It is my opinion that the civil war in Syria is the most important conflict going on in the world right now. In terms of deaths per year it tops the list for present day conflicts; and in terms of displacement of individuals it’s apparently topped the list for all time conflicts.
So, as you have surmised, that is the topic of today’s blog post. I’m not going to try to cover every facet of the issue and expect most of you have a fair idea of what’s going on in the first place, because I’m trying to shorten the length of my posts to a more manageable size. I’m going to focus on establishing what I feel could be a persuasive argument as to why the US and the EU should take as many refugees as possible; in doing so, I will attempt to establish a few other points – terrorism is bullshit, borders are bullshit, nationalism is bullshit, probably lots of other things are bullshit too.
Discussion of the conflict itself
So, even though I’m assuming y’all know the basics of what’s going on in Syria or even have advanced knowledge of the conflict, I’m going to explain at least my perspective on what’s going on.
Syria’s conflict is bad guys fighting bad guys fighting bad guys. Assad and his military are assholes, the majority of rebel groups with any power are assholes, and ISIS are assholes. The only controversial one there is the rebel groups. People try to glorify the rebels by bringing up atrocities committed by Assad, or defend them by saying that there’s many different groups and some are moderate.
Okay, yeah. There’s a ton of different groups in there. And yeah, Assad is a dick. I’m a firm believer that when you have an oppressive tyrannical government, you are justified in fighting against it. But not by any means necessary, no way no how. With the radical Islamists in the region, when you have a country like Syria enter into a civil war it’s immediately flooded with opportunistic militants and any hope of a peaceful settlement gets lost.
The rebel groups vary from the al-Nusra Front; the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, to the Free Syrian Army – primarily Syrian military members who defected against Assad, to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and more beyond counting, all with different goals and different sets of ideals. The US and various foreign countries have tried to reason that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups and we just have to find those and assist them. But it’s not that simple. For example, the media would often claim the Free Syrian Army is a moderate group and yet even back to the beginnings of the civil war they have committed numerous atrocities such as robbing towns they occupy of wheat reserves, forcing children to behead Syrian military men, eating the hearts of Syrian commanders, and countless other fucked up things.
Never mind the fact that for all we love to blame Assad, and yes he is unquestionably an evil asshole, rebel factions have also used chemical weapons against civilians and are responsible for a very large portion of the hundreds of thousands dead in Syria today. We even tried to create our own “moderate” rebel groups, training them and arming them – appropriating $500 million to the task of creating 5,400 rebels. Today we have only 4 or 5 members of the group left, no joke. The original group size ended up being way smaller than expected because they couldn’t find enough moderates to train in the first place – and then after that, the trainees were usually either killed or abandoned the mission, sometimes giving up large amounts of weaponry and ammunition to extremists.
Probably the group with the most legitimate claim to being moderate would be the good old Kurds. Everybody loves the Kurds. Well, at least, everybody in the West. But with the sheer amount of different conflicts, their own attempts to fight off ISIS and so forth, they are not going to be toppling Assad if that was even their goal. And flooding more weapons in has only added fuel to the fires of extremist militants in the region.
And it all kind of makes sense. Contrary to popular belief, “good guys” don’t usually run around with guns murdering people. When you have a conflict as complex, many-sided and downright bloody as the Syrian civil war, it’s simply not the kind of place that moderate groups that follow ethical codes are going to be able to survive. It’s not the place for anybody except killers to survive. So everyone is leaving! In the millions and millions, Syrians are getting the fuck out because there is no good that can come out of this war. Even if Assad was toppled, chances are whoever toppled him would end up even more dictatorial than he was. Or the spreading plague of ISIS will win primacy in the region and then everyone’s just fucked.
What could we have done?
I’m not a military expert but I know of no possible military action in Syria that could end what’s going on. And as much as we love to put blame on our leaders, it’s hard to imagine what we could have done that really would have stopped it.
I have always been outspoken and firmly anti-war and anti-US involvement in foreign countries militaristically. From the days as a kid protesting the Iraq war before I even knew what it was about. I wasn’t always informed about the issues but my gut reaction was always “US Stay out of it!” – In fact, it was one of the biggest factors that drove me to become a libertarian when I started learning about things myself. When I was younger I considered myself a radical liberal. Under Bush, I always saw liberals as being the doves, the voices for peace against the Republican warmongers. Then Obama got elected, and foreign wars continued and drone warfare continued and intervention continued, only this time liberals suddenly were into it. Like as soon as we had a democrat in the White House, foreign intervention was some kind of necessary evil, and Obama was just doing what he had to do. That was the first big thing that clued me on to the hypocrisy of modern politics and made me realize I might not belong in that group.
But today, as someone who’s been staunchly libertarian particularly in regards to foreign affairs for years, I have to say Syria is one area that has made me question my beliefs. Now I’m not saying military involvement in Syria is a good idea. Definitely not at this point. But there’s a certain level of intentional ignorance that comes with saying “foreign intervention = bad! Stay out of the middle east!” – mostly, I feel this way because that’s how I initially reacted to the Syria crisis. My whole thing was like, whenever we go into the Middle East, we fuck things up worse than they were before. And it’s true, for the most part. ISIS would probably not even exist today if not for the massive power vacuum left in Iraq after our involvement there. An obscene amount of radical Islamism today would never have even happened if the countries of the West hadn’t done such a shit job carving up regions for their own benefit after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. So on, and so forth.
But in looking at Syria as “just another war in the Middle East,” I initially failed to recognize the actual scale of the conflict and what the consequences of letting it go have been. It’s possible that swift, decisive action by the US military early on in the war, like back in 2011 or 2012 even, could have done a lot to alleviate the tensions. I know that sounds imperialistic. But honestly, earlier on in the war there was a far better chance of “moderate” groups actually being moderate. Extremism thrived under the ongoing conflict, and the inability of the rebels to make significant headway against Assad. If they had been able to succeed and end the conflict early on, maybe things could have been better. Maybe if we had struck harder negotiations with Assad we could have signaled to the rebels that the international community was on their side, and they wouldn’t have been as susceptible to co-opting by radical forces.
But on the other hand, who the fuck knows. We could just as well have installed a military dictatorship worse than Assad’s, or been as ineffectual as we are today. All I’m saying is, there’s no right answer to what’s gone on. We can’t just say stay out of it, but we can’t just go in and do whatever we think will work, because it probably won’t.
What can we do now?
Related to the conflict? Nothing. Honestly no idea what we could possibly do to end the conflict. Hopefully someone smart will come up with something and end up somewhere in power, but I doubt it. Perhaps it will come to an end with time. It’s honestly such a mess now, with so many Western forces involved, with Russia, with Iran – numerous competing foreign interests, not to mention the radical Islamist interests, all competing in one circle pit of violence. And as much as it may seem justified to perform airstrikes or drone strikes to take out terrorist targets – all of these things compound for the people living there. Whatever the intentions are, or even the results, it doesn’t change the fact that for the people living there, bombs striking their homes ruin their lives just as ISIS taking their neighborhoods does.
But what we can do and SHOULD do is to alleviate the fallout. Millions of people are fleeing the civil war in Syria, and violent conflicts across the world. Most developed nations have the ability to handle these refugees, at least a portion of them.
When I say that I mean the US, the EU, Canada, Australia, South American countries, East Asian countries, neighboring Middle Eastern countries, Eastern European countries. Everyfucking place can take refugees in.
What are the arguments against? Typically the arguments I have seen, many of which on their face have legitimacy, go as follows; 1. There’s no easy way to tell if there are ISIS members or other terrorists disguising themselves as refugees, and accepting them all leaves these countries open to the spread of terrorism; 2. Many countries are having difficulty staying afloat economically with their current circumstances, and adding in waves of new refugees would potentially put their economies in a further downward spiral; 3. Countries have borders for a reason, and are only responsible to the caretaking of their own public.
As I said, on their face there is some legitimacy to some of these arguments. First, addressing the idea of the spread of terrorism. Essentially, it makes sense to imagine that out of the millions of refugees fleeing Syria, even a tiny amount of them being terrorists means that you’re letting terrorists in. If you accept waves of refugees, you’re not really going to be able to rely much on travel documentation, and thus even the strictest policies will have trouble distinguishing between who’s a terrorist and who’s not. And so the argument goes, once you accept these waves of refugees without properly vetting them, ISIS militants will spread to the EU and to the US and spark further terrorist attacks in those countries.
There’s a few problems I have with this. First off, it’s simply not the goal of the vast majority of radical Islamist groups to spread into Western countries. ISIS’ goal is to set up their own caliphate in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria. They aren’t just randomly running around blowing things up, they are intentionally claiming territory and running their own system of governance in those territories. They have no chance whatsoever of claiming physical territory or extending the boundaries of their control in developed, Western countries that have no ongoing armed conflicts. If ISIS militants tried to set up territory in the US, just think about how fast they would get dismantled and destroyed by the US forces; SWAT, FBI, CIA, the military, Homeland Security. We’re a gigantic police state which collects massive amounts of data on every member of this country. How the fuck would any terrorist group establish a legitimate presence here?
That isn’t to say that there couldn’t be random acts of terrorism which wouldn’t still take a death toll, but it’s highly unlikely. After all, tens of thousands of the people in ISIS specifically left their home countries like the US, Canada, and various parts of the EU in order to serve the cause. That means we have terrorists leaving to go join ISIS. Any number of those thousands of people could theoretically be enacting random acts of terrorism in the US if that were their goal. It’s not. The truth is, even among groups like al-Qaeda, directly fighting Western countries has never been the goal. I highly recommend you check out this series on the rise of the politics of fear. Since the beginning of the rise of terror groups, the primary actions undertaken have been to gain fear and control over other Muslims. Even the attack of 9/11 was a freak occurrence – Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden conducted a fringe attack, with very little support from other groups, in order to pull in Western forces to expand anti-Western sentiment and empower terrorist organizations. In the fifteen years we’ve been fighting a war on terror since then, there’s been virtually nothing on US soil (Boston Marathon was a freak occurrence – being struck by lightning is a bigger concern).
So that is all to say that there is no risk of terrorism taking a widespread hold in any of these countries. The countries at most risk are those near to the region – Turkey, for example, has some reason to be fearful of the crossing of ISIS militants into it’s borders, though I still highly doubt that it would ultimately fall to such forces. This is also an important issue there because there is conflict going on with the Turkish military and Kurdish militants like the PKK, and growing tension between the Kurdish population as a whole. ISIS has also reportedly conducted a small amount of attacks there, which may very well rise. But even the little action that has been taken there is marginal when you consider they’ve taken in 1.9 million refugees.
The threat of the spread of ISIS is a legitimate threat when it comes to neighboring countries of Iraq and Syria, and those with power vacuums or armed conflicts going on. It’s not a threat to the UK. It’s not a threat to France. It’s not a threat to the US. In my opinion, the greatest danger terrorism poses here in the US is in our own reaction to it. By that I mean – if even a small terrorist attack happens on US soil, our civil liberties have a good chance of being trampled by politicians scrambling to get more information on American citizens, more control over international travel, and so forth. But even that isn’t going to do it for me. You can’t look at the families of people drowning in the ocean trying to escape a wartorn country and seriously tell them they can’t come to the ‘land of the free’ because if they do and a terrorist attack just happens to happen, the government might collect more phone records which it already does. We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. If our civil liberties are threatened, we can fight to defend them. And after all, the NSA still collects all this damn information about us. If they’re going to trample over our rights in search of terrorists, then at least there’ll be something for them to accomplish if ISIS or other terrorists do come over alongside the refugees.
And still. The sheer amount of people living in refugee camps or living nowhere at all, the sheer impact of the suffering they are having to endure, outweighs any marginal risks of terrorism or government overreach in my eyes. We can’t stabilize Syria, but we can offer a place to stay for millions of people who’s only option is to flee it.
Second – economic. At first it sounds reasonable to say hey, Greece’s economy is collapsing; how are they supposed to provide for all of these refugees? But there’s a couple things to keep in mind. First, economic downturns are not the same as collapsing. And yes, Greece might not be the best equipped to handle refugees. But the United States, Germany, the UK, France, etc are. You don’t have to have a perfect economy. Nowhere has a perfect economy. We’ve all got government debt, unemployment, inequality, blah blah.
But the foundational argument that the government is there to ‘provide’ for anybody is a misleading one. It’s not as if the government pays for people to live. Refugees and immigrants aren’t asking for handouts. They’re asking for a place to live, a place to work, a place to contribute to. This is the same line of argumentation about how immigrants “took yer jabs!” – they don’t. Syrian refugees encompass individuals from all levels of skills and education. Immigration, contrary to popular belief, is actually a pretty fucking sweet thing for the economy. They start up businesses and employ others. They work jobs that generally many privileged Americans are too bitchy to take (Mexican immigrants with the agriculture industry, for example). They contribute to taxes, and usually actually rely less on government handouts than natural born citizens. While it’s true that refugees from a wartorn country are coming in with no wealth and are going to have a harder time immediately settling in to the economy, in the long term I really do not believe that accepting immigrants or refugees from anywhere in the world would damage our economy. If you don’t believe me, there is strong economic research to support these ideas. I firmly believe that strict border enforcement and immigration control is one of the greatest myths and tragedies of modern nationalism, and it’s fucking disgusting tragedy that there are 11 million individuals living in this country that have not yet been given citizenship. (Unrelated in a way – yes. Give them citizenship, and give citizenship to the refugees too.)
Let people the fuck in. Fuck your borders. Especially when they have nowhere else to go.
This ties into the third and final main argument I want to address about why we shouldn’t let people in. The idea that nations only have a responsibility for their own people, or that outsiders don’t matter as much. This argument isn’t usually expressly stated, but it’s certainly implied or subconsciously supported by a lot of people and politicians. The reason I say this is it’s a simple matter if you look at things. Whether a Syrian person is suffering or an American person is suffering makes no god damn difference even if you are an American. If 3,000 Americans die in a terrorist attack it does not matter more than 100,000s of thousands of Syrians dying in war. There are an estimated 60 million people displaced in the world today, a record high. Of course, many of those are displaced within their own countries and certainly not all of them are seeking refuge. But the fact remains that there are millions of refugees from various countries without anywhere to go. The European Union is squabbling over plans to let in a few thousand. The US might take in a few thousand.
What the fuck is that. If there were millions of American citizens out of their homes, we would not even be talking about plans to house 10,000 of them. Bring in hundreds of thousands! Maybe stagger it so you don’t bring in a million people all at once, okay. There are dozens and dozens of countries that could all take in hundreds of thousands of refugees and, spread out over all of them. Turkey has 1.9 million Syrian refugees! Lebanon has 1.2 million, approximately 1/5th of it’s population! Germany has stated they plan to take in 800,000. Does someone seriously want to tell me that the United States, with a population of over 300 million and a fucking gigantic swath of land, can’t take in a million Syrian refugees? That the UK can’t take in 500,000? That Japan can’t? That Brazil can’t? That we can’t provide somewhere to live for the hundreds of thousands of people risking dying at sea to get somewhere safe?
It sounds like pure idealism, and maybe it is. But it’s honestly fucking bullshit that we sit back and talk about taking in 10,000 refugees instead of 2,000 refugees over the course of a YEAR. An entire YEAR and we’re going to take in 10,000? The above article talks about how we took in hundreds of thousands of refugees during the Vietnam war each year. Did that destroy our country? Has our country not been enriched and improved by the substantial Vietnamese populations that came here? Are we so fucking paralyzed by the bullshit fear that surrounds 9/11 that we can’t for a second consider the lives of people outside of our own borders? I’m going to sound like an edgy anti-patriotic fedora-wearer here, but this country needs to get the fuck over 9/11 and the sooner we can do that the better for everyone.