Wednesday

7th Dec 2022

Analysis

Europe should stop wars instead of refugees

  • Refugees leaving Aleppo, Syria, during government bombardment in 2016. Now, in 2020, the same is happening in Idlib (Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail)

The Syrian regime of president Bashar al-Assad has again started bombing schools and hospitals in Idlib, the last rebel-controlled area in Syria.

Schools and hospitals are not "collateral damage" during air attacks. They are targeted by purpose in order to hit the population as hard as possible, to discourage it as soon as possible and to make them leave the country with as many people as possible.

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I noticed this already in 2013 when I visited Azaaz, a town north of Aleppo.

Two days before my arrival, the market place was destroyed by two Scud rockets, and this on the busiest market day. No wonder the attack mostly killed women and children.

I also saw how the regime bombed bakeries, in order to deprive the population of bread, followed by schools and hospitals.

It were these kind of targeted attacks that pushed people to migrate massively, the consequence of a very deliberate strategy to break the resistance and to flood neighbouring countries and Europe with refugees.

This strategy was combined with cynical propaganda. Assad accused everyone who protested or took up arms to defend his or her family to be terrorists.

As no one believed him, he decided to help create a terrorist organisation: Jabhat al-Nusra.

Today Nusra still exists and is strong in Idlib, where its fighters were brought by busses of the Syrian regime after the total destruction of Aleppo. Their presence gives Syria and Russia a valid excuse now to destroy Idlib too.

Where are the democrats in Syria?

There have been several moments since 2011 where the West could have ended the war in Syria, or at least halt it, and could have avoided much suffering and destruction.

In 2012 some people called for a no-fly zone above the rebel-controlled areas in north and south Syria.

When that idea was put on the table during a meeting of the Friends of Syria in Istanbul, with many European countries present, nobody was against it - but also no one wanted to help enforce it, except for Turkey.

They equally refused to arm the moderated rebels out of fear that those arms would end up in the hands of terrorists. And so, nothing happened.

It is sometimes forgotten that the organised Syrian opposition, as well as the Free Syrian Army were endorsing a secular, diverse and democratic Syria. But the West decided to do nothing.

When, in August 2013, then US president Barack Obama decided not to carry out the air attacks after Assad crossed the so-called "red line" by using chemical weapons against the civil population, the democratic resistance collapsed and created the space for Isis and other terrorist organisations to fill.

The bombardments, combined with the terror of Isis, created the largest movement of refugees for many decades.

Have we learned lessons?

Today there are three "fronts" where Europe could do something, in order to avoid something worse.

First of all, Europe should give more support to Turkey and what it is trying to do in Idlib.

Turkey already hosts 3.5m Syrian refugees. The barbaric bombardment of the Assad regime, supported by Russia, has pushed another million refugees to its border. Expecting Turkey to take all the burden on its shoulders is unfair, to say the least.

On top of that, Turkey is trying to stop a massacre in Idlib. If Europe would stand behind Turkey, the Syrian regime would have no other option than to stop its attacks.

One option could be to finally install the no-fly zone it hesitated to support for years.

The second front where Europe could have done and still can do more is Libya. After Nato, with UN permission, carried out air attacks to avoid a genocide in Benghazi, it should have stayed there.

Some Libyans (not all) had asked for this, as they knew that after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was not much of a country anymore.

When I visited Tripoli several times in 2012, I noticed there was no police and no army to avoid possible conflicts.

Libya also asked Europe for urgent help with the organisation of border controls, well knowing that the Sahara is a highway for trafficking arms and humans. But that help too came too late.

For the past few weeks, European military vessels are guarding Libyan waters in order to enforce the arms embargo. However, the delivery of arms just continues over land.

The main reason for Europe's powerlessness is the disagreement between France and Italy over large Libyan oil contracts.

The German mediation deserves appraisal, but it hasn't succeeded in pressuring Libyan and international warring parties sufficiently. As long as the European Union is divided, the small world war in Libya will never be solved.

Isis will be back

A third front where doing nothing is more dangerous than actually doing something, is the self-declared Islamic State. All experts agree Isis will come back. Moreover, Isis never really disappeared in Syria and Iraq, where it gains ground thanks to the enduring chaos.

In Libya, too, there are still a few hundred Isis fighters. In each one of these countries they follow the same strategy as in 2014, before the Caliphate was announced.

Fighters hide in many different villages in order to resurface together and then suddenly occupy an entire region. The more Isis fighters there are, the larger and stronger the new Islamic State will be.

The duty of Europe is clear: it has to take back as many of its Isis fighters as possible from Syria and Iraq and bring them to justice in their own country.

To spread European Isis fighters across many European prisons is many times less dangerous than just leaving them in the Middle East.

Doing something about the current and future wars in the Middle East and North Africa, is doing something about the causes of the refugee problem.

It might seem more risky than just sending vessels or closing borders, but on the longer term it will make both regions around the Mediterranean a better place to live.

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