Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. There are an estimated 1,400,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Tragic photos and videos of masses of asylum seekers and immigrants from the Middle East and Africa have recently shocked the world. But these ordeals have been going on for a long time.
Years of news of innocent people drowning by the thousands in the Mediterranean, suffocated by the hundreds in trucks smuggling them to “safe zones”, were not enough to catch the world’s attention.
Nor were the thousands of women enslaved, raped and sold in open markets by brutal self-declared Islamist gangs. And the cameras have yet to turn to the real refugee crisis in the countries neighbouring Syria: Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where the refugees number not hundreds or thousands, but millions.
These tragic circumstances in the Middle East and Africa have been caused by wars, civil wars, unequal development, and man-made droughts. But who is responsible for these tragedies?
Western governments and the usual pundits linked to major well-financed “think tanks” blame the undemocratic and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East and Africa, and point to terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. They are not wrong, but they don’t tell the whole truth.
What these half-truths do not reveal is western governments’ dealings with dictators, autocrats and despots in the region, nor do they explain who was responsible for the emergence of these brutal Islamist fundamentalist organisations.
I will only briefly focus on Syria and Libya — putting aside other wars and conflicts in the Middle East, such as Gaza, with thousands killed and in ruins, and disease and child malnourishment rampant; or what was done to Iraq, the devastation and disintegration of a nation; or what is happening in Yemen.
Several years ago, when the sparks of the “Arab Spring” reached Syria, global and regional adversaries found an opportune moment to start a proxy war.
Americans unhappy with the last Russian stronghold in the region, and Saudis unhappy with the strong influence of the Iranian regime there, took advantage of the genuine uprising of Syrians against their brutal dictator to get involved in the war and add fuel to the fire.
The US government and its Western allies, along with Saudi Arabia and the tiny Arab sheikhdoms, financed and armed dissident groups, many of them religious fanatics. And the Russian and Iranian governments and their regional allies like Hezbollah came to the support of the Assad regime. A most horrific civil war devastated Syria.
At that time, a few commentators, myself included, warned that this would be more disastrous than the invasion of Iraq. On a panel in a very respectable Canadian TV current affairs program, in response to Canadian and American pundits who were — directly or indirectly — advocating military involvement and anticipating the quick fall of Assad, I warned that the war would drag on for years and the US and its allies might end up having to negotiate with the dictator. They were amused by this seemingly outrageous comment.
Four years later, we witness in horror 250,000 Syrians killed, 7 million displaced, 4 million refugees, an ancient civilisation in total ruins, and a new brutal fundamentalist force, ISIS — itself a direct product of failed US policies in the region — firmly established, but the dictator remains in power.
Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies are also in a stronger position, utilising their gains in their negotiations with the West on other major issues like Ukraine and the nuclear deal.
Innocent Syrian people are caught between a merciless, brutal, dictatorial regime on the one hand, and a bunch of opportunist, fascist fundamentalist terrorist groups on the other. Nothing has remained of the genuine democratic forces that initially dared to challenge the Assad regime.
Nevertheless, diplomacy remains the only solution to the Syrian problem. But all those who started, supported and fuelled the war continue with their wrong-headed policies. Hence we see the shameful continuation of refugee and humanitarian disasters.
In Libya, calls to topple the dictator who had started to massacre dissidents were followed by a bloody military invasion. In a tribally structured society, this soon led to total anarchy. After the fall of Qaddafi, while the warring coalition was celebrating another mission accomplished, a major civil war ensued, and Islamist terrorist organisations not only took over part of the country, but also moved to destabilise neighbouring countries.
Libyan anarchy — now with two governments in place and multiple regions under warlords — left open the largest border in northern Africa, leading to the mass exodus of many young Africans suffering from drought and unemployment, both the result of decades of neoliberal policies in the continent.
The great irony of the whole situation is that those who were equally if not mostly responsible for the current mess are the least affected by the problems they created — with the exception of Turkey, which was one of the culprits in this saga and is now suffering under the burden of refugees.
The Saudi Arabian government and the Arab sheikhs who have been generously financing the jihadists’ war and propagating their version of Islam are not even pretending that they are willing to accept some refugees.
The British government under Prime Minister David Cameron, who was among the first to call for the invasion of Libya, is resisting pressure to take more of the unwanted refugees. So are the US, Australia and Canada, and to a lesser extent, France. The countries least responsible, including Greece, are facing most of the problems of the refugee influx.
Most western governments now talk of “moral” responsibility. Morality is not an issue here. They are simply in part responsible for the mess and it is thus their obligation to first take care of the disastrous refugee situation, and second to end the war through negotiations and diplomacy.
They should admit that military options have failed and have only benefited Islamist fundamentalists — including the Iranian regime — and of course the war machine industry.
[Saeed Rahnema is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at York University, Toronto. Abridged from OpenDemocracy.net.]