An answer to Syria’s predictable disaster

Jordan is quietly carrying out the one policy that might stem the tide of refugees fleeing war

It seems another age, but during the first eight months of Syria’s civil war, only 20,000 refugees fled Bashar al-Assad’s domain. By a cruel irony, that is exactly the number Britain alone is now preparing to accept.

The raw figures betray how the flow from Syria has become a tidal wave. At the end of 2012, there were 400,000 refugees; one year later, 1.5 million; by December 2014, the total reached 3 million; today, there are 4 million refugees in neighbouring states – and 6.5 million within Syria itself.

Such is the wreckage created by Assad’s struggle to subdue his people – and the fanaticism represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). Given that so many of Syria’s 20 million people have now been driven from their homes, who can be surprised that thousands are heading for Europe? This was surely the most predictable refugee crisis in modern time.

Now that the tragedy is upon us, two stark lessons should be drawn. The first is that leaving events in Syria to take their course – which was, in effect,the choice made by those who doggedly opposed any form of armed intervention – amounted to a moral failure, with baleful consequences.

We have it on the authority of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, that Syria needs a “long term political and diplomatic sustainable solution”. Perhaps she missed the Arab League peace plan, proposed within months of the outbreak of war in 2011, only to fall foul of Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council.

Ms Sturgeon might also have overlooked the Kofi Annan peace plan of 2012, also blocked by Russia and China. Then there was the Annan Two peace plan, which Assad simply ignored, while Russia supplied him with weapons and Iran sent Hizbollah fighters to keep him in power.

In retrospect, there was only one course of action that might just have averted today’s tragedy – and done so at a time when Isil barely existed and Syria had produced fewer than 20,000 refugees. If the Western powers had told Assad to accept the Arab League peace plan in 2011 or risk an intervention that would have guaranteed his downfall, then Ms Sturgeon’s “political and diplomatic” solution might have stood a chance.

But she did not urge this at the time; instead, she would have marched in the streets to prevent it from happening. Instead of accepting the cold reality that diplomacy only works if supported by a willingness to use force,Britain’s “anti-war” campaigners now urge Britain to accept more refugees fleeing a catastrophe our inaction helped worsen.

This bring us to the second lesson: pay attention to the countries which have been forced to live with Syria’s agony from the very beginning.

Almost unnoticed by the Western world, one neighbouring state, Jordan, has managed to stem the flow over the border. In the course of 2013, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan jumped from 120,000 to 570,000. Since then, the total has stabilised at about 600,000.

How has this happened? Aid agencies attribute the reduction to far tougher border controls – and that is certainly a big part of the explanation. But it’s not the whole story: the number of Syrians entering Jordan illegally, avoiding the established border crossings, is also believed to have fallen.

The reason is that Jordan has armed and supplied a new rebel coalition which now controls a de facto buffer zone in the provinces of Deraa and Suwayda in southern Syria. Here, large numbers of refugees have gathered. Assad’s forces have tried – and failed – to recapture this territory, proving the fighting ability of the insurgents. Crucially, Isil has not yet been able to penetrate this region.

In Syria, this is what counts as success: a buffer zone held by non-Isil insurgents, where refugees can find relative safety without fleeing their country, let alone risking the journey to Europe. With minimal outside help, Jordan has quietly brought this about in southern Syria.

If this approach could be replicated in northern Syria then the refugee crisis might become manageable. That will be far harder, mainly because Turkey has chosen to back the most dangerous Islamists while pounding the Kurdish guerrillas in Syria. But, at this desperate moment, there is no other remedy that might help.


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