Early in his first term of office, the then President of the United States, Barack Obama, decided for reasons unknown to support the Arab League in its efforts to depose the largely secular governments of Libya, Egypt and Syria, and replace them with movements that were part of the Islamic Brotherhood. America has historically had a naïve view of the world, and its foreign policies reflect this. Although Libya and Egypt fell quickly, Syria resisted regime change. Its leader, Bashar al-Assad, had trained as a doctor specialising in ophthalmology before he was picked to succeed his father as the President of this autocratic state. Since his accession in 2000 Assad had displayed some finesse in consolidating his power, in the manner of a grandmaster moving pawns about on a chessboard. Responsible only to an intensely loyal legislative council, he had no understanding of democracy. When in 2011 the first breezes of the Arab Spring were felt in Syria by way of street protests, Assad reacted clumsily, cruelly and lethally. The international reaction was swift and severe. American diplomatic efforts at home and in Europe toppled one domino of Assad’s support after another, and soon he became isolated. America openly supported the liberation movement with weapons, training and finance, and thus was born the Syrian Civil War.
It is commonly thought that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, sponsored the rise of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS. In fact ISIL is the creation of Assad himself. A sympathiser though not an ally of Saddam Hussein, with common links to the pan-Arabian Ba’ath party, Assad hosted jihadists aiming to end the US occupation of Iraq. Upon the Arab Spring, ISIL turned against its host. For a while ISIL was indeed armed by the US, and American dollars enabled it to recruit members and grow. Iran has backed Assad logistically and with small numbers of troops, either members of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. The web of alliances and enmities in Syria is Byzantine to the point of incomprehensibility. Assad and the US both lost control of ISIL which now stalks the field of conflict like a rabid wolf, attacking all those it sees. When it attacks an enemy of the Syrian regime, Assad will even support it, although on other fronts the Syrian Army engages ISIL with all its force. In the meantime, America had actively entered the war on the side of the rebels, bombing Syrian Army targets and interdicting Syrian Air Force missions, while cloaking its intentions by claiming to be fighting ISIL. Turkey, playing the part of a dishonest broker, is backing the same Kurds that it viciously represses on its own soil. In response to Assad’s invitation, Vladimir Putin entered on the side of the regime, supplying both air and ground forces. Russia too acts confusingly, backing anti-Assad forces whenever they fight ISIL. Thanks to Russia’s involvement, Assad has been able to wrest control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, from the rebels. In the last month Palmyra and ar-Raqqah have been recovered too, and the siege of Deir ez-Zor has been lifted. ISIL is close to being eliminated as an important belligerent. But the war is far from over.
The Syrian Civil War is the greatest humanitarian tragedy of recent times. It is thought that the forces of the Western coalition have largely followed rules of engagement that prohibit attacking civilian targets. All other participants, the Syrian Army, Russia, Rojava, Turkey, ISIL and other liberation groups, have a cavalier attitude to collateral damage, even attacking residential areas in which enemy forces were not actively operating simply because they were home to enemy elements. The atrocities committed are too well-known for me to have to list them here. This is not a new development in modern warfare. In the two major wars fought on the European Continent in the 20th Century, both sides destroyed towns filled with civilians, earlier by artillery and later by air. Millions of non-combatants died. The lowest depths of savage brutality had been plumbed by the supposedly civilised nations long before Jihadi John appeared on the scene.
The response of Syrian civilians has been simple: to flee the killing. Damascus and the south-west have never been totally occupied by the rebels, but the rest of the country is a battleground, with the front lines in constant flux and towns being held first by one side then the other, then by yet another. Exact numbers are not available, but I estimate that some eight million Syrians are now exiles, refugees in other lands. Many have fled to neighbouring countries, and others have made their way to the West in the largest mass movement of people ever seen in Europe. In comparison, the Great American Emigration, spread over decades, was only a trickle.
As I write, the military situation in Syria is described as stable, with anti-Assad forces unable to expand their territory and even on the retreat. This does not mean that life in Syria can return to the pre-war normal. The economy of Syria lies in tatters, partly due to the war, but overwhelmingly thanks to economic sanctions enforced by the US and EU. All private citizens with ambitions for the future would best advance their prosperity by emigrating to other countries where opportunity is available. The mass exodus will continue. To me, economic sanctions are, after outright genocide, the greatest crime against humanity. Despite their proven ineffectiveness, against Cuba, Southern Africa, Poland, Iraq, Iran and Myanmar, they are deployed as a cowardly way to satisfy public opinion by being seen to do something. My views are obviously not shared by many, and as long as those sanctions are in place, the citizens of Syria will be subjected to systematic starvation. The despotic leaders of the regime will still quaff champagne and caviar, unaffected by blockades.
Thomas Hobbes described life in a society without law as nasty, brutish and short. With the breakdown of law and order, a large number of Syrians today live as our troglodyte ancestors did, huddling in caves with perhaps not even a fire to shield them against the menaces lurking without. Food, safe water, medicine, clothing, education, the ability to keep your person, your clothing and your bedding clean, something as seemingly unimportant as the opportunity for children to play: all these are absent. Every other nation with even the barest shred of compassion should be sending ships, planes and buses by the thousand to rescue these people by their millions from their misery, saying, Come! Instead, those Syrians with any resources at all must rely on human traffickers to smuggle them into countries where, though unwelcome, they will be safe. The very poorest are forced to stay, with the ever-present prospect of a miserable death.
The Syrian Army, fighting for Assad, operates the way that all conventional armies do. For every combatant there are ten logistics and staff personnel. Necessarily they must be deployed across the whole area under government control in order to deter opportunistic attacks. ISIL in particular has a different structure. Moving among the people like a fish in water, as did the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War, they employ infiltration, striking far behind the front lines in order to destabilise and demoralise. Despite the small size of infiltration units, every member is a combatant. They are likely to outnumber the scattered garrisons of government units. They do not have to hit and run but can remain in combat long enough to overwhelm the garrison and massacre them. This accomplished, they can then settle scores with those civilians perceived to be their opponents.
As a result, nowhere in the area nominally under the control of government forces, can any small town or village say that it is safe. The population has learned never to take sides for or against either government or rebels. Celebrate liberation, whether to you liberation means from the Syrian Army or from the rebels, and a week later when your village is re-taken, you will be pointed out and publicly executed in the most unpleasant way. Because government forces do not infiltrate, it is paradoxically safer to live in an area under rebel control.
Several aid agencies supply vital humanitarian aid in areas where conventional forces are in combat. Almost all of them are backed by Islamic charities, not by the West. The members of these aid agencies perform heroic work, often under fire, at constant risk of being captured, tortured, held as sex slaves or for ransom, and murdered.
To escape to the West from Syria costs from ten thousand dollars per person to twenty-five, depending on what kind of deal you can get. The wealthiest refugees, who had that much money themselves, have already left. Now the money must come from relatives who have already escaped and established themselves in their new homeland. The traffickers have set up sophisticated finance operations akin to buying a car on credit, although interest rates are far higher and compliance is strictly enforced. The most impressive part of the industry is the willingness of émigrés to assume colossal debt and onerous responsibility in order to help their fellows.
Much has been said and written about the Great European Immigration Wave. The undeniable fact is that immigration is always beneficial to the host country. The economic gain outweighs the cost of extending welfare benefits to immigrants: housing, education, medical care and basic subsistence. Even studies critical of immigration are forced to concede the reality of the Boom Town Effect. In requiring immigrants to learn German and imposing a quarantine period before they may enter the job market, Merkel’s coalition government is guilty of economic illiteracy. It is providing the benefits and gaining nothing in return.
The corollary is that emigration always damages the economy of the emigrant country. It has lost human capital. Not only is the supply of labour diminished, but consumption has also shrunk, often below the critical mass needed for the survival of an industry. This is the essence of the dilemma. As compassionate humans we must assist all those we can to escape the killing, but by doing so, we make the lives of those left behind even more wretched and desperate.