The ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe appears to have acquired a new sense of urgency in the last few weeks, as thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans,continue to land on Greek islands from various points on the Turkish coastline. These refugees are fleeing from Syria, as the conflict in that country has intensified in the last six months, after the entry of the Russian military last September, at the invitation of President Assad. That changed the dynamics of the conflict, which seemed to be going against the Assad regime until that time.
It was reported by the international media a few days ago that in 2015, more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees crossed over from Turkey to the Greek islands by boats, with the help of human traffickers. In many cases, the boats were small, rickety and overloaded, which caused them to sink, resulting in more than a thousand drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. The picture of a 3-year old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015, caused outrage around the world. It was also reported that in the first two months of 2016, more than 120000 Syrians had sailed from Turkey to Greece and that 312 had drowned while doing so.
It is therefore not surprising that there is a sense of panic in the EU at the growing number of refugees arriving in Greece. Several countries, including Austria, Macedonia, and some Balkan states, have closed their borders, leaving them stranded in Greece, which lacks the resources to deal with them. The EU is terrified at the prospect of further waves of refugees landing up in Greece from Turkey, which currently hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees in camps on its soil. Human trafficking has become a major industry in Turkey, which holds the key to the refugee issue being faced by the EU.
However, the migration of such a large number of refugees to Europe is not a sudden development, though it may be unexpected. It is an unintended and unforeseen consequence of policies and developments in which some European, as well as other countries, have been involved since early-2011, soon after the Arab Spring broke out in Tunis in January 2011.
Around the same time, peaceful demonstrations demanding political reforms were held in Syria. They were put down harshly by the state security forces, resulting in the deaths of many protesters. The demonstrations, which were peaceful and small in the beginning, became much larger and violent by March. Several analysts have pointed out that by that time, covert external intervention had begun in Syria, aimed at inflaming the situation by creating violence and chaos in the country. It involved the intelligence agencies and operatives of some Western, Gulf and regional countries. President Assad soon realised that using force to crush the demonstrations was only aggravating the situation, and on 21st April repealed the emergency laws that had been in force in Syria since 1963, under which the government had sweeping authority to suspend constitutional rights. He also offered talks to discuss wide-ranging political reform.
However, the external powers had seen in the protests an opportunity to effect ‘regime-change’ in Syria. President Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, a branch of Shia Islam, and is an ally of Iran. He permitted the supply of weapons, which transited through Syrian territory, from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. If he could be dislodged, both Iran and Hezbollah-Shia powers would be weakened, which was a major strategic objective of the external powers mentioned above. Iraq had already been lost to the Shias, following the US-led invasion in 2003, resulting in the emergence of a ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran to Syria. This was the strategic rationale behind regime change in Syria.
Thus, Assad, who till then had been seen as a relatively benign leader by the West, suddenly became a target. According to reliable reports, Sunni jihadi fighters and weapons started entering Syria as early as March 2011, mainly through Turkey. In August, the US President declared that ‘Assad must go’. The military and diplomatic campaign for regime change in Syria had begun.
Over the next four years, till September 2015, fierce fighting raged in Syria, particularly along its borders with Turkey and Iraq. The West and its allies openly backed the ‘Free Syrian Army’ which, according to them, consisted of ‘moderate’ rebels, with weapons and training. However, it really did not make much headway against the Syrian armed forces, though it did capture some territory here and there in the initial stages of the conflict.
The forces which did capture significant chunks of territory in Syria during the last two years were extremist and jihadi groups including ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, and Ahrar ash-Sham, the last two with direct links to Al Qaida. They are among the several hundred groups fighting the Assad regime. Many of them received training, funding and weapons from external backers including the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. On the other hand, Assad received diplomatic and military support mainly from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
According to the latest estimates, over 400,000 people have been killed and 10 million uprooted from their homes in Syria. While the neighbouring countries – Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt – host more than 5 million refugees, an increasing number have also spilled over into Europe in the last two years, mainly by crossing the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey and Libya into Greece and Italy respectively. This has created an unexpected situation for Europe: What to do with these refugees? While in the beginning they were allowed by other countries to proceed to Germany and Sweden, in the last few months the situation has deteriorated, with several countries closing their borders leaving thousands stranded in Greece.
An important reason for the recent influx of refugees into Europe has been the direct military intervention of Russia in Syria in September 2015, when the Assad regime appeared to be on the brink of collapse, following Turkey&’s permission to the US to use its Incirlik air base last July. Russian air power successfully disrupted the supply lines of weapons from Turkey to ISIS and other groups, weakening their capacity to fight the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters, whose morale was boosted. The Russians also destroyed more than 500 ISIL-operated oil tanker trucks which were used to smuggle Syrian oil to Turkey, This, along with a renewed ground offensive by the Syrian army against the jihadi groups, caused a fresh influx of refugees from Syria into Turkey, from where many have crossed the Aegean Sea to Greek islands, hoping to find sanctuary in Europe. The totally unexpected Russian entry into Syria has upset the plans of the regime changers, who do not know what to do next.
The rapidly increasing number of Syrian refugees fleeing to Greece through Turkey, coupled with reverses on the ground for jihadi groups in Syria, possibly prompted the West and its allies to call for a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria, which came into effect on 27 February 2016. The cease-fire, agreed between the US and Russia, excludes military action against ISIS and Nusra Front, and appears to be largely holding, for the time being. However, it would be unrealistic to view it as anything more than a temporary lull, during which the various players figure out what to do next. On 7 March, the EU held a summit with Turkey in Brussels at which the two sides agreed on the outline of a possible deal which included return of all Syrian migrants currently on Greek islands to Turkey; speedier disbursement of the Euro 3 billion financial aid to Turkey announced last year; quicker EU permission for visa-free entry of Turkish citizens into the Schengen area; and speeding-up of talks regarding Turkey&’s membership of EU. In return, the EU agreed to accept one Syrian refugee already in Turkish refugee camps for resettlement, for each Syrian sent back to Turkey from Greece. The deal, which has been criticised by the UNHCR, will be presented to the European Council on 16-17 March. In addition, NATO warships have begun patrolling in the Aegean Sea to prevent boatloads of refugees from reaching Greek islands.
However, it is not clear if, and how, the deal will work. Will the EU be able to persuade all its members to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkish camps? Will Turkey agree to permanently host more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil without demanding additional territory in Syria? Will there be a consensus in the EU to permit visa-free entry of Turkish nationals in the Schengen area at a time when Turkey is cracking down on press freedom inside its borders? If the EU does not honour its part of the deal, will Turkey honour its commitments? How long will the partial cease-fire in Syria hold? These questions have no easy answers. Finally, what is going to happen next in Syria? As of now, it appears that much more bloodshed is likely to take place in Syria, before peace returns to that unfortunate country.