The photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi who drowned along with his 5-year-old brother and their mother during his family’s failed bid to flee civil war-torn Syria to Europe has pricked the world’s conscience. Partly in response to the global outcry over the refugee issue, Germany and Austria have opened their borders to accept more refugees from the Middle East.
Yet other European countries are still reluctant to take in the refugees. While France and Germany hope to “fairly divide” the refugees throughout the European Union, the Czech Republic and Poland say they are not responsible for the Middle East crisis and refuse to accept their share. The Czech and Polish governments blame the United States’ Middle East policy for the crisis and demand that it take responsibility for it.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a White House spokesperson has admitted that “it’s a genuine tragedy”, but said the US has no plans to take in Syrian refugees.
It was the US and its allies that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, intensified conflicts in the Middle East leading to the “Arab Spring”, “triggered” the civil war in Libya in February 2011 and egged armed groups to take on the Syrian government in July 2011 that led to the civil war. As the civil war showed no signs of ending, the US adopted a new “pivot to Asia” and left the Syrians and Libyans to their fate. It also withdrew troops from Iraq, handing over the reins of security to an untrained Iraqi military.
As a result of the chaos and power vacuum created by the US withdrawal from Iraq and the civil war in Syria, several extremist religious groups rushed in to the two countries, with the largest of them being the utterly violent Islamic State. The Syrian civil war has already claimed more than 220,000 lives, forced 2.5 million people to seek refuge in other countries and made millions more homeless.
Yet a peaceful solution to the Middle East conundrum was not impossible. China had suggested a political solution: Syrians should be allowed to decide their future through political means. But the US made the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a prerequisite to political negotiations, which ended the negotiation bid even before it started.
Restoring peace in Syria now is impossible without the elimination of IS in Iraq as well. The US has been carrying out air strikes on IS targets for a year, yet the extremist outfit shows no signs of collapsing, because only a concerted ground attack from Syria-Iraq border can end the IS menace. And though the IS cannot be defeated without the Syrian government’s cooperation, political interests are stopping the US from seeking it.
Last month, after meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed a new political settlement plan for Syria and forming a broader coalition, which would include the Syrian government forces, Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces, to fight the IS. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi supported the plan during his recent visit to Russia.
And on Sept 4, at a press conference on Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s visit to the US, President Barack Obama expressed concern over the Syrian crisis and said the two leaders would talk about how to end it. One day before that, in response to reports that Russia might launch air strikes on IS targets, the White House welcomed “Russian support and contribution” to the-US coalition against the extremist outfit, but warned that, “any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose … is both destabilizing and counterproductive”.
It seems all sides are making efforts to eliminate the IS but still differ on how it could be done best. Let’s hope they settle their differences soon, because as long as chaos continues in Syria and Iraq, more refugees will flee to Europe.
The author is China’s former ambassador to Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Algeria, and a councilor at a thinktank on Middle East studies, Shanghai International Studies University.
(China Daily 09/09/2015 page9)