By Randall Margo, PhD
G.L.O.B.A.L Justice Commentator/Global Economy & Administration Adjunct Faculty, Golden Gate University; Public Administrator
The deluge of refugees escaping Syria’s war torn areas now increasingly seek shelter, safety, and economic opportunity within Europe’s more affluent nations, as the conflict enters its fifth year with no end in sight. At the outset of the fighting, displaced residents fled to nearby borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which continue to hold the vast majority of the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees. However, these refugee camps were never intended to provide prolonged assistance for so many. Since they cannot go back, many are now choosing to go forward, with Europe being the destination of choice.
Clearly, even the citizens of Europe’s most generous and liberal nations are casting doubts on the ability to assimilate these large numbers of refugees, now approaching one million, apart from those who are disturbed over economic costs, cultural differences, and greater jeopardy due to acts of terrorism.
What makes the Syrian refugee situation so vexing and complicated is that Syria itself is a nation without a national identity. With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, its “natural boundaries” proclaimed in 1920 by its first leader, King Emir Feisal stretched from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt, commonly referred to as Greater Lebanon . Almost immediately after this declaration, however, France took control over most of this territory except for Palestine, which was seceded to the British. World War II brought today’s Syrian borders briefly under German rule, until they were expelled by allied forces. The French stayed until 1946, followed by a series of internal military coups through the mid 1950s when civilian government prevails. Another succession of coups occurs in the 1960s eventually leading to Hafez al-Assad coming to power in 1970. Upon his death, his son Bashar Assad takes over Syria in 2000.
In essence, many residents within the present Syrian boundaries have felt greater allegiance to their religious or ethnic identity rather than their country, and were often held together tenuously through autocratic leaders. Consequently, much of the turmoil today pits ethnic groups against one another, be they Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, or Alawites. Because these groups are also dispersed over several countries within the former Ottoman Empire, alliances and fighting has spilled over Syria’s borders into neighboring nations.
Without permanent security the refugee crisis will not be halted and the return of the exiled back to their homeland will not occur. Therefore, eventually either one side is going to have to prevail, or Syria will have to be partitioned, most likely through ethnic stratification. Russia and Iran have already made their choice by supporting the Assad government. Either the U.S. and western Europe will have to back an opposition group that is capable of governing within Syria’s national boundaries, push for a political and physical partition of the country, or live with the results of the fighting, which currently tend to favor Assad and his allies. Complicating this decision is how to combat fighters supporting the Islamic State, a ruthless offshoot of Sunni fundamentalists, who now control large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, while promoting jihad terrorist activities in western states.
Meanwhile, confronting the refugee crisis remains essential for Syria’s neighboring countries and Europe. With 4 million Syrians presently obtaining shelter outside of their homeland, and more displacements likely as the war persists, what can be done to alleviate the suffering.
An economic program is needed to enable the rebuilding of areas devastated by war, but where and how can this occur while fighting is still raging? For economic improvement to ensue, areas of safe zones need to be established, where displaced refugees can return. To accomplish this task, a coalition of NATO/United Nations troops will be necessary to provide protection. Sadly, reflecting the current state of affairs, these locations might result in being controlled by a single ethnic group. Yet, as evidenced by the photo above, ample work opportunities are available for the rebuilding of these places. Funding for such infrastructure should come through a consortium of Arab states within the region along with aid from the World Bank and similar agencies, with significant oversight by an independent agency to address corruption and inappropriate spending. As these areas progress economically, and attract more residents, hopefully they can be expanded in conjunction with ending hostilities in other areas of the country.
Whether Syria can ever be reconstructed to its prewar borders is an open question at this time in history. Instead, a more incremental approach that seeks to provide safety, and economic recovery one location at a time is a more realistic and viable strategy to pursue until the conflict ends.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.