The Syrian Refugee Quagmire

by Jonathan Feldstein

Watching and reading reports of Syrians fleeing the death and violence that’s marked their country’s civil war on steroids since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” is heart wrenching and compelling. The good news is that the human tragedy is now on the global radar albeit a solution is far away.

While the problem has indeed gotten worse these past years, by no means is it a new problem but, rather, the symptom of 100 year old problem that started in Europe where it now has come back to roost.

If you’ve never studied the history of the Middle East, you’ve likely never heard of the Sykes–Picot Agreement. It’s worth understanding because it set artificial borders in the region that were less about demographics or any real boundaries, and more about France and Britain anticipating the dividing up of the post-Ottoman Empire, and divvying up the land under the control of Arab leaders who, at the time, were friendly and supportive of the new colonial realities.

Sykes-Picot was a secret agreement between the governments of Britain and France. The agreement was concluded in May 1916. The agreement effectively divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of future British and French control or influence. Britain would take control of what became Iraq, Jordan and Israel, and France took control over what’s today Lebanon and Syria. If you look at the lines of the borders, it’s glaring that these were drawn as straight lines on a map. Other than the boundaries of the Holy Land as depicted in the Bible, none of these territories had any indigenous unique population, and the borders were artificial.

In deciding who would be the local Arab leaders under respective French and British auspices, the British and French picked, and then had to change them more than once as a result of competing interests of and promises made to various Arab clans. Most glaring was the shuffling on the deck that saw the Hashemite clan that was indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula and which boasted a direct line of ancestry to Mohammed, being picked to control what is today Saudi Arabia, and then plucked to have hegemony of another made up territory that’s known today as Jordan. Had the original plan been kept, today we might be calling it “Hashemite Arabia.”

Syria today, or what’s left of it, had gone through various military leaders and coups for decades, but has been firmly in control of the ruling Assad dictatorship for nearly 50 years. Today’s Syrian president, Bashar Assad, is the son of the tyrannical Hafez Assad, who was part of a coup that brought the Baath party to control in 1963, and then he took control in another 1970 coup. The Assads come from a tiny minority Alawite clan, a subset of Shia Islam that is considered illegitimate by the majority Sunni Moslems. The Assads have survived and been propped up all these years with use of brute force, slaughtering people who would challenge them, and outside backing of both the Iranian Shiites, Soviets, and now Russians.

The revolution there has been inevitable both because there was a shelf life on the time a tiny minority could rule a majority, especially in Islam where neither gives the other legitimacy. But this is true as well both because of and despite the brutal use of force all these decades. Eventually the sand would run out of the Syrian hourglass and the Sunnis would rise to overthrow the brutal minority dictatorship.

To those who say, “Ah, it’s just water under the bridge,” I’d say, “Whoa, not so fast.” It was the artificial creation of these entities-to-be-states that was, and remains, the crux of the problem. If the British and French thought they could divide up the land, make up borders, appoint leaders, and they’d create stable outposts of their empires, it’s clear they didn’t read the tea leaves or understand the players and culture. With generous helpings of hubris and naiveté governing the 1916 agreement, if they had paid attention then, they’d have known today’s reality might have been predictable. Certainly, there were signposts of this inevitability over the past decades.

Creating borders and appointing leaders never reduced the reality of the competing claims and aspirations for hegemony among a variety of Arab clans and religious sects, not then and certainly not today. Overlay that with the prevalence and rise of Islamic extremists who aspire to create a caliphate through this entire area, and you have conflicts brewing for generations that persist and have erupted today. The main difference today might be the scope of the human tragedy, and the reality of news reports live from the four corners of the world, and where everyone with a cell phone and internet can become a journalist.

Fast forward to today. Syria is the hotspot in the headlines from which millions of civilians have fled and are now arriving in Europe. It’s telling that none are flooding the prosperous Arab states of the Gulf. But Syria is only one place where the internal Arab and Islamic conflict exists. There are no less than four competing militias there, and legitimately civilians don’t know who to fear and where to flee on any day of the week. So they flood the Turkish border, take boats to Greece and Cyprus, getting a beachhead in Europe from where they cannot be expelled, then make their way to central Europe to board trains and buses for greener pastures of Western Europe.

None of this diminishes the human tragedy that’s been in the headlines of late. Though if I were their publicist, I’d have waited to flood Europe until after Labor Day so the tragedy would not be lost on those enjoying the long holiday weekend.

Without discussing realities of Arab and Islamic culture that are important factors, it’s clear that the tragedy before us today was conceived and born 100 years ago. The problem then is that the European powers did not project what would transpire. But now the problem has come home to roost. Certainly Europe can, and maybe should, divide up the refugees today the way they divided up the Middle East then. But that’s just putting a band aid on the problem.

It’s reasonable to infer that no European country wants to keep the borders open indefinitely for a whole host of reasons. Part of the resolution of the problem is to restore normalcy in Syria and beyond. Part of the lack of keeping a lid on that these past years has fostered today’s situation. A+B = Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis. Perhaps they need to take erasers to the made up borders that have been the prevailing reality the past century and help foster, not impose, a new reality. This will need to be done with eyes wide open, and to combat the Islamic extremism that is the ultimate cause of the refugee crisis and instability today.

In parallel, Europe needs to find a way to put the brakes on the hemorrhaging of refugees into their countries. The flood of human beings is not only not ending, but will continue and increase. And if this is not dealt with immediately, the shift of the demographic balance of Arabs and Moslems in Central and Western Europe will become a reality that will bring the pens that drew the 1916 borders into their own backyards.

Reprinted with permission of the author.  Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has been blessed by the calling to fellowship with Christian supporters of Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He writes a regular column for Charisma magazine’s Standing With Israel. You can contact Jonathan at firstpersonisrael@gmail.com.