A lesson from Brexit: Stop ignoring Syria

The Syrian war is the elephant in the room when it comes to the rise of identity-politics

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The political earthquake that Great Britain witnessed last Thursday with the victory for the Brexit camp setting the stage to the UK’s exit from the EU, is not only a product of David Cameron’s mistakes and Europe’s struggle with its own demons, but has its roots 2,000 miles away in the raging war, the counterterrorism nightmare and the humanitarian disaster called Syria.

The Syrian war is the elephant in the room when it comes to the rise of identity-politics, and the protectionist wave across Europe and in the United States. The unprecedented refugee influx, the largest since World War II coming primarily from Syria, and the country’s transformation into a hub for every Jihadist group and extremist recruitment machinery, has sent shockwaves through Europe and is feeding a political rhetoric of hate and racism across the continent.

This rhetoric won’t necessarily go away if Syria is resolved, but it will only grow if the conflict is left to spread and fester.

Syria is not contained

For five years, the international community stood by as the Syrian war unraveled and fragmented a country of 23 million, sitting one border away from Europe, and in the heart of the Middle East. Russia vetoed four Security Council resolutions that attempted to pressure its ally Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as he continues to barrel bomb schools, bakeries and children’s hospitals.

This is while the US backpedaled on its early redlines to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, and for him to step down. Instead the Obama administration has now chosen a minimalist approach toward Syria, designed to contain the ISIS threat and keep the country together.

Five years into the war in Syria, it is time to acknowledge the grave cost of inaction and that what happens in Aleppo reverberates in Molenbeek and London

Joyce Karam

Today, Syria is neither contained nor together, and the thousands of airstrikes against ISIS have failed in addressing the larger conflict, while backfiring on Europe. Statements of condemnation from the Obama administration and endless international meetings in Geneva, Istanbul and Vienna have done little to mitigate the disaster. If anything, the inaction in Syria has helped fuel terror regionally and attract Jihadists from London, Brussels and Paris into ISIS and Nusra territory.

The terror attacks that rocked France, Belgium, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, since last November, all have threads to Syria, with majority having direct operational links to ISIS. Denying or watering down this reality for political purposes won’t make it go away. Western extremists such as Jihadi John or some of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks have trained with ISIS in Syria.

It is dangerous and naive to dismiss Syria as another civil war such as Congo or Lebanon, or to pretend it’s another Afghanistan. The Taliban was never a stone’s throw away from Europe, and French extremists are not fighting in Congo. Syria today is the epicenter of terrorism and the minimalist approach that Washington is leading has directly contributed to the spillover, diminishing any talk of containment.

No escape from safe zones

The response to the wave of hate and fascism across Europe cannot be addressed without a real strategy for Syria. That means going beyond half measures such as striking ISIS while looking the other side when it comes to Assad. The humanitarian disaster in the country started primarily in 2011 because of Assad’s bombardment of cities, and that remains ISIS and al-Qaeda’s best recruiting and expansion utility.

Washington cannot stand idly waiting for Russia to change its mind on Assad because it has not done so since 2011, and seems to have directly exacerbated the tragedy with its bombing. Russia’s reported use of phosphorous munition and pursuing a Chechnya model in its bombing, reflects a brutal strategy from Moscow that intensifies the conflict in Syria, and then contributes to the refugee flow as a weapon of instability into Turkey and Europe.

It is no coincidence that the fascist rhetoric heard in Europe is attracting smiles and cheers in Kremlin as it looks to confront the old continent and restore the Soviet glory.

While the Obama administration will unlikely change course or confront Russia, before it leaves office, establishing safe zones in the South and the North of the country is the only way to contain the disaster in the short term, and ease the refugee burden while pressuring Assad on the ground to compromise politically.

According to an Arab diplomat, these plans have been proposed by Jordan as early as 2012, and later by Turkey, the Gulf states, France, and Germany but have all been repeatedly blocked by Washington.

Such zones would be put in place to absorb the massive flow of refugees given that the war is unlikely to wind down and with no political solution in sight. Surely, safe zones carry military risks and a defense commitment, but the geopolitical and national security cost is far less than the consequences of not acting.

The refugee number is only bound to grow as the US starts its ISIS offensive, and Europe borders are more likely to be compromises as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have reached a tipping point.

Five years into the war in Syria, it is time to acknowledge the grave cost of inaction and that what happens in Aleppo reverberates in Molenbeek and London. Not recognizing this reality will only play into the hands of the Trumps and Farages of the West, who drive – unopposed – a narrative built on fear, continued suffering and isolationism.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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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