Day: August 24, 2016

Middle East and Europe: impact and prospects

I had the privilege this morning of speaking today by Skype to the Ambassadors’ Council convened at the Macedonian Foreign Ministry in Skopje. These are the notes I used:

  1. First let me thank the organizers, in particular Ambassador Abdulkadar Memedi and Edvard Mitevski, for this opportunity. It is rare indeed that I get to talk about my two favorite parts of the world: Europe and the Middle East.
  1. My focus today will be on the latter, as I am confident that Europeans—a category that in my way of thinking includes all the citizens of Macedonia—know more than I do about the impact of the refugee crisis on your part of the world.
  1. But big as it looms for you, the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Greater Middle East is a fraction of a much larger problem.
  1. There are 4.8 million refugees from Syria in neighboring countries, the largest number in Turkey but millions also in Lebanon and Jordan. Upwards of 8.7 million will be displaced within Syrian by the end of the year. 13.5 million are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
  1. The number of refugees leaving Syria has leveled off, but asylum applications in Europe are well above 1 million and still rising, albeit at a declining rate.
  1. The U.S. is committed to taking only 10,000 Syrians. I don’t anticipate that our politics will allow a lot more anytime soon, though eventually we will have many more arrive through family reunification and other modalities.
  1. The 1.5 million people you saw flow through Macedonia over the past year or so were the relatively fortunate Syrians, not the most unfortunate. Moreover, most who have arrived in Europe are male. If their asylum applications are successful, that will lead to large numbers of family members eventually joining them.
  1. The vital question for me is this: what are the prospects for ending the wars that are tearing Syria to shreds? And what are the prospects for other potential sources of migrants and refugees from Iraq, from Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya?
  1. More than five years after Bashar al Assad’s attempted violent repression of the nonviolent demonstrations in his country, prospects for peace still look dim.
  1. The Russians and Iranians, whose support to Assad has been vital to his survival, show no signs of letting up and have in fact doubled down on their bad bet.
  1. The Iranians have committed Lebanese Hizbollah, Iraqi Shia militias and their own Revolutionary Guard to the fight, not to mention Afghan and other Shia fighters.
  1. The Russians have not only redoubled their air attacks but also added flights from Iran, now suspended, as well as cruise missiles fired from the Black Sea. Moscow has now killed more civilians, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, than the Islamic State.
  1. The Americans continue to refuse to fight Assad, Iran, or Russia. President Obama lacks both legal authorization and popular support to attack them. Americans want him to focus exclusively on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which is what he is doing, apart from assistance to some Syrian opposition forces willing to join in the fight against extremists.
  1. Donald Trump would certainly follow the same policy, perhaps redoubling efforts against the Islamic State and looking for opportunities for cooperation with Russia. Hillary Clinton has pledged to look at other options like protected areas or no-fly zones, but it is not clear that she will pursue them.
  1. The space for moderates in Syria is shrinking. Violence always polarizes, as you know only too well. In addition, the Americans are restraining the forces that they have equipped and trained from attacking the Syrian army. They want moderates focused exclusively on fighting the Islamic State.
  1. This morning, Turkish forces entered Syria at Jarablus on the Euphrates, in support of Arab and Turkman forces aiming to deprive the Islamic State of its last border point and block the expansion of Kurdish forces from taking the last stretch of the Turkish/Syrian border they don’t control.
  1. When will it all end? I don’t know, but I think it likely to end at best not in a clear victory of one side or another but rather in a fragmented and semi-stable division of areas of control.
  1. The Syrian government will control most of what Assad refers to as “useful Syria”: the western coast and the central axis from Damascus through Homs and Hama, with Idlib and Aleppo still in doubt.
  1. The opposition will likely control part of the south along the Jordanian border as well as a wedge of the north, including a piece of the border with Turkey stretching from Azaz to Jarablus.
  1. The Kurds will control the rest of the border with Turkey. Raqqa and Deir Azzour are still up for grabs, with the likely outcome opposition in the former and government in the latter.
  1. That is the likely best. Will that end the refugee problem?
  1. I think not. Nothing about this fragmented outcome is likely to make it attractive for Syrians to return home. Security will remain a serious problem and little funding will be available for reconstruction. Syria will remain unstable for years to come.
  1. What about other parts of the Greater Middle East?

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