The Mediterranean: the great, white and cruel sea

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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The Mediterranean is a small sea, but culturally and historically its role in shaping the trajectory of human civilization and synthetizing various cultures gives it the pride of place among the much larger bodies of waters. On its shores emerged the first learned city-states of Sidon, Tyre, Athens and Venice, the sophisticated cities that became the centers of empires; Carthage, Alexandria and Constantinople. For millennia, armies would sail its waters and march on its coasts from East to West and in reverse.

More importantly the Mediterranean was the watery bridge for the movement of commerce and peoples, the travel of ideas, religions, myths and civilizations. On its waves sailed the famed, sleek and lethal Phoenician, Greek and Roman Triremes, and the various Galleys of every subsequent empire laying claims to its liquid riches, as well as the Corsairs who preyed on its merchant fleets.

The waters of the Mediterranean, its islands and coastlines constitute the stuff of legends, epics and myths, enchanting sirens, and famed sailors traveling to the end of the earth, of shipwrecks on its unforgiving rocky coastlines and tales of survival after harrowing crossings. For a small sea it has accumulated many names: Mediterraneus, Latin for the sea between the lands, because it is almost enclosed, the Greeks called it the “Middle Sea,” and for the Romans, the only civilization that controlled it in its entirety, it was known as Mare Nostrum, (our sea). In the Old Testament it was given more than one name but for the Jews it was mostly known as the “Great Sea,” the Turks gave it the name “White Sea,” and the Arabs know it as the al-Bahr Al-Abyad al-Muttawasit (البحر الأبيض المتوسط) “The Middle white sea.”

Reading the harrowing accounts of thousands of destitute refugees fleeing the wars, upheavals, misery and the collapse of their societies in the Arab world, and Africa and watching their never ending season of migration to its northern shores, while being engulfed by its deceptively calm waters, one is tempted to give the Mediterranean in these times the epithet “the cruel sea.”

Reading the harrowing accounts of thousands of destitute refugees fleeing the wars, upheavals, misery and the collapse of their societies in the Arab world, and Africa and watching their never ending season of migration to its northern shores, while being engulfed by its deceptively calm waters, one is tempted to give the Mediterranean in these times the epithet “the cruel sea.”

Hisham Melhem

The Arab civil wars and sectarian bloodlettings in the era of a barbarous “caliphate,” and various violent parties and armies of God, and entrenched tyrants have produced a new category of people; the Arab boat people. While this modern “Mediterranean crossing” of desperate peoples from literally burned out and failed states like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Eritrea that were condemned by their rulers to lives of endless torment, and essentially abandoned by the world, cannot be compared with the incredible human suffering endured by millions of African captives during their “Atlantic crossing” to the Americas for lives of slavery, there are nonetheless some faint and similar suffocating comparisons.

The ‘middle passage’

The “middle passage” here is that watery graveyard between points of departure in North Africa, mostly Libya in recent years, and the not too distant promised shores of Southern Europe, mostly Italy, and beyond to the truly promised lands of Germany and Scandinavia. These refugees are holed like cargo, by brutal and often violent smugglers on rickety boats brimming with mostly young men but also women and even children after paying an exorbitant price.

Their boats sometimes are sunk on purpose by the smugglers before they reach their destination anticipating that merchant ships or the European navies will save their human cargo; there are stories of people being tossed out of the boats for many reasons, of physical abuse and rapes in the lawless camps were the refugees are kept before they begin their uncertain journey. Those who reach the other side, find themselves alone, sick, suffering from scurvy, broke and kept in detention centers for many months before they are ‘processed’ or if they are lucky enough their asylum requests are granted.

Last week the Mediterranean claimed at least 1,200 lives. In one incident a boat capsized in which up to 850 people drowned making April the deadliest month since the Mediterranean boat people crisis began to get out of hand in recent years. Most of the victims were from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea fleeing the wars and depredations. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that 1,727 refugees and migrants have died so far this year up from 56 at the same time in 2014. The IOM has warned that based on current statistics, the death toll on the cruel sea this year could reach 30,000.

A historic challenge

The cumulative effects of the wars and upheavals in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia have created the largest pool of refugees, displaced peoples and asylum-seekers since World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are 46 million refugees, internally displaced persons and asylum-seekers in the world. Almost 10 million of them are Syrians. Half of the refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Italy last year were Syrians. (The other half was Eritrean).

The crisis can only get worse, if it is not solved at its origins that are in the failed states of the Arab world and Africa. With one million refugees and would-be migrants waiting in camps on the southern shores of the Mediterranean for their moment of migration to the north, the flow of human misery will not end at any time soon. Moreover, since it is very likely that the slow burning of some Arab and Muslim societies will drag on for years and perhaps decades until the flames consume themselves, or until the fires are put out or contained by outside intervention, no amount of relative fixes will prevent the Mediterranean from claiming more lives.

Too close for comfort

Already, the wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea which have created Europe’s boat people, have managed also to obliterate the existing land and maritime borders. Southern Europe’s proximity to the conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East makes it impossible for Europe to build any meaningful immune system against the ill winds coming from these tormented lands. There is much to be criticized in the EU’s asylum system and its inadequate responses to the refugee crisis, and it is delusional for some European governments to think that they can transform the Mediterranean basin into a huge modern-day moat to protect fortress Europe, nonetheless Europe has some justified fears and concerns.

The refugee crisis has the potential of exposing Europe to a greater threat from Islamist terrorists who might join the “passage” to Europe. Already the crisis has bitterly divided the Europeans, between those pushing for the restoration of Italy’s previous Mare Nostrum operation (suspended in October 2014) which allocated considerable resources to search and rescue migrants, and those who want to maintain the less effective and harsher current operation known as Triton (son of Poseidon, God of the sea in Greek mythology) which has a narrower mandate and does not actively pursue rescues. The crisis is whipping feelings of Xenophobia and intolerance in a number of European countries.

Then there is the financial burden in times of economic retrenchment in Europe. The cost of the Mare Nostrum was $9.8 million (9 million euros) a month, while the cost of the Triton is $3.3 million (3 million Euros). But caring for the refugees is a huge undertaking; the medical care for people who are not fully healthy is climbing, then there is the education of children and the adults who lack knowledge of the languages of Europe and the necessary skills for potential employment. Training them is a costly and long term endeavor. Already Italy and other European countries have growing, disgruntled and alienated migrant underclass. Many refugees don’t have proper documentations, which mean that “processing” and “vetting” them will take a long time. All of the above puts tremendous economic burdens on Europe’s states.

The elusive solution

Italy, the country most affected by the refugee and migrant pressure has adopted alone, and with the European Union a series of measures that yielded different results, but demonstrated in their entirety that reforming the asylum system, improving maritime patrols, punishing the smugglers and other such remedies can at best improve the predicament of the refugees but will not solve the core of the problem, which is the breakdown of the state system in the Arab world and some parts of Africa. And while the Arabs (and Africans) are in the main responsible for the disintegration of the political and societal order in their respective countries, and that they should be held responsible for the unimaginable suffering that they have visited on their own people, there is also partial American and European moral and political responsibility for the collapse of these societies.

This is particularly in Iraq where the American invasion made an awful situation under Saddam Hussein more tragic for most Iraqis, and in Libya where a partial American-European military intervention that toppled the tyranny of Muammar Qaddafi only to replace it with total chaos when the West opted not to stabilize the country. In Syria, President Obama’s non-intervention after demanding Assad’s departure and after his abject failure to respond forcefully when Assad crossed the American president’s flimsy “red lines” and used chemical weapons repeatedly against his own people; that failure made Syria’s torment more salient.

The last time the European Union faced a large refugee problem was during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s. Following NATO’s military intervention, the EU made significant and concerted efforts to transform the former Yugoslav states of Slovenia and Croatia from disintegration to reintegrating them into the EU. The EU’s role in Bosnia included providing significant economic assistance, and institutional building, military and security support, such as training the Police. Even Albania, the former communist country, has been integrated into NATO. Through a comprehensive political, economic and security strategy, the EU managed to staunch the flow of refugees from the Balkans, mainly by addressing the problem at the source.

Responsibility to act and protect

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said last week in Washington that restoring stability to Libya will open the way to solving the refugee crisis. He is partially correct. While most of the refugees fleeing to Italy from Libya are not Libyans, the chaotic country has become the major point of departure for the refugees. Stabilizing Libya is therefore a prelude to an effective way of dealing with the crisis of the boat people. The same can be said about Syria and Iraq. The West abandoned Libya after the fall of Qaddafi, the way the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan following the defeat of the Soviet Union, and the poor, pulverized and exposed country was left to the machinations of its neighbors and the “tender mercies” of the Taliban.

Even those of us, who warned from the beginning of the conflicts in Syria and Libya, that unless they are contained quickly they will destabilize their respective neighborhoods, were surprised that the spillover of these wars will reach the heart of Europe. The argument that these conflicts don’t impact directly on America’s national security interests ignore the fact that already America’s friends in the Middle East and Europe are paying heavily for the failure to intervene proportionally and wisely. If these conflicts continue, not only the people will suffer tremendously, but there will come a time that these societies may completely fracture, or the world (and the societies themselves) will tolerate and maybe welcome the return of Tyranny, if it can bring a degree of stability, since people yearn for order.

Clearly, the U.S. and the E.U. cannot and should not solve the extremely complex problems facing those Arab states that are still going through bloody transitions. But since the West was involved in some of these conflicts, the West should not walk away from them either. Calling for a greater western intervention to contain the flames of war and sectarian violence does not mean necessarily military intervention, although limited military involvement should not be ruled out. Judging by its actions, the Obama Administration seems to be eager to kick the can down the road and to bequeath most of the problems of the Middle East (maybe with the exception of the nuclear deal with Iran) to the next president.

It is imperative in this context to remind ourselves and the American President why the United States intervened militarily in the Libyan conflict even though it was “leading from behind,” a phrase that is likely to be in the second paragraph of President Obama’s obituary.

In justifying and explaining the U.S. military role in Libya in his speech at the National Defense University, President Obama invoked the failure of the International Community to act swiftly and decisively to defend the civilians in Bosnia and drag its feet for a full year, while the intervention in Libya to save civilian lives did not take more than 31 days. President Obama used the word “responsibility” six times in his speech including in phrases such as “responsibility to act” and “responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians” and, prophetically, “responsibility for what comes next.” It is that last phrase that is particularly disturbing.

There was NO “responsibility for what comes next,” the U.S as well as France (the loudest proponent of the air campaign) and England opted not to do what is proper to follow up on the military campaign and to create an Arab and international stabilization force. The same argument goes for Iraq; the quick military departure, and the leaving the country in the hands of a small time, vindictive and parochial leader like former premier Nouri al-Maliki was certainly not wise. There is also an undeniable responsibility to protect the civilians in Syria.

By walking away from the “responsibility to act” and the responsibility to protect civilians, President Obama has contributed to the crisis afflicting the region, and damaged his reputation and the stature of the United States.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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