Tag Archives: syria

The EU gets it wrong on migration.

JR Max Wheel

9 September 2015

Act in haste, repent at leisure. The EU approach to migration and its management has proved to be mistaken, muddled and inadequate. Mainstream media has played its part in a near hysterical campaign to galvanize member states into reaction as the near endless stream of unfortunates turned into a flood, flowing out of a variety of countries. Naturally the focus has largely been on Syria’s ghastly civil war and its homeless victims, many of whom can no longer sustain themselves between the twin evils of ISIS and the Assad regime. The West’s response post Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan has been unsurprisingly meek and unimaginative: a mix of Special Forces’ activities, localized bombing and drone strikes. This is both a real civil war and a proxy one played out between Syrian factions, and  its role as a  client state of Russia, Iran and opposed by the Saudis and others. The policy failures are numerous and dire, some go back well beyond the Assad regime and the century old post-war settlements for Syria and Iraq: it is easy to criticize but these were disparate provinces under the Ottomans, so re-drawing maps was never going to be easy or fair to the mix of regions, and ethnicities.


We now know that the flow is made up of refugees from all parts, migrants from the Balkans, Eritrea, Libya and the Sahel. The only common factor is the desire to escape at near any cost. This is not entirely a new problem as the Italian coast guard knows – they have been fielding this problem for years as migrant boats have sunk or washed up on Lampedusa, Sicily and on the Greek Islands as the broken Greek (and EU) border system struggles to cope. Choke points have also existed in Menton and Calais (hardly recent). Europe, in the form of the EU is seen as a both a safe refuge and a chance to make a new start; it is also a source of a safety net in the shape of EU country benefits systems, which if they are to work require a serious degree of control. The EU’s much vaunted four freedoms,  of people, capital, goods and services are now becoming a ball and chain since they were designed for a different world, one where there was less impact from globalisation and mass movement. The EU is not a nation-state, no matter how many might have that aspiration and is unlikely to become one anytime soon. Nonetheless the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker has announced emergency measures which impose a compulsory quota scheme on its member states: this overrides national parliaments and has already produced a backlash in former Central Europe, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics. Many EU countries are already suffering high levels of youth unemployment, high debts and considerable economic pressures. True these may be nothing when compared to the suffering of the migrants, but they set up a potential clash of cultures. Reaction from Central Europe is unsurprising given an historical clash with the Ottoman Empire. There is likely to be little cultural cohesion, or comprehension in host countries. Most bizarre of all has been the reaction of Germany, which has committed to take some 800,000; at one level this is a simple re-balancing of an ageing population, in which case why not have an organized system to select those who can assimilate or have necessary skills. Or is its action an identity crisis driven by Germany’s problematic past? Whatever the motives and in part it has to be seen in providing some relief to the hard pressed Greeks and Italians, this sends a signal that Europe’s borders are open. Indeed they appear to be, since neither the Dublin Agreements nor Frontex systems provide an adequate external border system. Once inside there is a heartless and cynical movement between countries as migrants are allowed or encouraged to travel under the Schengen agreement- the free movement of people, (viewed as sacrosanct) to the country of choice.

Chart showing UK migration over time

Courtesy of the BBC

This is a hopeless system and needs urgent overhaul. Britain, so long a major contributor via foreign aid has been pilloried for failing to commit to take more. This is to ignore the net economic migration from both non EU and EU sources over the last ten years, which is well over three million. This too is unsustainable. The perception is that Britain is both contrary and mean-minded, neither is true as the generosity of Britons to nearly any natural catastrophe testifies. Cameron is right to stress that this is a crisis that demands engagement of the head and the heart. It will be hard to maintain a semblance of EU unity if it remains rule by diktat.


UK. Decline & Fall

JR Max Wheel

3rd. September 2013

The shock defeat of the UK Government’s Commons motion to intervene in Syria seems to have unnerved the political classes in the UK and the US. In its watered down format, it was not even seeking explicit approval to act. Public sentiment is against involvement as it is largely in the US and much of the EU. Any action is mainly symbolic, the supposed upholding of international law against a regime that appears to have little or nil restraint, although evidence, as always in war zones, is not conclusive. This is again ultimately a judgement call, The UN inspection regime is positively glacial and its leadership seems to have little urgency or guidance, nor will it do more than confirm the use of chemical weapons, without attribution as to who used them, which explains the impatience in the US. Another impending tragedy is the mass displacement of Syrian people, now estimated to be over 2m and more within its borders. Where is the UN urgency in driving a resolution to this regional mess, whether in Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq?

None of this standoff should actually be a surprise, as these issues stretch way back beyond the second Iraq War, Afghanistan and Britain’s now exhausted military, hobbled by poor long-term decision-taking and budget cuts. The historical trail leads at least back to the Great War settlement of Versailles, when the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire produced a plethora of double-dealing and confusion, especially from the French and British, all overseen by a still naive United States. As with many bad deals worked out by the “Great Powers” Versailles provided a succession of them in the Middle East, whose malign consequences are alive and well today. Palestine, the foundation of Israel, the frustrated cause of Arab nationalism and the division of Syria into pieces, part Lebanon, part Jordan and part old Syria. Its borders were arbitrary and its citizens an unholy mix of Druze, Alawite, Sunni, Shia, Christians and Jews. The Ba’ath party itself, a messy concoction of pan-Arabism and socialist and secular ideals flourished in both Iraq and Syria, but its idealism became rapidly splintered into factionalism. Unsurprisingly in the collapse of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria, power passed to the Army in 1963 and then finally with the Assad coup of 1970, the rise of a tyrant, enshrining the new regime in a near one party State.  Syria under Assad Senior was a formidable and brutal mix of repression, nepotism and corruption, with the army involved in all aspects of Syrian life.

Much as in Iraq, the power vacuum resulting from removal of a demagogue creates the ideal conditions for the spree of reprisal killing and sectarian violence that marked the toppling of Saddam Hussein; a similar fate is equally likely in any post war Syria. The Assad dynasty aided and abetted by Russia, by supply of modern firepower is a cynical regional power ploy with Putin playing the same game of Great Power politics. Throw into this heady mix, regional meddling by the Iranian theocracy, an international extreme jihadist movement spread through the Maghreb, Yemen and beyond and it is easy to see why this is such an intractable and toxic brew. Trying to impose principles of international law or even curtailing the Syrian Government’s capability to inflict further misery on its people is a triumph of hope over experience. Whatever the “West” does will always have echoes of an imperialist past. Trying to bomb dictatorships to the negotiating table does not have a great record of success anywhere. The regional powers lined up are also in anything but their more normal configuration. Thus while Egypt has abstained; Turkey, Israel, most of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are aligned against Assad, whilst Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Qatar are against direct action.

Britain has seemingly now decided that it will not act, despite French agreement to do so. Whilst unusual, it may represent a more realistic assessment of our actual military capabilities as well as a more thoughtful approach to what happens next.  Whether or not the US and allies succeed in gaining any meaningful advantage from a proposed degrading of Syria’s capacity for war is disputed even by many in the US military, who rail at the naivety of more political posturing. Shades of 1919, a proxy regional war led by superpowers, couched  in the specious name of upholding a worthy principle, but likely to bring anything but peace.