The new migrant crisis unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean is the result of earlier failures by the West, says PAUL KNOTT
Doing nothing is not cost-free and ignoring problems does not make them go away. Europe and its allies should have learned these lessons long ago from the Syrian conflict and the migration crisis it sparked in 2015.
Their failure to tackle these issues adequately has contributed to a renewed migrant crisis on the Greek/Turkish border and the risk of a full-scale war between Nato-member Turkey and Syria and its Russian backers.
More than a million migrants crossed into Europe in 2015; an uncontrolled movement of people on a scale the continent had not experienced since the Second World War.
This sudden influx has been exploited for political advantage by the far-right movements that threaten Europe’s stability.
In reality, while a million is unquestionably a lot of people, accommodating them should not have been insurmountable for a mostly affluent continent of more than 500 million citizens. But rather than calmly and efficiently fulfilling their responsibilities in accordance with international agreements and basic human decency, most European countries from the UK to central Europe refused to do their share.
Instead, many of the desperate migrants from Syria and other conflict or poverty afflicted countries were left stranded in squalid, overcrowded camps on Greece’s Aegean islands close to the coast of Turkey.
Their numbers have steadily been augmented over the last few years by those who have still found a way to slip through Europe’s tightly sealed borders.
For the most part, Greece has struggled admirably to meet the challenge that was foisted upon it. But the small and remote communities of a country that is itself recovering from a severe economic crisis are ultimately ill-equipped to cope. Long-simmering local anger boiled over into riots in February against the building of more refugee centres.
Inevitably, the refugees are also become dangerously frustrated at being stranded without hope in appalling conditions.
Greece’s abandonment by its partners left it with little capacity to handle a further spike in the numbers of refugees arrivals. That is now happening following the apparent breakdown of the other element of Europe’s strategy, such as it is, to deal with the migrant crisis.
Since 2016, the EU has paid the semi-authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan six billion euros to keep the refugees in Turkey instead. The country now hosts 3.6 million Syrians and more than four million refugees in total. This is, of course, plenty for one country to cope with, whatever external financial assistance is provided.
By making this deal directly with the Turkish government, rather than following the usual practice of funding international refugee organisations and NGOs, the EU also handed Erdogan a means with which to pressure them when it suited him to do so.
That moment arrived, ostensibly as a result of Turkish concerns about another million or more Syrians coming across its border from Idlib, the last province of Syria remaining to be brought back under the control of the Assad regime.
In a televised address, Erdogan said he had been telling the West for months that “if you do not share this burden with us, we will open the gates”. His announcement sparked a refugee stampede towards the Greek border.
Chaos has ensued at northern Greek frontier posts, as Greek security officers armed with tear gas and live ammunition attempt to prevent the thousands of people, including young children, massing there from crossing.
There has also been an increase in refugees attempting to cross the sea to the Greek islands. One child drowned when a boat carrying 50 refugees overturned.
In another unrelated incident, Turkish government footage shows the sickening spectacle of a Greek coastguard ship apparently trying to cause a flimsy inflatable dinghy packed with people to capsize.
The Turkish president’s actions are not solely motivated by his country’s inability to take in more refugees. Erdogan has also been agitating for more Western support for Turkey’s increasing military involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Throughout that conflict, Turkey has assisted various rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime, including, it is alleged, some Islamist extremists. The Turks have also launched several direct military offensives in Syria.
Previously, these mostly targeted Syrian Kurdish militias. The Turks feared the territory these militias controlled in Northern Syria could be used as cross-border bases by other Kurdish groups fighting for autonomy from Turkey.
The latest Turkish campaign, Operation Spring Shield, is the first to target the armed forces of the Assad regime directly. It thus risks spiralling into a major conflict with Assad’s Russian backers and dragging in Turkey’s Nato allies.
This dangerous situation is the result of the collapse of a 2018 deal between Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin. They agreed to preserve Idlib as a buffer zone between Turkey and Assad’s forces.
Idlib also became a haven for displaced people (and rebel fighters of varying stripes – some of them Al-Qaeda affiliated extremists) fleeing Assad and Russia’s brutal campaign to recapture the rest of Syria.
For months, the Turks, Russians and Assad regime have been accusing each other of breaching the deal. There is little doubt that Assad’s forces and Russia are doing so by brazenly attempting to take Idlib.
Their advance has left the grimly familiar trail of bombed schools, hospitals and homes, forcing thousands of families to live out in the open in bitter winter conditions. There have been several credible, independent reports of children freezing to death. And that is before coronavirus takes hold.
The Turkish military’s push back against this onslaught was met by a Russian-Syrian aerial attack on February 27 that killed at least 50 Turkish soldiers.
So far, the Turks have focused their retribution on Assad’s army, rather than the far stronger Russians. The Russians have seemingly acquiesced to this Turkish response, whilst making clear that it must end swiftly and that any attack on the Russian military will be met with full force.
Erdogan is scheduled to meet Putin in Moscow this week. It is possible that they will agree a short-term ceasefire at that meeting. But this will not resolve the underlying problem of the Turks’ desire for a buffer-zone in Idlib and Assad and Putin’s intent to conquer the province.
Europe, meanwhile, is almost entirely dependent upon the whims of these deeply unpalatable leaders, in order to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis that so destabilised the continent.
This impotence is largely of the West’s own making. Had it done more to protect the Syrian people back in 2011, when their uprising against the Assad dictatorship was still a mass, peaceful protest, then the regime may by now have been a distant memory and the subsequent horrors and migrant crises averted.
The West had another opportunity to act in 2013 when Assad crossed Washington’s declared “red line” by using chemical weapons against his own unarmed civilians. But president Barack Obama opted not to take it.
Instead, the West largely surrendered any influence and left Syria wide open for all manner of malign actors from Putin, Assad and Iran, to Erdogan and assorted jihadis to do their worst.
Equally, Europe’s leaders could have sought long-term solutions to the migrant crisis, rather than attempting to hide it in Turkey and the Greek islands.
This should have included disabusing their people of the fantasy that isolating yourself from the problems of the world will make them disappear.
The governments of countries that more than met their responsibilities during the 2015 migrant crisis, notably Germany, should have pressed harder for EU financial action against recalcitrant partners such as Poland and Hungary.
Had more EU member states been compelled to take their share of refugees then, Europe would be less vulnerable now to the repeat crisis that is building up on Greece’s borders.
These are all, of course, easy assertions to make and one should not underestimate the complex difficulties decision-makers have had to face when dealing with the Syrian catastrophe and crises stemming from it.
In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there was a deep aversion in western countries to risking involvement in more such bloody entanglements. As Obama, amongst others, pointed out, once the civil war had started, the fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition and the presence of Islamist extremists made it difficult to see how further chaos could be avoided once Assad had fallen.
But high-level leadership often revolves around persuading a reluctant public and making the best possible choices when there are no unequivocally good options available.
As was the case early in the Syrian conflict, establishing ‘no-fly’ safe zones within the country policed by a coalition of international forces, including Nato (which has more capability than any other entity) remains the least worst option.
This step could lessen the risk of the war spiralling into a wider international conflict and reduce the pressure on millions more desperate Syrians to migrate in order to survive. It would also create space for international discussions on how to finally bring this horrific war to an end.
Achieving safe zones in Syria would require some deft diplomacy and carefully calibrated pressure on Russia.
It rests heavily on the reasonable assumptions that Moscow has already achieved its main aim of being taken seriously as a major power again and wishes to avoid a direct conflict with a much more powerful adversary, Nato.
Whether this outcome can still be achieved is another question. The West is now handicapped by Merkel’s fading authority in Berlin, Britain being mired in Brexit isolation and the grotesquely inadequate Trump administration in the White House. This sorry situation raises yet more regrets that the Syrian crisis was not handled much better, much earlier.