Weaponizing Refugees Part II

Corporealism XIX: Body Politics in the Middle East

Weaponizing Refugees Part II

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday I set forth General Breedlove’s thesis that Russia deliberately instigated the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe to destabilize the EU and weaken its resolve in countering Russia’s expansionist aims.

What are the facts? First, as of about six months ago (September 2015), approximately 4 million refugees were produced by Syria in addition to another 7-8 million internally displaced, about half the population in the country. This was before the significant. Russian intervention that began at the end of September last year. Can the main cause of the displacement of about half a million more Syrians since September, and expectations that in 2016 we will see even more Syrians flooding Europe than the record number of about one million seen in 2015, be traced to that Russian intervention? And even if it can be, can that result be connected to a deliberate attempt by Russia to use the refugees to destabilize Europe?

There is a correlation between military attacks and displacement. In March of 2012 when we witnessed the first really large waves of refugees since the civil war began a year earlier, 2,000 fled to Lebanon after the attacks on Homs. Up to 20,000 arrived in Turkey and, in anticipation of tens of thousands more, Turkey built refugee camps in Hatay, Kilis, Gaziantep and Sanlurfa. Already 80,000 had arrived in Jordan. With the April 2012 offensive by the Syrian army before the first of many UN-sponsored peace plans went into effect, 25,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey in just over a week. The total number of refugees in Jordan increased by a whopping 50,000, from 80,000 to 130,000.

The refugees then were mostly women and children as the younger men mostly stayed behind as volunteers to fight Assad. As the numbers mounted by ten thousand a month, by August we recorded the first refugees getting on boats to reach the EU. Between August and December, the number of refugees quadrupled so the numbers were beginning to approach a million.

Russia was nowhere in the picture then, other than as a contractual supplier of weapons to the Syrian government. Russia’s exports of arms to Syria – roughly 1.5 billion dollars per year, including MI-25 helicopter gunships, the Buk-M2 air defense system, Yak-130 jet trainers – represented 10% of Russia’s military export trade. Amnesty International charged Russia with being complicit in crimes against humanity. Does anyone believe Assad had forced a million people into exile to undercut the unity of the EU?

In 2013, 2,000-3,000 refugees left Syria every day so that, by the end of the year, there were a million more refugees escaping violence and chaos, searching for shelter, food, water and medical supplies. Double that number simply went to other safer parts of the country, at the time, relatively untouched by the war. America, not Russia, began its meagre military contribution to the Syrian rebels. During that year, almost 5,000 refugees crossed to Italy.

Sweden offered 8,000 Syrian refugees permanent residence and family reunification for asylum seekers. However, the EU and state governments largely ignored warnings that such moves would both create a pull factor and lead to the creation of smuggling operations by organized criminal units. As is typical in countries of first asylum, each in turn developed compassion fatigue and tensions arise in each of the countries as the intake was not matched by any even modest orderly departure and resettlement programs by the West or even in any reasonable sharing of the humanitarian burden.

At the very same time, in September of 2013, Russia in a diplomatic initiative, perhaps more to prevent an American air intervention than for any humanitarian considerations, initiated the diplomatic move to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. At the same time, The New York Times published Vladimir Putin’s op-ed (12 September 2013) urging the U.S. not to intervene unilaterally in Syria and to seek a negotiated settlement. Russia argued all along that any effort to promote domestic reforms in foreign states based on ideological preferences (whether communist or liberal revolution) usually resulted in disaster rather than progress.

But the crisis only grew as a million more refugees were produced in 2014, now coming primarily from areas captured by ISIS, which suddenly emerged as a potent force in mid-year. Can anyone rationally claim that Russia was really the invisible hand behind the rise of ISIS? The number of Syrian refugees totalled about three million.

During 2015, another million refugees fled largely to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Turkey opened its exit gates and, by the end of the summer, over 303,000 asylum seekers had flooded Europe; almost 90,000 arrived in Germany alone. By the end of the year, the number of refugees reached 4 million and at least one million had fled to Europe, most after the Russians intervened at the end of September. Did Russia intervene to instigate a greater flight to Europe with the purpose of undermining the EU? Or did the milquetoast support of the rebels by the West over the previous few years influence the rapid exodus over the last two years? Did Western weak support reach an apex when 60 U.S. trained Free Syrian army fighters entered Syria from Jordan and were quickly decimated by the al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front?.

Compare that to the robust intervention by the Russians, approved unanimously by the Federation Council (Russia’s equivalent to the American Senate) – 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft, 12 Su-24 interdictor aircraft, 6 Sukhoi Su-34 bombers, 4 Su-30 combat aircraft, 15 attack and rescue helicopters, surface-to-air antiaircraft systems, BM-30 missile launchers, surveillance drones, 6 T-90 tanks, 15 large pieces of artillery, 35 armoured personnel carriers and an initial instalment of boots on the ground in the form of 200 marines, all serving to help revive Assad’s prospects. That alone made many Syrians give up on the idea of ever returning home. The lesson: if you are going to intervene militarily, don’t simply stick a pinkie in the cauldron.

If Russia all along had a secret plan to destabilize Europe by producing millions of refugees, why did it lead the world in efforts to end the Syrian civil war in 2012 and put pressure on Assad to agree to reform the constitution and the electoral process?  Why in April 2012 did Russia agree to a UN draft resolution to provide UN observers to monitor the cease-fire with Assad agreeing to return his troops and heavy artillery to their bases? Russia’s bottom line throughout the war was that Assad had to stay in power, presumably under a reformed system, otherwise a vacuum would be created for an extremist Islamist takeover of Syria, an outcome absolutely antithetical to Russian interests.

Since there is no evidence whatsoever of Russia intending to produce more refugees or intending that those refugees head for Europe, or even envisioning that 1 million refugees among a population of 350,000,000 could break the back of Europe, why would anyone even entertain a hypothesis of the “weaponization of refugees” when there are much easier explanations, all much more compatible with the facts? Unless the charge is really not intended to explain the movement but distract attention away from the West’s role. With the exception of Sweden and Germany, there is virtually no significant evidence of Western states engaging in any responsible large scale burden sharing.

Without widespread political leadership championing a humanitarian approach, again with German Chancellor Angela Merkel being the exception to show most leaders up, there is no one to combat the usual widespread populist insecurities that accompany wide scale immigration into a country, especially when it is uncontrolled migration. So right- wing parties thrive and states, beginning with the right-wing government in Hungary, close their gates to refugees. The backlash was in full swing. That cannot be blamed on Russia, even though Russia played a significant role in perpetuating the war and exacerbating the fears.

At the end of February 2016, there were almost 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon, 630,000 in Jordan, a quarter million in Iraq and absolutely zero in any of the Gulf Arab states. It cost Turkey alone $8 billion a year in humanitarian assistance, with only 60% of that amount promised to be offered for distribution among all the first asylum countries in 2016. As ruthless and self-serving as Russia has been throughout the crisis, while offering zero opportunities for resettlement (though some Circassians managed to get back to their original homes almost a century earlier in the Caucasus), how is it possible to ascribe the blame for this crisis to a deliberate plan of Russia? Frankly, it is a preposterous thesis!

Given the extensive bombing, strafing and counter-attacks by the newly-equipped Assad forces on the ground and air strikes from the sky, it should be no surprise that an additional half a million refugees were the result. But was that the prime goal of the bombing? Was the increased record flows from Turkey into Europe, at a pace exceeding even last year’s, a result of this increased intensity in the fighting? Or had the refugees concluded that the civil war had been lost, a by-product of a conviction that Assad, with Russian backing, would not fall, and that territory controlled by the “moderate rebels” now would be re-captured? This belief was reinforced when the Americans would not even introduce a no-fly zone to protect the moderate rebels. Besides civilians getting out of the way of the battle, most had finally lost all hope of a succession by a more liberal regime. The rise of ISIS had not helped, but in various interviews it has not been hard to detect that the refugees had given up on Syria as their home and that they merely wanted to live somewhere else in relative peace and security.

Yet the “weaponization of forced migrants” thesis has received some high level support. Senator John McCain, a former Republican candidate for president in the U.S., has adopted Greenhill’s position. He claimed that President Vladimir Putin “wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project.” That Russia wants to expand its presence and influence in the Middle East is, I believe, incontrovertible. That Russia rejoiced at the disarray currently in Europe over a humanitarian approach to the Syrian refugees is likely. But that Russia intended precisely such a result, that long preceded its own large ramped-up involvement almost six months ago, is barely credible even when endorsed by an American air force general charged with the responsibility for the military defence of Europe. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoĝlu joined the chorus. Russia is “behaving like a terrorist organization and forcing civilians to flee” by carrying out air strikes “without any discrimination between civilians and soldiers, or children and the elderly.”

Fabrice Balanche, from the University of Lyon, argued that Russia’s and Assad’s forces have together devised a “conscious strategy of ethnic cleansing” against Sunni Arab tribes and other groups who oppose the Syrian regime. Sunnis have been a specific target of the Assad regime. In what has been by and large a sectarian conflict between the ruling minority Alawites, a Shiite offshoot supported by Iran, and the Sunni majority, the exile of one group or the other, depending on who was winning, was to be expected. But why have so many other minorities fled, minorities that had not been persecuted by the Assad regime, but, in fact, often enjoyed the protection of that regime? Why have Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis and other Christians, Druze, Ismailis, Palestinians and Mandaeans fled, and Circassians even returned to the North Caucasus of Russia? Were Assad and his Russian backers simply indifferent to producing refugees since they seemed to readily attack and bomb even hospitals? Balanche argues that hospitals have been deliberately targeted to force people to move.

I cannot believe that scholars, political and military leaders have bought into such a flimsy thesis! But, after all, the leading Republican candidates for president in the U.S. have spouted such extreme nonsense as to make Breedlove’s claim even seem sensible. Senator Cruz, the only remaining candidate who has even a slight chance of beating Trump in the race for a majority of delegates for the Republican Convention, at the end of last year tabled the Terrorist Refugee Infiltration Prevention Act barring any refugees coming from countries where territories are controlled by terrorists, Ted Cruz claims that 77% of the refugees “pouring into Europe right now” are young males. 63% are, not 77%. Further, single males frequently precede their families to mitigate risk and prepare a place for resettlement.

Donald Trump (17 November 2015) is far more outlandish, blaming not Russia but the Obama administration for planning to take in 100,000 to 250,0000 Syrian refugees (instead of the meagre 10,000 approved for 2016, though Trump’s imagined number would be a more responsible figure) and deliberately resettling Syrian refugees in states with Republican governors so as not to destabilize Democratic-governed states and to destabilize Republican ones, as well, presumably, to produce a constituency that will vote for the Democrats. Facts: 31 of 50 states have Republican governors and they have received two-thirds of a tiny number of just under 2,000 refugees, 41 refugees on average for Republican states compared to 36 for Democratic states. All refugees were distributed among states by NGOs, not political bodies. The intake of refugees is often a tribute to the generosity of small town America with no political role in the decision whatsoever.

Such are the extremes that the projection of illusionary and phantasmagorical intentions can reach.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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