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Conflict is Key to Understanding Migration
Conflict is Key to Understanding Migration
The Fragility of Northern Syria
The Fragility of Northern Syria

Conflict is Key to Understanding Migration

Originally published in Carnegie Europe

The West’s current focus on the refugee crisis in Europe obscures the larger truths of a global crisis of displacement that endangers the international order. This is a crisis largely born out of war, and one that will be with us for decades to come. Understanding this reality is essential if Europe is to mount an effective response.

Deadly conflict, above all, is driving the massive exodus of refugees. Wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria alone are responsible for more than half of the world’s refugee population. Forty million people—two-thirds of the world’s forcibly displaced—are displaced within their own countries by conflict and violence. The Middle East, with its political upheaval and conflict in recent years, has seen the fastest increase in forced displacement. Since March 2011, the Syrian war alone has accounted for almost 12 million displaced people, one-fifth of the world’s total displaced and over half of the country’s population.

After a period during which wars declined in number, in the past half decade there has been a rise in armed conflicts, and clashes have become more deadly. In today’s wars, civilians are also targeted with impunity by the fighting parties, and international humanitarian norms to protect civilians are routinely violated.

While the stream of refugees trying to enter Europe has helped catapult this issue to the front pages of the Western media, states adjacent to wars have seen far larger influxes of refugees. Western audiences are barely aware that the three countries that sheltered the most refugees as of mid-2015 were Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Nor are Westerners fully conscious of the conditions endured by the 2.5 million people forced from their home countries to Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. At the end of 2014, some 86 percent of the world’s displaced were living in developing countries that already struggled with enormous economic, development, and governance challenges.

The lifecycle of a refugee crisis is a long one. As of early 2014, the average time a person spends as a refugee stood at a record seventeen years, while the rate of those returning home was the lowest in decades.

Moreover, refugees create risk factors for new cycles of conflict, generating further refugee flows. Countries that host disproportionately large numbers of refugees without adequate support can be destabilized, exacerbating existing economic, political, and security strains. The legacy of today’s refugee populations is a generation of young people who lack economic prospects, political representation, or even participation; around half of refugee children receive no schooling. In this situation, refugees, who in some cases encounter hostility from their host countries’ populations and security forces, can be targets for radicalization by extremist groups.

No one can claim to accurately predict future wars and the impacts they will have on refugee flows, but there are clear risks of worsening conflict. Continued chaos in the Middle East would generate more terrorism and refugees, while sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to become a major source of conflict and transnational terrorism. The International Crisis Group’s early-warning work highlights an extensive list of potential conflicts spanning all corners of the globe—in contexts from instability in the Lake Chad basin and state fragility in Central Asia to the resurgent Kurdish conflict in Turkey and transnational crime in Mexico and Central America, to name a few.

On a larger scale, the conflicts driving today’s refugee crisis are symptomatic of the breakdown of the international system built over the past seventy years, increasing the risk of violence and weakening the world’s collective capacity for conflict management. Geopolitical shifts, intensifying rivalries between major powers, and rising regional tensions have fueled conflict and made wars harder to end. A decade and a half of poorly conceived, hubristic interventions has triggered a backlash toward isolationism and parochialism and weakened the rules-based international order. This undermines support for the legitimate, UN-backed engagements needed to prevent and contain local crises. Divisions within the EU show how the refugee crisis places further strain on the values and political solidarity that underpin the bloc.

There are some important direct consequences of the crisis, the foremost being the need to better finance humanitarian responses, respect the rights of refugees, support states that host refugee populations, and improve refugees’ conditions and prospects.

Ultimately, however, policymakers need to address the major conflicts that are the principal drivers of displacement. Efforts to resolve the wars in Syria and elsewhere have been intermittent and only half engaged. The crisis must highlight the importance of more determined and single-minded diplomacy, without allowing attention to be constantly distracted by the next day’s headlines. Policymakers must do more to de-escalate the international and regional geopolitical rivalries that feed off wars, do better at conflict prevention, and pay more attention to the political, economic, and development failures and grievances that turn into violence.

Looking to the longer term, the international community, and particularly permanent members of the UN Security Council, need to lead the way in rebuilding the international community’s credibility. The world needs to shore up multilateralism, reinforce institutions that were created to strengthen peace and security, and stop the steady erosion of international law. The primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law must be reasserted so that civilians caught up in conflict are protected rather than targeted.

The refugee crisis goes beyond human tragedy and threatens key precepts of the global order. Recognizing that this is a long-term problem, responsible countries must adopt a long-term mind-set to deal with it. This presents difficulties for policymakers, who are under tremendous pressure to find immediate answers. It has taken the arrival of the refugee crisis on the beaches and in the cities of Europe to drive home the need for a sustained political will to find solutions to the wars that have sent their victims to European shores.

This article first appeared in Carnegie Europe.

The Fragility of Northern Syria

A full-blown COVID-19 outbreak may trigger a greater human catastrophe in northern Syria, where ISIS activity persists and Idlib’s peace remains ever-fragile. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support a stronger ceasefire in Idlib and increase assistance to health and governance structures to keep COVID-19 and ISIS in check.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 – Spring Edition.

With global attention focused on fighting a deadly pandemic, the security situation in northern Syria remains fragile and could break down at any time. In the north east, erratic U.S. decision-making in 2019 enabled a Turkish incursion that in turn put local anti-ISIS efforts in jeopardy. The arrival of COVID-19 is further threatening the precarious status quo. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), exercises tenuous control over the area. Between leading operations to smash ISIS cells, holding off pro-Turkish forces and guarding prisons housing ISIS fighters, it is already stretched thin. The SDF’s capacities may crumble if the pandemic hits the north east in full force. On 30 March, and again on 2 May, ISIS detainees overpowered guards and took over an entire floor of a prison compound in the provincial capital Hassakeh before SDF personnel were able to quell the uprising.

Idlib is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy.

In the north west, Idlib presents another conundrum. The last stronghold of Syrian rebels and jihadists, the province is densely populated with civilians living in abject conditions. And it could soon see a far greater human tragedy. A Russian-backed regime offensive has squeezed the rebels and displaced hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians, many crowding at the Turkish border. Turkish-Russian ceasefires in Idlib have broken down time and again. The latest one, concluded in March, is holding thus far, but it bears all its predecessors’ flaws and is therefore also prone to erode. The spectre of COVID-19 makes a more permanent ceasefire in Idlib all the more urgent, since only concerted international action at a time of relative calm can contain the contagion. The offensive has all but destroyed Idlib’s health care sector, and an outbreak could prove disastrous.

European capitals have a strong interest in helping mitigate Syria’s humanitarian disaster, while keeping ISIS at bay. As such, the EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Contribute additional funding and protection for SDF detention centres holding foreign fighters. The EU and member states should also offer the SDF technical and financial assistance to enhance its capacity to prosecute Syrian ISIS members in its custody or under its control. In addition, they should aid SDF efforts to reintegrate released and former ISIS members into their communities in Syria.
  • Revitalise its approach to stabilising the north east by supporting civilian-military governance structures in which local Arab authorities play a central role in predominantly Arab areas. Establishing such structures would require giving the SDF incentives to devolve authority to local governing bodies, including their security services, to avoid an anti-SDF and anti-Kurdish backlash from which ISIS would benefit.
  • Maintain diplomatic pressure on the SDF and Turkey to commit to a humanitarian truce in north-eastern Syria. While the SDF has publicly endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, there has been intermittent fighting between the SDF and Turkey (and Turkish proxies) along the front lines, diverting resources from the campaign against ISIS and causing civilian casualties.
  • Continue humanitarian preparations in the event of a regime attack on Idlib and/or the full outbreak of COVID-19. Plan and build aid infrastructure; pre-position assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
  • Support the COVID-19 response in both the north east and north west, including by increasing humanitarian aid and delivering personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators.

The North East

In March, ISIS called on its members to take advantage of COVID-19’s spread to intensify their global war. While there have been no major security breakdowns in north-eastern Syria to date, sporadic incidents of violence raise concerns about the jihadist group’s remaining presence. ISIS has maintained a drumbeat of low-level attacks across the region, despite being geographically and organisationally fractured. It has shown a certain resilience, notwithstanding its territorial defeat and the loss of its top leadership. Its fighters have carried out roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations targeting local Arab SDF elements, in particular. Its cells have also coalesced to set up checkpoints and extort money from traders crossing Syria’s eastern desert.

Such attacks aim to weaken the SDF and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with the authorities. Fear of ISIS retribution has harmed the SDF’s ability to gather intelligence necessary for effective counter-insurgency measures. Residents attribute the persistence of ISIS activities partly to lack of popular confidence in a sustained U.S. troop presence in eastern Syria. ISIS cells have also benefited from mistrust between locals and the SDF – exacerbated by the exclusion of local Arab leaders from decision-making – which gives the militants room to operate among the population. It remains unclear whether ISIS will be able to further reconstitute its local support at a time when the SDF’s focus is elsewhere.

The SDF’s reduced military capacity as a result of the Turkish offensive raises questions about whether it can keep guarding ISIS detainees. In an audio recording released in September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted his followers to free ISIS detainees and their families from prisons and camps. The group lately renewed this call, arguing that the coronavirus is diverting the attention of governments or groups holding them. On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted in a prison in Hassakeh city, wresting control of a whole floor from the facility’s guards. It took nearly a day for the SDF to regain the upper hand and determine that no prisoners had escaped. SDF authorities later explained that inmates had revolted partly because they feared contracting the illness in such cramped quarters. On 2 May, ISIS prisoners took control of another SDF-run detention facility in Hassakeh; the SDF and detainees negotiated an end to the standoff a day later.

Following these events, the SDF is rightly concerned that ISIS could raid its makeshift jails in conjunction with prisoner riots to enable mass escapes. This threat will become all the more serious if COVID-19 starts to spread rapidly and uncontrollably. The prospect that something similar could happen in al-Hol detention camp, which holds over 60,000 ISIS-related women and children and where tensions flared regularly between militant women and guards even before the pandemic outbreak, is extremely worrying. Renewed fighting between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border would only worsen these problems.

The North West

Backed by Russian airpower, the Syrian regime has pursued an incremental military strategy for reclaiming the rebel-held north west. Its campaign escalated in April 2019; by March 2020, it had left over a million Syrians displaced. Russian warplanes have compensated for the regime’s weaknesses in ground warfare, driving the human toll way up. The combined air and artillery attacks ravaged towns and villages, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing to the province’s northern reaches. At least 1,700 civilians were reportedly killed in these strikes. With over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its border with Syria, Turkey followed through on a threat to open its European frontiers, allowing migrants and refugees to pass into Greece, and thus sending the message that it would not shoulder a new refugee burden on its own.

Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire remains at great risk of falling apart.

On 5 March, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia agreed on a new cessation of hostilities in Idlib, establishing a “security corridor” extending 6km on each side of the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway, an area under rebel control, to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish soldiers. The agreement froze the conflict along the new front line, letting the regime hold onto many areas it had retaken in the latest offensive, and leaving civilians who fled the conflict with no prospect of returning to their towns and villages. Since key divergences between Ankara and Moscow are unaddressed, Idlib’s new ceasefire, like those that came before it, remains at great risk of falling apart.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The entirety of northern Syria remains vulnerable to renewed conflict. In the north east, the EU and its member states should continue to offer much needed support to the SDF to allow it to weather the crisis and remain an effective anti-ISIS force. Building on EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call for an immediate and nationwide ceasefire across Syria, the EU and its member states should put diplomatic pressure on their Turkish allies and Kurdish partners to commit to a truce that could allow all parties to focus on fighting the pandemic. They should accompany this request with humanitarian aid to help the SDF respond to a coronavirus outbreak if and when it accelerates.

The EU will also need to do more to share the burden with Turkey in north-western Syria.

The EU is one of the largest humanitarian donors in the Middle East. Support for Syrian refugees in the region is one of the short-term priorities in the EU’s Team Europe program responding to COVID-19. On 30 March, it committed support to countries hosting Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – to help them fight the pandemic. While this step is welcome, they should equally make sure to provide assistance inside Syria, particularly in Idlib, including support directed toward health and education. The Brussels Conference scheduled for the end of June, “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, will be an opportunity to mobilise European and other donors to pledge further aid to civilians in Idlib, especially in light of the coronavirus threat. The EU and its member states could also offer direct support to grassroots organisations working in Idlib and encourage EU-funded organisations to focus their efforts on that area. While EU-Turkey relations are strained, Ankara and Brussels should use their renewed diplomatic engagement – triggered by the regime offensive – to preserve and strengthen the ceasefire in Idlib as an immediate priority. European states should continue to back Turkish efforts to maintain a ceasefire in Idlib, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. They should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria-related matters.