Realism and the Refugee Crisis

There are two key elements to addressing the flood of Mideast refugees into Europe. One is the immediate humanitarian crisis. The second is to undertake a realistic approach toward stabilizing the war-torn region, which will require Washington working with Moscow and Tehran, writes ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

The picture last week of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi dead on the beach in Turkey is one of those iconic pictures whose intense human face forces deeper reflection, especially upon publics for whom distant tragedies tend to be statistics rather than specific human stories.

I wrote about the refugee crisis last April at the time when the media was filled with pictures of precarious boats on the high seas, being commandeered by European officials, or rescued from capsizing. I commented at that time that while a very real crisis is at hand for Europe, attention has been riveted almost exclusively upon the immediate situation.

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

A scene of destruction after an aerial bombing in Azaz, Syria, Aug. 16, 2012. (U.S. government photo)

That is natural enough, the situation cries out for immediate treatment. But this comes perhaps at the cost of longer-range analysis of the deeper sources of such problems; that is where the long-term heavy lifting by the international community will need to be done. There should be no doubt, this is a very real national security issue and thus should draw upon a significant portion of national security budgets, to much better end.

Europe, of course, is the immediate destination of this stream of refugees, and why not? For the Middle East and North Africa, Europe is the nearest region that possesses the wealth as well as functioning humanitarian values and institutional structure that can offer refuge. Europe has not had a whole lot of choice in the matter, but it is praiseworthy that many countries there, especially Germany, take this moral and humanitarian responsibility seriously.

But surely a much larger list of countries share deep responsibility for helping ignite these current humanitarian crises. In the first instance, the United States. It was Washington that launched the war that destroyed the Iraqi state and social structure, casting it into the present state of chaos and the outbreak of deadly sectarianism not present under Saddam Hussein.

Chaos in Iraq and its subsequent sectarian struggles and refugee flows directly impacted the Syrian crisis. Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad bears the first and most immediate responsibility for the present brutal civil war there. But the Iraqi jihadi movement instantly merged into the mounting violence in Syria and the formation of ISIS.

Yet Washington, which went on to contribute directly to organizing, arming, and training jihadi groups to fight in Syria against the Assad regime, disingenuously seems to absolve itself from responsibility for these consequences. Washington has so far grudgingly expressed willingness to accept only some 1,500 Syrian refugees.

Canada, another vast and wealthy country that also shares in supporting anti-Assad elements in Syria and the bombing of ISIS, is willing to accept even fewer refugees. The UK enthusiastically helped stoke the war in Syria, but will take only the most modest number of the resultant refugees as well. (I commend in this context the New York Times article by Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff on the broader dimensions of the problem.)

Libya, also visited by western “regime change” operations, presents many parallels and an equally urgent problem of African refugees by sea.

But European willingness to pitch in contrasts with uglier questions about the shortcomings of much of the Middle East itself in meeting humanitarian responsibilities on its doorstep. In fact, the less affluent states have accepted the most refugees: Turkey has accepted over two million refugees from over the border. Jordan, also on Syria’s border, has accepted some 1.5 million, Lebanon perhaps one million.

But other, far wealthier Middle Eastern States in the Gulf have accepted virtually no refugees, all the more shocking because most of these states have directly funded one or another party in Syria’s civil war. In fairness, however, we need to acknowledge that these Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have indeed made major financial contributions to international refugee organizations, perhaps some $2.5 billion for the care and upkeep of the refugees so far. (And the US, miserly in accepting refugees, has contributed some $2.8 billion in aid as well.)

But why, conspicuously, are the Gulf states not accepting any of the refugees into their countries? The answer has more to do with the delicate demographic and political state of the Gulf countries than with lack of financial generosity. The “natives” of the small Gulf states, usually the original tribal elements of the immediate locale, with sudden prosperity decades ago became minorities, often some 10 to 15 percent, in their own states; they employ large foreign labor forces to carry out most of the physical work and administrative tasks while the more privileged natives engage in commerce, governance or leisure. Most of the Gulf states are already intensely nervous about these skewed demographics.

Perhaps a more important reason though is political: Syrians represent an educated and intensely politicized culture, a radical one at that, far too politicized for the Gulf rulers and the deeply non-politicized natives who fear rocking the boat in their petrol-rich societies; they feel they have too much to lose through any potential political agitation.

Politics is a luxury that Gulf natives are willing to forego in the interests of maintaining the welfare society their economy permits. Saudi Arabia is a much larger country and could physically accommodate large numbers of refugees, but shares similar fears about politicized immigrants, especially Syrians.

One final note: I believe the only realistic long-term plan for drying up the contagion of ISIS is the restoration of some degree of peace and order to both Syria and Iraq; ISIS thrives on the chaos and emotions of those struggles. Here it is vital for the broader international community to hammer out some agreement on restoring stability in both countries. Military operations will not do it; they only prolong civil war.

Two countries key to reaching some kind of political solution are Iran and Russia. Renewed western ties with Iran may now facilitate some chance of compromise. Russia too, with its own large Muslim population, has deep reasons to fear ISIS and to seek stability in the Middle East. But it will not sign on to another western/NATO-imposed solution designed to consolidate strategic western power at the expense of a Russian presence.

As long as U.S.-Russian relations are engaged in a zero-sum, winner-take-all strategic struggle in the Middle East, Russia will predictably drag its feet to counter U.S. efforts. Washington needs to ignore the now prevalent advice of its hawks on relations with Russia and accept the benefits of an “everybody can win” compromise settlement over Syria.

Such settlement is not easy to achieve, but without it nothing will happen except more deaths and more refugees.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle)

14 comments for “Realism and the Refugee Crisis

  1. Julian
    September 9, 2015 at 19:10

    Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have hardly accepted refugees, since no one really wants them. They just showed up in droves, crossed the border and the said states aren’t too keen on keeping them around. The fear of international backlash from turning them back is probably the only thing keeping them from doing so. Truth be told, refugees are unwanted from the word “go”, unless they posess some needed qualification or loads of money.
    European social institutions work as long as more people give than other people take. Currently, many European societies are facing the problem of a rapidly aging society, in which less and less pay and more and more receive (pensions, health care, etc.). And a refugee hasn’t paid a single dime into the system, yet requires great sums of money to be supported (food, shelter, language courses, etc.). Some make the jump and become productive members of society, many more remain a social and financial burden.
    A few thousand wouldn’t be an issue, but we’re talking about hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. In a matter of months. These numbers make the Jewish Diaspora look like a fart in the wind by comparison. Tensions are already high in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Greece, France and Austria. The media is doing its best to display the droves of refugees as highly educated and friendly, but these attempts are often hardly more than the equivalent of the Titanic’s band playing cheerful music as the ship was heading for the abyss.

    Lebanon for example is making very little efforts to integrate them into Lebanese society and is desperately trying to get them to move somewhere else. And Turkey isn’t doing a thing to stop thousands of people from boarding hardly seaworthy boats to reach Greece, potentially and probably risking their lives in the process.

    If European countries are interested in getting the refugees out of their hair, then fixing the situation in Syria is the only way. But lasting change hardly comes from outside via bombs and bullets. Iraq remains as a warning example on how not to “free” a country. Society needs to change things itself and that can’t happen, when every able-bodied man, woman and child is packing up and leaving (brain drain), leaving only the weak, dull and insane behind. With those, Syria is a lost cause and will never recover, only limping on as a failed state like Afghanistan or Somalia.

    Yet positive change seems to be needed from outside, since the local powers are hardly interested in fixing the mess they have created over the past four years. But it is questionable if Europe, the United States and Russia can exert enough influence to counter the political intrigues of Saudia-Arabia, Israel and Turkey.

    • Mortimer
      September 9, 2015 at 22:52

      Europe’s ageing workforces need replenishing. The median age of Europeans living in their own country is 43, compared with 35 for migrants. Britain does particularly well in attracting young and employable foreigners: most are in their 20s and 30s. Some two-thirds of the immigrants in Germany, France and Italy are aged between 25 and 64, the prime working age; only around half of the natives are. Immigrants are often better educated than the locals, too. One OECD study found that in two-thirds of European countries in 2010-11, a higher share of immigrants had been to university than the native-born population. That helps them to find work, rather than sponge off the state.

      • September 12, 2015 at 17:41

        That is nonsense. It is false studies and statistics by industrialists who want to use immigrants to drive down wages or limit wage rise. Japan is doing relatively well with an ageing population. The reason you see recent immigrants holding up signs saying they don’t want Denmark but prefer Sweden is for sponging off the state. Denmark has halved benefits to asylum seekers. While you see pictures of women and children in the media to play on the emotions, according to official figures 75% of current “refugees” are men, unofficially it is probably even higher. These young men are mostly past the age of getting a secondary education and will most likely not go for university education, considering their lack of language skills. They will be competing with lowly educated native people on the job market.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    September 9, 2015 at 00:07

    I wish America’s Military were deployed on more humanitarian fronts. I have always believed that by providing aid to the unfortunates of the world that this would give America a truly great satisfying sense of mind. Who would even know if possibly this sense of wellbeing might even spawn a more peaceful society here in the homeland? Okay, maybe it would not be the utopia I so very much would like to see, but it would certainly be more approved of by the rest of this world, as opposed to their hating the U.S. for all these wars. The 20% of the Syrians that are among the European refugees have been funneled through to make safe pockets in the north of Syria. These safe pockets staffed with NATO mercenaries will be a tease to Assad’s Air Force, and this entrapping web (if it works) could destroy Syrias air power. NATO mercenaries disgusted as ISIS is said to be in theater as well. A lot of crazy goings on, but never a dull moment with the Neocon’s in charge. If the violence and war should escalate to front page status then where will the refugee story go? I think the refugee crisis should either rank top, or at the minimum equal billing in the media. The downside to my last comment, is in Syria’s battles there will be people dying, and that’s never any good. And yes we should provide humanitarian aid to all the world’s downtrodden. This planet isn’t getting any smaller…Peace!

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 9, 2015 at 00:33


      “This planet isn’t getting any bigger….Peace”

  3. James lake
    September 8, 2015 at 23:47

    This manufactured war is not about Russia and US

    It is about the US, Israel, the gulf Arabs Turkey and the EU and the pipeline to Europe.

  4. Kiza
    September 8, 2015 at 22:56

    I am not sure how this article writer found his way to, but anyone who can recommend something by Michael Ignatieff belongs to the neocon side, just like Ignatieff. Is CIA finally taking over consortiumnews? I must admit that I stopped reading after this “recommendation”.

  5. Joe B
    September 8, 2015 at 21:42

    It is good to hear Fuller’s view that “it is vital for the broader international community to hammer out some agreement on restoring stability in both countries. Military operations will not do it”. One wonders whether the admin hears nowadays of such radical notions as diplomacy and humanitarian aid. Indeed “Washington needs to ignore the now prevalent advice of its hawks” on all foreign policy matters, as they are nothing but infantile bully-boys playing the protection racket at the grievous expense of humanity.

  6. Hillary
    September 8, 2015 at 18:30

    Human rights violations committed by ISIS are condemned the world over – rightly so – whereas those committed by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS are under-reported, particularly in the West.

    The US-led Coalition’s Human Rights Record in Iraq (2010-2015).

    The invasion of Iraq, the destruction of Libya , the drone attacking of civilians in the name of fighting terrorism are perhaps the biggest human rights violations of the century and ALL carried out by the so called “civilized west” in revenge for 9/11 & to fulfill a neocon PNAC agenda.

    If the “civilized west” is serious about defeating ISIL, why are they refusing to collaborate with the Syrian Govt also fighting against the criminal ISIL?

  7. Zachary Smith
    September 8, 2015 at 15:50

    Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad bears the first and most immediate responsibility for the present brutal civil war there.

    That’s the point where I stopped reading, and went to a word search of the essay.

    The term “neocon” did not turn up in my search, and neither did “Israel”.

    Israel badly wants to destroy Hezbollah, and to do that must first get rid of Syria. THEN the murderous and thieving little apartheid nation can steal the land and water to its north.

    A person would have supposed some version of this would have merited mention by a “former senior CIA official”.

  8. September 8, 2015 at 14:54

    there is always this naïve call for washington to scale back it’s war machine. it is necessary to ask the question, “why does washington spend so much on war and apparent charity. the answer is, washington can borrow all the currency it wants into existence. “how can it do this?” the federal reserve note is the global reserve currency. a nation that wants oil, must first borrow, or purchase federal reserve currency (important … the federal reserve bank is not federal, it is owned by private shareholders, for a profit of 6% of the interest paid to it by the u.s. treasury each year) because compliant petroleum exporting nations will only sell oil in federal reserve currency. those who will not comply, such as President Hussein, are black listed out of the market (i.e. “sanctions”). if said non-compliant nations attempt to accept other currencies (i.e. euro), they are quickly snuffed before others follow suit.
    “but why?”
    if any other currency will purchase oil, then the u.s. federal reserve currency loses it’s status as global reserve currency. it will lose it’s value, worth much less then presently. 6% of “much less” is far too little for the captains of finance and industry who choose the candidates on the u.s. election ballots. also, washington would be broke, the great depression would be a minor hiccup compared to the collapse of the federal reserve currency.
    washington scaling back it’s military presence across the globe, and ending wars of aggression on non-compliants … not going to happen.

  9. hammersmith
    September 8, 2015 at 14:09

    uuuuuh…I think that Israel-U.S. has already taken a shot at stabilizing the region–that did not work out so well/

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