Tackling the Syrian Refugee Crisis
Tackling the Syrian Refugee Crisis
Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East
Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East
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Refugees walk near the border fence between Hungary and Serbia, 13 September 2015. AFP/Thomas Campean

Tackling the Syrian Refugee Crisis

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Director Joost Hiltermann explains the root causes of the current refugee crisis. 

With the Syrian war raging on, and neighbouring states unable to cope with large refugee populations, millions of displaced Syrians are desperate and some are trying to reach a safe haven in Europe. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Director Joost Hiltermann explains the root causes of the current situation. He points out the political failures of the West, notes ways the world can really help Syrians, and what measures could contribute to bringing the war closer to an end.

Crisis Group: News and emotions about the migrant flow into Europe now dominates the European media and political agenda, and increasingly the U.S. one too. How does this look from a Syrian and Middle Eastern perspective?

Joost Hiltermann: Refugees reaching Europe are the ultimate result of massive policy failures: the failure to stop the Syrian war, and the failure to give adequate support to neighbouring countries. The Syrian war is dragging on with no end in sight. Some four million Syrians are currently living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq; many others have been able to settle in the Gulf; and many more remain internally displaced inside Syria, ready to join the exodus. Sitting in a desolate camp in Jordan or northern Iraq, or living in cramped quarters in Beirut, Amman or any other town in the region, without services, seeing international aid dwindle and with no education for their children, the average refugee will soon start plotting a way out. Whether they move depends on a combination of resources (to pay people smugglers), connections (for example, a relative already living in Europe), and opportunity.

The current wavelet of refugees arriving in Europe – a very small number compared to the throngs scratching out a bare living in Syria’s immediate neighbourhood – suggests how close to full-to-capacity Syria’s neighbours are, absent a further major new injection of funds. If we can’t stop the war, for now, let’s at least do what we can: find ways to make life moderately bearable for these people in the safety of their countries of first refuge. I fear, however, that in the first panicked reaction, without a coordinated policy, and despite great efforts to save lives in the Mediterranean, European states will likely direct the bulk of funds toward better policing of refugee corridors, with the objective of deterring people from considering a move into Europe without at the same time making their current refugee situation in neighbouring countries more bearable. With public pressures and right-wing anti-migrant hysteria, there’s very little appetite to take a serious look at how the problem can be addressed at the source.

Should there be a no-fly zone or safe area in Syria? Would that help stop the war?

The creation of a no-fly zone over part of Syria is politically controversial. Long proposed by Turkey for the north, it has received no support from the Obama administration, which does not want to get dragged into a war with the regime and its external backers, Iran and Russia. In our most recent report on Syria, we took a different tack, focusing on the south, where the situation on the ground is quite different from that in the north. We think it might offer the opportunity for the U.S., in particular, to create a zone free of aerial attacks (which wreak the greatest destruction, especially through the use of barrel bombs). The U.S. has a range of means at its disposal; at its extremes stand diplomacy (which isn’t working) and a no-fly zone (for which it has shown no appetite for now). In between there are various options that haven’t been fully explored, and should be.

As for a safe zone, it raises a host of political and operational questions: the experience of Bosnia shows how hard it is to promise absolute security. And against which threats is safety to be provided? The Islamic State? The regime? Who will administer the zone? In July, the U.S. and Turkey reached an initial agreement to establish one in the north, though the Obama administration calls it an “IS-free zone” (referring to the Islamic State). Progress on implementing the plan is slow, mainly because Ankara and Washington still cannot agree on a joint strategy toward Syria in general – largely because they can’t fully answer the questions a safe zone raises. For a more in-depth look at this question, see blog posts by my colleagues Noah Bonsey, looking in detail at the hard choices for the U.S. in Syria, and Nigar Göksel, focusing on connections to the flare-up in Turkey’s domestic Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency.

If no-fly zones or safe areas are problematic, what can the world do to help Syrians then?

Unfortunately, the prospect of either a quick diplomatic, negotiated solution or an outright military victory by either side is currently close to nil. So what we are left with – as we continue attempts to feel out stakeholders’ evolving positions, hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough – is a three-pronged approach to the refugee crisis: we should pursue ways to lower the levels of violence in Syria (for instance by dissuading or stopping the regime from using barrel bombs); pour vastly more funds into efforts to help the displaced in Syria and refugees in neighbouring countries to sustain themselves where they are; and address the problem of desperate on-migration by accommodating refugees as they arrive in Europe, the Gulf and elsewhere.

In particular, we need to see dramatically stepped-up support for Syrian refugees hunkered down in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, as well as internally displaced persons (IDPs) still in Syria. States that are not in the immediate neighbourhood need to both provide many times the level of support to the neighbouring states’ refugee efforts and take in more refugees themselves. Gulf states have done quite well in this regard, contributing to making the situation of Syrians in Syria and neighbouring countries relatively sustainable through remittances and significant humanitarian aid, while also absorbing a lot of Syrians even if they do not accord them refugee status.

Crisis Group reports have set out ways in which host countries and the international community can do more for Syrians in areas that are controlled and safe in Turkey, where there are two million refugees, and in Lebanon, with 1.2 million, more than one fifth of the local population. The UN has rightly complained that its aid programs are badly underfunded. Why is this so? And then, why complain of refugees supposedly threatening the identity of European societies and undermining their economies – an argument that looks absurd seen from much poorer Middle Eastern countries buckling under the strain of much larger disruptions? And finally, if Europe does feel so threatened, why neglect to help mitigate the problem by ensuring that refugees have at least some prospect of a future in a place like Turkey, which could absorb more refugees if funds were available and could integrate them into its society?

This is not the worst moment for Europe and others to reassess their policies. The government of President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has opened the doors to Syrian and other Arab arrivals partly out of a sense of Muslim solidarity, and in several ways Turkey’s generous welcome to the refugees has been exemplary. But there are domestic resentments in Turkey, too, and Ankara cannot continue to bear the bulk of the burden without more help from outside. There are similar needs to give more aid to Beirut, Amman and Erbil (for northern Iraq) as well. At the very least, an emergency donors session needs to be held at the same time as the UN General Assembly later this month with the clear objective of meeting the UNHCR’s minimal demands for resources to handle the near-neighbour immediate refugee humanitarian needs for at least the next year.

Is bombing the Islamic State (IS) bringing the end of the war closer?

Copying a U.S. preoccupation with IS, and seeing a jihadi threat emanating from chaos in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region, and with considerable U.S. nudging, other Western states are jumping on the bandwagon of U.S. airstrikes against IS. These have done little more than contain the group so far, however, and we may be fooling ourselves if we believe that IS won’t be able to break out of its current static positions in search of new territory, resources and adherents. Of course it will face constraints, but there could be opportunities, given the right timing and weaknesses of its opponents. Bombing the group may be a necessary component of a strategy aimed at containing and perhaps ultimately defeating the group, but it’s very far from a sufficient recipe for success. And we haven’t really seen a political strategy fully articulated, much less implemented.

A more effective approach would have to be based on recognition of the core problem, which is that IS and kindred groups prey on deep-seated grievances among Sunni Muslim populations, not just in Syria in particular but throughout the region. These are based partly on perceived Western support of the Syrian regime – “support” in the sense of not making any serious effort to remove it – and partly on the growing Western rapprochement with Shiite-Persian Iran, an aspiring hegemon, and therefore a threat, in the eyes of many Sunnis. As more and more people are brutalised in this war – the main instigator of radicalisation – this perception further encourages support for Salafi-jihadi groups.

Bombing IS reinforces the perception of Western one-sidedness. It does nothing to help the imperative to stop the Syrian conflict as soon as possible, to end the immense suffering it has caused and continues to inflict, to stem the flow of refugees and allow people to go home, or to reduce the alarming levels of radicalisation and sectarian polarisation in the region. The U.S. and its allies in particular should put greater effort into rebuilding what remains of the Iraqi state – a gargantuan task, no doubt, but creating a more inclusive governance in Iraq could begin to reverse some of the deep Sunni resentment toward the centre on which IS feeds.

What is a conflict-resolution group like Crisis Group doing about all this?

Our priority is to find ways to save Syrian lives. In pursuit of this goal we consider both diplomatic and non-diplomatic means, and look for solutions that are implementable because they would safeguard core interests of all protagonists, regardless of any moral judgment on their respective positions.

Moreover, in the face of a diplomatic and military deadlock, our role is to bring clarity, fresh perspectives and new ideas to those governments, officials and actors who genuinely seek a negotiated solution, and to give evidence to those who believe they are on the verge of victory that this is not actually the case.

This means we need to explore positions locally, regionally and internationally. These undergo constant adjustments both as a result of developments in Syria and of events quite distant from the Syrian theatre, for example in Ukraine or Yemen. We also need to identify areas of common ground among key stakeholders’ core interests and to reframe the discourse on the war from mutual denial and sectarianism. We need a common framework that will allow for an inclusive, political approach – an outcome many Syrians long for.

The conflict’s intensity colours the information and analysis provided by many, both participants and observers; at Crisis Group, we try to take a step back and provide an independent, non-partisan, dispassionate analysis – despite the great emotions whipped up by the daily horrors we are witnessing. It’s this kind of analysis that governments need if they are to find a negotiated way out; it’s an indispensable building block for a peace that ultimately will have to come about.

In our work, we talk to all the parties – to the extent that we can do so safely – and in all cases reflect their viewpoints accurately in our reports and advocacy. Misunderstanding or misrepresenting a side’s positions is not going to contribute to a peaceful conclusion of the conflict.

What are you advising Western foreign ministries to do?

We are advising all stakeholder governments to escalate diplomatic efforts to reach out to each other and discuss both differences and commonalities of interest, but also to create through concrete actions the conditions on the ground that will open a space for diplomatic action. So long as all parties believe they can win, war will continue. There are plans afoot for an international contact group on Syria, to be coordinated by the UN, including all the key regional and neighbouring states. Assuming such an assembly can actually be convened, that would be an important first step.

Staffan De Mistura, the UN Envoy, in particular, needs to continue to speak to his interlocutors in Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, Riyadh, Washington and elsewhere (Doha and Cairo spring to mind), and find ways of encouraging them to speak to each other as a lead-up to the establishment of a contact group or another workable arrangement. The priority should be to explore ways to construct a viable transition in Syria, but premised on the acknowledgment that little progress will be possible if key stakeholders do not have some guarantee that their core interests in a future Syria will be safeguarded. That’s no easy task, but this research must be done, and Crisis Group is intent on doing it in support of international efforts.

The sad reality is, we all appear to be treading water until something “gives”, whether in Syria or elsewhere, forcing some of the parties to recalculate their roles and positions, and precipitating a shift in the overall balance. That’s why senior Western envoys privately admit that they are simply waiting for conditions on the ground to change, which will require actions their governments have been reluctant to take thus far, before they expect diplomatic progress toward a political transition. In that case, we need to be ready and prepared for such an event: seize the occasion and push the matter forward. Now is the time to create the conditions for diplomacy to work.

Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East

Originally published in World Politics Review 

Dialogue seems to be in vogue in today’s Middle East. Iranian and American negotiators are in Vienna to find a way to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Iranian and Saudi security officials recently held meetings in Baghdad to mend their relations. and United Nations-led efforts to deescalate and end the war in Yemen are picking up steam. While these processes remain fragile, they present an important opportunity to establish a broader regional dialogue that aims to lessen tensions by opening new channels of communication, the time for which is ripe.

Part of the backdrop to these conciliatory efforts is the failure of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the cornerstone of his attempt to extract better terms from Iran on the nuclear front and reduce its regional influence. This campaign saw the reimposition of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran beginning in 2018, along with an increase in bellicose rhetoric and military posturing from the United States and its allies. The policy flopped: Iran did not return to the negotiating table; its nuclear and missile programs grew exponentially; and it became more aggressive in the region and more repressive at home.

The Gulf Arab states, which threw their full support behind “maximum pressure,” paid a hefty price for its failure. If Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were hoping that the approach would clip Iran’s nuclear wings and constrain its power-projection across the Middle East, it instead emboldened Iran to target their economic interests at a time when both countries crave stability—the UAE, as it looks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its unification and host the World Expo; and Saudi Arabia, as it deals with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with long-declining government revenues. The Gulf states’ allegations of Iranian influence in Yemen have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasingly pushing the Houthi rebels into Iran’s arms and prompting them to strike directly at Saudi Arabia.

This backlash occurred just as doubts about Washington’s reliability as a security guarantor reached new heights. The Gulf states believe that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region, a fear that President Joe Biden’s policies and rhetoric have done little to assuage. Rather, much like his former boss, Barack Obama, Biden has made clear his desire to end the Yemen war and resolve the Iranian nuclear file in part so as to focus on relations with other great powers, including what he recently called the “long-term strategic competition with China.”

For its part, though Iran did not knuckle under to “maximum pressure,” it continues to pay a ruinous economic cost as a result of U.S. sanctions, coming on top of its own economic mismanagement. It watched as U.S. and European military forces deployed to the Gulf region in increased numbers and certain Gulf countries normalized ties with its arch-rival Israel, sharpening Tehran’s sense of encirclement by the U.S. and its allies.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 ripped through the region, serving as a reminder to both sides of the Persian Gulf that geography means shared destiny. Notably, some of Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals helped it battle the virus early in the pandemic.

Clearly, the animosity between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors is a lose-lose proposition. This realization—combined first with the understanding that a pandemic knows no borders and then the arrival of the Biden administration—has created an urgent and apparently mutual desire to deescalate tensions and engage diplomatically. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which traditionally opposed dialogue with Iran unless it unilaterally pulled out of what they see as strictly Arab affairs, have dropped that precondition. All of this opens a window of opportunity to start an inclusive regional dialogue—one that is not contingent on progress on the nuclear front.

Dialogue in the region should build on recent deescalation and aid efforts, and on the changing calculus following Biden’s inauguration. There is no silver bullet for resolving the decades of mistrust, tension and conflict in the Gulf. To be most effective, conflict prevention and resolution should take the form of multiple parallel tracks, where progress can be made at different paces and independently of the others, but leading to the same, still distant, objective: an inclusive regional security arrangement in which all states—regardless of size, military prowess, alliances and political structure—can feel secure and prosper.

None of the regional tensions will be resolved easily, but the opening of new communication channels can, at a minimum, help prevent incidents from spinning out of control.

To begin with, though, goals should be limited.

The best way to jump-start the process is for a core group of European countries, with U.N. and European Union support, to dispatch special envoys to the region for discreet engagement with the so-called 6+2 countries—the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Iran and Iraq—and other stakeholders, including external actors like the U.S., Russia and China. The U.N. and EU envoys would explore the possibilities for dialogue and assess the obstacles to progress in order to lay the groundwork for a regional dialogue. Securing the Biden administration’s blessing in some form would be key to their success.

Then would come confidence-building. The first step would be for all sides to cease their hostile rhetoric and propaganda in their respective state media outlets, ending the insults and mutual demonization that have long hampered friendlier ties. Both sides should also facilitate religious pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia already took steps to ease the participation of Iranian pilgrims in the annual hajj. In return, Tehran could reestablish direct flights from Saudi Arabia to the holy city of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, to enable Gulf states’ pilgrims to visit the shrines there.

Both sides should also agree to end their support for the other’s dissidents, based on the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Eventually, Iran and Saudi Arabia should reestablish full diplomatic relations, and the UAE should send its ambassador and diplomats back to Tehran, restoring the full diplomatic ties that were downgraded in 2016.

The European-led, region-owned dialogue should then work toward an agreement on a statement of principles. These could include commitments to refrain from the use or threat of force toward one another; reaffirmations of mutual respect for independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all the countries concerned; and pledges of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs.

The dialogue should also discuss the establishment of a military-to-military deconfliction mechanism between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors. The adversaries’ current inability to communicate instantly during military incidents opens the door to miscalculation and, as a result, escalation, something that has been avoided so far, in large part by luck. A hotline for urgent communication between navies and an ad hoc crisis cell—composed of the principal actors’ representatives and a U.N. observer, based in a relatively neutral state, like Oman or Kuwait—could help defuse tensions before they escalate. Down the line, discussions could focus on ways to deescalate through shared security mechanisms, such as prior notification of troop movements and military exercises.

At the same time, the dialogue should discuss ways to expand people-to-people ties and cooperation on non-security issues of common interest. These could include public health, educational exchange, contacts among women entrepreneurs, environmental conservation and counternarcotics. Such confidence-building measures will help cement the dialogue.

None of the regional tensions will be resolved easily. Efforts to end Yemen’s war and manage regional competition in places like Iraq and Lebanon should continue alongside the dialogue; progress in Gulf talks might help move such efforts along. Still, the recent transition of power in Washington offers a fresh opportunity to reduce risk and begin to calm things down. Dialogue and the opening of new communication channels can, at a minimum, help prevent incidents from spinning out of control. The moment has come to get the ball rolling.