By early September 2015, the UN announced that 7 million people had been displaced in Syria from a pre-war population of 22 million, with more than 4 million seeking safety outside Syria. Of those, 2.1 million Syrians were recorded by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and 1.9 million Syrians are estimated to have fled to Turkey according to the Turkish government. It is possible that the actual numbers, especially in Jordan and Lebanon, may be higher. Although these facts have been known for some time, the sudden increase in the influx of refugees from Syria and other conflict ridden regions (Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, etc.) caught Europe by surprise. With Greece and Italy as the main gates, most asylum seekers follow the so-called Balkan corridor through the Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria in an effort to reach Germany and other northern European countries. Countries of first entry, transit and final destination have been trying, rather unsuccessfully, to manage the refugee/migration flow.
The Schengen Agreement, one of Europe’s most tangible and widely recognizable achievements, is now faced with considerable, even existential challenges. The limited enthusiasm of several EU states (mainly in Eastern Europe but also on other parts of the continent), with the notable exceptions of Germany and Sweden (although the former already finds itself under tremendous pressure because of the large numbers of asylum seekers), to undertake any meaningful commitments in the context of a burden sharing agreement promoted by the European Commission, is once more testing the concept of a border free Europe, the limits of European solidarity and the idea of common European policies.
Although the migration debate should not become overtly securitized, there is an important security dimension as there is concern about radical individuals (jihadists) entering Europe disguised as refugees that complicates the situation even further at a time of increasing radicalization of societies and rising xenophobia and/or Islamophobia in many EU countries. Although the gradual integration of refugees/immigrants may have long-term beneficial consequences for several European countries facing the prospect of demographic decline (including Germany, but also Russia), the arrival of too many ‘guests’ in a relatively short period of time may be a significant challenge for social cohesion in a number of EU-member states. To make things even worse, the already high number of refugees and economic migrants is expected to increase in the not too distant future as large numbers of people, mainly in the developing world, may be forced to leave their homes as a result of climate change.
It is becoming, therefore, quite urgent that in addition to absolutely necessary migration management policies, the international community, and especially the EU, should focus its efforts on ending various conflicts as soon as possible. Syria – a failed state that threatens to destabilize neighboring countries, and especially Lebanon and Jordan, but also the wider region – is the obvious top priority. However, this will only be possible if Russia and Iran support an international initiative. The immediate objective should be the cessation of hostilities through the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, the creation of a provisional government for national unity with the participation of the more moderate elements of the Assad regime and the opposition and the beginning of the difficult process of reconstruction and reconciliation. To achieve this, a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council would be required. Such a decision would be the result of the immediate resumption of the Geneva-II negotiating process, with the participation of all involved parties, including both Russia and Iran.
Because the US will continue to perceive Asia as their main foreign policy priority, the EU, primarily affected by both the refugee crisis but also by general instability in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as from the continuing confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, should undertake the necessary diplomatic initiatives to prepare the groundwork for an agreement on Syria.
There are two options for reaching an understanding with Russia: (A) a big bargain and (B) find a success story, based on common interests (or common threats). In the latter case, Syria fits perfectly, as the spread of Islamic extremism is essentially a domestic concern for Russia and the two sides have good reasons for cooperation (including targeted cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies). However, as aggressive and unconstructive as Russia’s policy in Ukraine has been over the past two years (following a series of miscalculations by the West), we should not lose sight of the big picture and the extremely high stakes in the case of Syria. There are no guarantees, of course, that Russia will respond to such an opening by the EU, but President Putin has on several occasions proved to be pragmatic in his cost/benefit analysis. This may be his last opportunity to save a losing game in Syria and maintain a degree of Russian presence and influence in the eastern Mediterranean.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the additional arrivals in Europe (in comparison to 2014) have so far been “only” 230,000 people and that number has been sufficient to almost overwhelm even the most developed European country, Germany. There are several hundred thousands more Syrian refugees (in addition to people from other conflict regions) waiting to come to Europe if the circumstances allow. In addition to practical, short-term problems, the long-term consequences for social cohesion in several European countries may be difficult to imagine if the refugee flow continues unhindered.
This article was published on the website of Valdai Club.