The first large wave of Syrian refugees came over the border to Turkey in early June 2011, over four years ago. At the time, in what was still the exuberant first months of what we have long since stopped calling the Arab Spring, the media described what was going on there as “the Syria protests” and the news of the massacre carried out by President Bashar Assad’s troops in the town of Jisr al-Shughour was still being treated with some skepticism. As the first few thousand refugees stole over the border and were given shelter by the Turkish Red Crescent, it didn’t seem believable that they would have to wait long to go back home. The families picking out tents were still speaking with their relatives left behind, with the mobile phones on which they showed me and other reporters pictures of soldiers burning fields and tanks shelling the town center. The men were still smoking Syrian cigarettes they had brought with them. Return was a question of when, not if.
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The dictators of Tunisia and Egypt had already been toppled. In Libya, Muammar Gadhafi’s strongholds were falling and an international coalition had been formed to help the rebels there from the air. The Syrian refugees beginning to cross over into Turkey, and then Lebanon and Jordan, were the first witnesses to the unbridled bloodshed taking place. It was a stark picture - civilians were being slaughtered wholesale by an autocratic regime and the world surely would not stand by.
Over four years later, there are more than four million Syrians who have fled the civil war. Most are still waiting, in forlorn hope in the neighboring countries. But a relatively small proportion of them, tens of thousands for now, have traveled to Europe, anxious for new lives away from the degradation of camps like Zaatari in northern Jordan, where 80,000 humans huddle in despair on a desolate plain, forbidden to work and continue their lives. As helpless as the Syrian refugees appear to Western eyes, those arriving in Europe tend to be the stronger ones - those who escaped with a bit of cash to pay smugglers for crowded berths in leaky boats and purchase train tickets in stations that have overnight been transformed into transit camps.
Four years and four million people into the tragedy of the Syrian refugees, the West is finally paying notice as they come out of the sea onto holiday beaches and thronging around railway carriages. In Europe the stream of Syrians is merging with another river of human misery arriving across the Mediterranean from Africa: more refugees from war-torn, repressive countries like Libya, Eritrea and others. Suddenly, as they’re disrupting vacations, delaying trains and causing traffic jams, they have become Europe’s problem.
Awakening from summer stupor
The description of 71 people suffocated in a chicken van abandoned at the side of a road in Austria, the image of a small boy in a red shirt, blue shorts and his shoes still, lying drowned at the edge of the water on a Turkish beach, have finally woken the continent from its summer stupor and thrown it into an unseemly squabble between governments over border controls and migration quotas and political posturing within countries. The desperation of the refugees, the clear danger that faces them back home which made them cross deserts and treacherous seas, should be proof enough they are not jihadis in disguise, but regular men and women, many with their families, who will be grateful for shelter and an opportunity to work hard. Western European countries have the jobs and an aging population less capable or willing to fill low-paying positions, but instead of doing the right thing by the refugees, some of these countries, particularly Britain, which is arguably in the best position to integrate tens of thousands into its workforce, is stonewalling.
Prime Minister David Cameron, facing a xenophobic media, anti-immigration members of his own party and the United Kingdom Independence Party rival on his right, has refused to take in more than a thousand refugees. (So far Britain has taken in less than third that number.) Instead of challenging Britons’ misperceptions of the “threat” posed by the refugees, he prefers playing it safe.
Not that his opponents on the left, who are belatedly beginning to call for a more liberal policy towards refugees, have much right to lecture him. Two years ago, they foiled in parliament Cameron’s proposal to join the United States and France in a joint strike on the Assad regime, following the dictator’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb. But children who were gassed to death in Ghouta are more easily ignored by the moralizing left than those who turn up drowned and suffocated on Europe’s doorstep.
The media has contrasted Britain’s behavior with the much more hospitable reception awaiting the refugees in Germany, both from the authorities and the wide public. Some have even pointed out the historical irony of how 80 years ago, it was Britain that was (begrudgingly) sheltering Jews and other refugees fleeing persecution in Germany, and now the roles have been reversed.
But while Germany is to be commended for putting out the welcome mat, what goes unmentioned is the fact that as one of the few countries with any diplomatic and commercial leverage over Syria’s two backers, Russia and Iran, it has refrained from using that power to try and bring Assad’s blood-soaked reign to an end. No amount of warmth towards the refugees can cover the shame of countries like Germany that have not intervened with Russia and Iran to prevent them from supplying Assad with arms, military advisers and, in Hizbullah, his most able fighters on the ground. Every death in Syria is underwritten in Cyrillic and Persian and those who remain silent are complicit. Including Germany.
But as frustrated European diplomats say off-record, how can you blame us when America is doing nothing?
Some are calling the Syrian tragedy “Obama’s Rwanda,” but the comparison is shoddy. The Clinton administration failed to respond in time to the genocide of the Tutsis. But at least there was the excuse that by the time a dysfunctional international community had a clear idea in 1994 what was happening and could begin formulating a coherent response, most of the bloodshed had already taken place. Barack Obama has no such excuse. This crisis has been unfolding for two thirds of his time in the White House. It’s his watch, his inaction, his legacy.
A year ago this week, American journalist Steven Sotloff was executed on camera by ISIS. The beheading of a small number of Westerners finally galvanized the Americans and other nations to begin a limited air campaign against Daesh, mainly in Iraq. Without detracting from the vicious sectarian murders carried out by ISIS, it has become a useful diversion for the lack of action against the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers, who have caused countless more deaths and millions more refugees than those who have fled Islamic State’s caliphate.
Israel joins world in dock
Where is Israel in all this? Shamefully, for a nation of refugees, we are sitting in the dock with the rest of world, complicit in the abandonment of Syria’s people. Prudently perhaps, it kept out of the Syrian civil war, but behind the scenes, Benjamin Netanyahu was lobbying other leaders not to supply weapons to the Syrian rebels, for fear of them reaching the hands of jihadists. Whether or not this precaution made sense, it was reversed mid-course when Israel realized that Syria, at least the parts still under Assad’s control, was little more than an Iranian protectorate. The field hospital for wounded Syrians on the Golan was used for PR purposes, while serving also as a convenient method of keeping tabs on the rebels across the border. Doing anything beyond that to help refugees, like creating a safe zone, has barely been considered. Israel is as cynically blinkered as the rest of the world when it comes to Syria.
While Europe is grappling with its conscience over its refugee crisis, we still have our own in south Tel Aviv. No more than a trickle of African refugees from Eritrea and Sudan has come over from Sinai since the fence was completed three years ago, but the 45,000 refugees still here are denied any basic status as humans. They all speak Hebrew by now, know our ways and can be useful additions to the workforce. But none of our politicians are ready for the thankless task of confronting Israel’s unique schizophrenia - the conviction that because we were once the refugees of the world, denied any sanctuary, we can’t share the world’s shame over denying others.