and Turkish crackdown, Greece is witnessing the biggest surge in refugees since 2015. And if there is one thing that the West fears more than terrorists, it’s refugees.

If there is one thing that the West fears more than terrorists, it’s refugees.

It is time for Syrians to start using this fear as leverage. In recent days, large protests have converged on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, demanding that the world that has denied them protection should at least give them passage. “We prefer drowning in the sea to dying under the rubble,” said one protester.

The fear of new refugees is already making Europe nervous. Last Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Putin to discuss Syria; a day later, Putin announced a new cease-fire. This sense of urgency is new—and Syrians must exploit it.

If Western powers are unwilling to protect Syrians from Assad, then Assad’s victims should threaten to seek safety in the West. Turkey may not be willing to take more refugees, but it can facilitate their exit west and perhaps force a willingness to protect Idlib. Sympathy for victims failed to end Western governments’ inertia—perhaps dread of refugees will spur them to action.


Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Stirling and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Twitter: @im_pulse