Who caused the refugee crisis? | Inquirer Opinion
World View

Who caused the refugee crisis?

/ 01:14 AM September 25, 2015

DENVER—The scenes of desperate refugees making their way through a gauntlet of impediments—including hastily unfurled barbed-wire fences, ill-tempered border guards and angry residents—have been horrific, reminiscent of Europe’s darkest decades. They are a stark reminder that Europe can never be “whole, free and at peace” if its neighbors in the Middle East are not. Nonetheless, the widespread condemnation of European countries that have refused to accept refugees is not entirely fair.

Refugees are a natural consequence of war; indeed, there has seldom been a war without civilians trying to flee from its carnage. But what causes the wars? In some cases, demands for regime change. After all, the regimes being overthrown are often brutal, and unlikely to back down without a fight.


Nowhere has this inexorable sequence been more evident than in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad, with his narrow Alawite base, has overseen a brutal dictatorship for years—one that has never given an inch to those demanding democratic reform, nor made any room in the country’s polity for those motivated by a less sectarian conception of government.

In fact, Assad’s regime is a continuation of that instituted by his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, when he took over the presidency in 1971. The elder Assad’s approach was, if anything, more brutal than his son’s, as the survivors of his 1982 siege of the town of Hama, aimed at quelling an uprising by Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, can attest.


Hafez al-Assad’s effort to subdue Islamist resistance with iron-fisted authoritarianism held for decades. His secular Ba’athist ideology sought to blur the distinctions among the various Syrian communities, especially between Sunnis and his own Alawite tribe, which follows a version of Shiism.

But in 2003, when a coalition led by the United-States overthrew another Ba’athist dictator, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shia divide—which had been largely hidden, or even in remission, for many of those centuries—gained renewed and lethal salience. Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had long dominated Saddam’s government, lost power to the majority Shia, whose own brand of narrow sectarian rule has fueled violent resistance to the central government. Since dismantling Saddam’s version of Ba’athism, which many viewed as a cover for Sunni-minority rule, Iraq’s Shia leaders have done little to soften the blow—an approach that has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the region.

In the Middle East, there is always plenty of blame to go around, and those who blame the United States for renewing sectarianism in the region fail to recognize its antecedents and its cyclical nature. Still, the United States did play a major role in the Syrian drama. In July 2011, the United States and France sent their ambassadors to Hama, the site of so much bloodshed and enmity toward Syria’s government, in order to urge the “opposition” there—that is, a then-peaceful Muslim Brotherhood—to unite against the regime.

Following that visit—the culmination of an effort to bring about regime change in Syria—any prospect of dialogue or negotiation with Assad (whose family, for better or worse, had controlled Syria for decades) was destroyed. Neither ambassador ever had a consequential meeting in Damascus again.

American and French leaders had mistaken the war clouds that gathered in Syria after the Arab Spring as early signs that, at long last, the country was ready for democracy. Rallying the opposition and overthrowing the government, it was thought, would be enough to transform the country’s entire system of—and, indeed, approach to—governance.

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once called war a serious means to a serious end. The same is true of a policy of regime change, as evidenced by the ruinous state of Syria today and the millions of people seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Western Europe.

To be sure, the Assad regime bears most of the blame for Syria’s current situation. But, in the absence of any meaningful political process, it would appear that external demands for regime change back in 2011—which amounted to a choice between Assad and extremist Sunni terrorist organizations—were not entirely thought through, to say the least. With more consideration, those contemplating regime change would have noted that Assad and his cronies provided no indication whatsoever that they would heed the call and leave.


As Syrian refugees in their hundreds of thousands risk everything for a chance at safety, those who advocated for regime change four years ago should reflect seriously on their choice. Instead of joining the chorus of criticism against countries like Hungary and Serbia—which are beset with internal problems and played no part in inciting the war—they should take more responsibility for helping the refugees. And they should start to encourage the establishment of inclusive political structures that can help end Syria’s hideous civil war. Project Syndicate

Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author of “Outpost.”

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TAGS: crisis, Europe, Middle East, migrant, opinion, refugee, Syria
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