Corporealism XIX: Body Politics in the Middle East
Weaponizing Refugees Part I
Today’s blog deals with “the weaponization of refugees.” This is an aside, but is relevant to the point I want to make about Canadian defence and foreign policy and the recent radical shift in Canadian policy where Canada has deliberately accepted a challenge to resettle a significant number of Syrian refugees to help play a part in easing the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.
In that context and in the context of my writings on the Middle East, I received an e-mail from a CBC researcher/journalist asking if I was available to go on the Current, CBC’s morning current affairs show, on Thursday to discuss General Phillip Breedlove’s contention that the West had to develop a coherent policy about the “weaponization of refugees.” Breedlove is NATO’s top commander in Europe. I was not available because of a prior commitment which I could not change. This blog, hopefully, will serve somewhat as a substitute.
The phrase “weaponization of refugees.” has three different meanings. One interpretation of that phrase is about Daesh sending trained fifth columnists hidden among the refugees flooding into Europe (the returnee problem) as well as recruiting from alienated believers in Islam from among the dispirited refugees as well, presumably, from alienated Islamic youth raised in Europe. A second meaning refers to the militarization of refugees in camps which are used for raids on the country from which they fled. The camps are used for many purposes, including R&R for militants, before launching another attack. Armed refugee camps usually de-stabilize the country in which they are located as well continue violence along the border of the country from which they fled. Sarah Kenyon Lischer produced an excellent report for the Mellon Foundation on militarized refugee populations using the refugees from former Yugoslavia as a case study.
However, there is another meaning – the use of coerced migration itself to sow discord among other countries aside from the countries of first asylum. Philip Breedlove issued a warning in his oral testimony before the U.S. Armed Services Senate Committee last week (1 March 2016) claiming that Russia and Syria were using the pressure of massive numbers of refugees to disrupt the West, sow discord and division in Europe and weaken the Western alliance. NATO’s 28 member military defence alliance of Western nations. Given his status, Breedlove’s claim must be granted an initial credence. So his claim cannot be easily discounted as that of a crackpot.
The claim was made in his oral presentation and was not part of his written submission. I believe the written contentions are unassailable. In that written submission, he took up the issue of the first meaning of the “weaponization of refugees”, the seeding of terrorists from the refugee population flooding Europe and the recruitment of new members from susceptible youth. Breedlove pointed to three dangers. First, the threat of recruitment. “There is a concern that criminals, terrorists, foreign fighters and other extremist organizations will recruit from the primarily Muslim populations arriving in Europe, potentially increasing the threat of terrorist attacks.” Second, there is the threat from the backlash. “[L]ocal nationalists opposed to a large-scale influx of foreigners could become increasingly violent, building on the small number of attacks against migrant and refugee housing observed to date.”
Third, there are native-born and/or raised Islamicist extremists who volunteered to serve in Syria and have returned with military experience, training and enhanced ideological beliefs. “Foreign terrorist fighters remain a key concern for EUCOM and our foreign partners. Over 25,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to enlist with Islamist terrorist groups, including at least 4,500 Westerners. Terrorist groups such as ISIL and Syria’s al-Nusra Front (ANF) remain committed to recruiting foreigners, especially Westerners, to participate in the ongoing Syrian conflict. The ability of many of these Europe-originated foreign fighters to return to Europe or the U.S. makes them ideal candidates to conduct or inspire future terrorist attacks.”
However, a main thrust of his oral presentation focused on the third meaning of the “weaponization of refugees.” What were his arguments? At its core, it is simple. Russia in alliance with Syria is deliberately forcing Syrians into becoming refugees. The two countries are doing this with only one single purpose in mind – not to get rid of supporters of the opposition to the Syrian regime, not simply to expunge other minorities at odds with the Alawite-dominated regime, but to weaken Europe, to send massive and continuous waves of refugees fleeing westward. In their desperation for security, for safely, for shelter, for food, for medical treatment, refugees will overwhelm European structures and undermine the European resolve to resist Russia’s geopolitical aims in Eastern Europe, specifically the Donetsk region of the Ukraine and Moldova, as well as in the Middle East. Putin has once again made Russia a power broker in the Middle East. The flow of refugees has been a prime weapon of choice, hence, “the weaponization of refugees.”
The barrel bombs raining down on Syrian cities and towns where the opposition gained some strength is not just intended to degrade that opposition, but to produce a massive exodus. That exodus has a much larger political goal. “These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces – I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem.” As if the use of barrel bombs has only been a recent development in Syria.
According to Breedlove, Russia entered the Syrian theatre with enormous resources this past year, in the fifth year of the Syrian War, not just to buck-up the Assad regime, nor just to secure its naval position in the Mediterranean and its base in Tartus, Syria. (Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, however, on 26 June 2013 had once announced that the base was superfluous to Russian needs and no longer served any strategic military role for Russia.) Refugees flooded Turkey, not just to humiliate Turkey, an old adversary, but to suck in Turkey as an instrument of Russian policy to open the gates between Turkey and the EU in both revenge for the EU’s hard stance against Russia over the Ukraine issue, but also as a long term policy to fundamentally break the back of Europe by setting its path towards unity in a number of areas into reverse gear.
Breedlove went even further. “Russia,” he said, “poses a long term existential [my italics] threat to the United States.” Existential threat!!! One listens to Breedlove’s words and cannot help but think of Abraham Lincoln’s oft quoted famous first public speech at the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, called, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” I quote at some length, even if only to read such inspiring rhetoric. Lincoln said:
We [the American People] find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.
How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
America has never been really challenged by an existential threat, a threat to its continued existence as a state, by any external power, even in the surprise attack by the Japanese against Pearl Harbour. The threat, whether in the approaching civil war in the mid-nineteenth century, in the rise of McCarthyism and dealing with the communist threat after WWII, and currently in the fear generated by extremist Islamicist terrorists, has never been existential. America’s greatest threats have always come from within.
Breedlove’s claim, though always presented in the most calm and considerate manner, is so hyperbolic that it is hard to offer a dispassionate and detached consideration of his claim that:
- Russia and Assad are deliberately producing a mass outflow of refugees;
- The sole and overtly intentional objective is to sow discord in Europe;
- Weakening Europe in this way poses an existential threat to the S.
“Russia is eager to exert unquestioned influence over its neighbouring states in its buffer zone… so has used military force to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia and others, like Moldova.” True enough. Further, Russia exceeded any indication of the extent of its intervention in Syria when Russia indicated that it was only bringing in a few men and some material. Again, true enough, verifying the first rule of war is deception.
The phrase “weaponization of refugees” or “weaponization of mass migration” did not originate with Breedlove, but with Kelly Greenhill, an Associate Professor at Tufts University and a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He wrote a book called, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy. It is no accident that “weapons of mass migration” resonates so well with “weapons of mass destruction.” For the former is viewed as a developed twenty-first century exacerbation and inflation of a technique the author dates back to WWII and that has been used almost sixty times in the aftermath of that world war.
Essentially, Greenhill argues that engineered forced migration is a strategic tool used by governments to extract concessions from other governments. Turkey when it opened its gates to allow Syrian refugees to flee westward may not have used forced or coerced migration, but it did use induced migration to extract $3.3 billion in refugee aid from the EU as well as a promise by the EU to develop an organized and coordinated resettlement program for some of those refugees.
But was this instrumentalization of migration the Syrian intent? Was this the Russian intent? And was it used, not primarily for blackmail to help out an ostensible partner with a serious domestic problem of crisis proportions, but as a tool of foreign policy to weaken and even undermine an alliance that is viewed as a threat? Was it a primary goal for either party? And to what extent is it a threat to the EU and, by extension, to North America?
Tomorrow: The Response
With the help of Alex Zisman