Notes on Syria and the Great Refugee Crisis


syrian exodus


Montreal March 14, 2016: Spring is coming slowly to this Canadian city, but the rain is falling in Macedonia while more than ten thousand refugees huddle in tents on the Greek border, one tragic part of a much more vast movement. New images now haunt the world, of children and women and men attempting to ford the Suva River between northern Greece and Macedonia.

In the long arc of unrest stretching from Afghanistan through Iran and Iraq to the coasts of Syria and Turkey, people are moving westwards. On the waters of the Mediterranean, desperate people come from the south and the east to Europe in their search for refuge, employment and escape from violence.

Last year, more than one million individuals made this larger trek, and at the beginning of 2016 the flow continues, according to the latest bulletin from the International Organization for Migration (IOM):

As winter nears its end, IOM estimates irregular migrant and refugee arrivals are now approaching 130,000 in the Mediterranean. (…) The numbers still fall far short of 2015’s total, when over one million seaborne arrivals were recorded. But with ten months left, it now appears likely that last year’s total will be surpassed, possibly before the end of the summer.

The anguish of parents, the suffering of children, the grim conditions in camps, at sea, and on the road, make the conditions for migrants and refugees truly “biblical” in the words of novelist Richard Flanagan, who has written a series for the British newspaper The Guardian, “Notes on the great Syrian exodus” (March 4, 2016). Flanagan visited Greece, Lebanon and Serbia to report on “the plight of the 5 million Syrians fleeing their country,” a drama that he calls “epic in scale, inconceivable unless you have seen it.”

In Lebanon there are 1.5 million Syrians, a third of whom live in “endless shantytowns,” and “another million Syrian refugees can be found living in culverts, ruins, slums and better quality apartments throughout Lebanon – a nation itself of only 4.5 million.” The Lebanese frontiers are now closed, but “still they come.”

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees makes it clear what the obligations of governments are, and it defines a refugee as someone who has fled his or her country “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The UN Briefing Paper on forced displacement indicates that globally there are now 27 million internally displaced people within their own countries, and 15 million who have fled beyond those borders, for a total of approximately “43 million uprooted victims of conflict and persecution worldwide.” ( These populations include 4.8 Palestinians, 2.9 million Afghans, 1.8 million Iraqis, 700,000 Somalis, 456,000 Congolese, 390,000 Colombians and 370,000 Sudanese.

The UN figures indicate that today roughly one third of all refugees worldwide are Syrian – a truly extraordinary percentage. When Macedonian officials use tear gas and stun grenades against people trying to get through the razor-wire fence with Greece, or French police attack and burn a migrant camp in Calais, what the world sees is an abject failure to address the global migration issue that, like the refugees themselves, will not go away.

There are now right-wing governments in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, and officials are closing borders in an attempt to repel newcomers. The Balkan corridor has been shut following a deal between the EU and its Balkan neighbours, a bargain that anticipates a Europe-Turkey accord to refuse refugees. However, the prospective EU-Turkish accord is a gross violation of international law. Tony Barber, the editor of The Financial Times in London, has commented that for “selfish, dishonourable, short-sighted behaviour that violates EU values and international law, the prize goes to individual European governments,” but now “we have the shabby deal with Turkey. The EU is to organize illegal, compulsory mass expulsion of refugees to Turkey. In return, the Turks are supposed to get visa-free travel to the EU and an accelerated path to EU membership.” (March 12, 2016)

In the last 24 hours, after desperate people burst through the Macedonian fence outside the Idomeni camp in Greece, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees’ on-site representative, Babur Baloch, told the BBC:

What we are seeing is a return of chaos whenever there is a unilateral decision to close borders; when there is no co-ordination, when countries in Europe don’t co-ordinate and don’t share responsibility, then we see more misery for refugees. And that’s exactly what we are going through in Greece today. We see more and more people arriving here. There’s no way out. Greece is struggling; it needs support from the EU.

When EU officials in Brussels at 1:00 a.m. on March 8, 2016 first announced their plan to send refugees back to Turkey, they did not tell the truth to journalists about the EU’s own directives on refugee deportations. Article 18 of the EU directive on asylum procedure defines the criteria for a “safe third country” to which refugees can be sent and includes section 18.c requiring that “the principle of non-refoulement [not sending refugees back into danger] in accordance with the Geneva Convention is respected.” Also, individuals sent to a “safe third country” must have the right to claim refugee status there, but in Turkey – believe it or not – only people from Europe are allowed to apply formally as refugees, despite the unofficial presence of so many Syrians inside the country. (See “Is the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal Legal?” by Duncan Robinson, Financial Times, March 9, 2016.)

Interestingly, Gilles Keppel, a French expert on the Middle East, is one of those people favouring an EU-Turkey rapprochement, but in a recent interview with the Turkish pro-government English-language newspaper The Daily Sabah, he sounded a grave warning about what is now happening in the area:

I have been studying the Middle East for 35 years and I have not witnessed such a dangerous period before now. There have never been so many places which were unreachable until now. This chaos will unfortunately continue, unless the situation is realized and a general reconciliation is sought. The EU will not be a stability factor, but become a mere target if it does not take any measure and maintains its political ineffectiveness and lack of capacity despite being a major power in the region.

Another French observer is Pierre-Jean Luizard who is a director of research on the Middle East at the Centre national de recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. Luizard has published a book entitled Le piège Daech: L’État islamique ou le retour de l’Histoire – in English, The ISIS Trap: The Islamic State and the Return of History. He argues that what is now happening in the Middle East is the painful upheaval of a history that goes back to the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916 between Britain and France, which led to the formation of states in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is part of what Luizard calls “un retour brutal – et pourtant prévisible – de l’Histoire,” a “brutal return of history that has been nonetheless predictable.” He says that the anti-ISIS coalition has no political plan for a region undergoing “obvious re-shaping.” Furthermore, he asserts that ISIS wants outside powers to intervene in “its war” precisely in order to confirm its apocalyptic vision of the “clash of civilizations.”

However, the fate of ISIS, which has been under increasing pressure since the beginning of 2016, is only one of several factors pushing and thrusting displaced peoples westward to Europe and beyond. A closer look at ISIS reveals much of importance, nonetheless.

Events are so raw and large in scale that one feels stunned before their impact, even at a distance. Here in Montreal, my wife and I, along with three friends, are sponsoring a Syrian family to come to Canada with their children from a camp in Lebanon, yet we know full well that this action is only a small light in a larger darkness. Canada did announce on Sunday, February 28, that this country had welcomed 25,000 refugees. That is hugely better than the 1,500 taken in by the United States over the last five years, and the approximately 1,800 accepted by the UK in 2015.

The refugee crisis has brought a whole series of contradictions to light, and the fleeing people themselves are symbols of the deeper political strains that are surfacing. It is clear that the “danger,” to borrow Keppel’s word, is global and pressing.

Over these weeks of late winter, I have been watching news develop, consulting my own habitual journalistic sources (Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh), and what appears from all the dispatches is a profile of several major geopolitical realities.


  1. “We” created ISIS

Here the “we” is truly multi-lateral and includes: the United States, the UK, France, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, as well as the EU and other actors. An important causal factor for ISIS was the immoral and disastrous invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003. One of the best sources on Iraq in North America is a newspaper that sells for 1 cent an issue, The Catholic Worker, the little-known bulletin of the Catholic pacifist organization of the same name. CW volunteers go to Iraq frequently and write about their visits, gaining information that traditional reporters do not access. The January/February issue of The Catholic Worker has a powerful essay, “Withdraw From War on Terror,” by the veteran American peace activist David McReynolds (now 88 years old). A section of this piece really stands out:

In my view the US should withdraw from the War on Terror. I do not say this because I am blind to the evil of ISIS, but rather because our actions helped create ISIS, and our actions in this war are self-defeating. Briefly, ISIS is a direct result of the US invasion of Iraq.

After discussing the Sunni-minority government of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and the subsequent post-Saddam Shia sectarianism, McReynolds reflects on the ISIS capture of Mosul in northern Iraq during 2014:

It was as if all the evils of the past, the US “accidental” bombings of Muslim wedding parties in Afghanistan, the cruelty and humiliation of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq, were compressed into some hard diamond of cruelty – ISIS. A brutal, criminal summation of all the many acts of inhumanity the US had imposed on the Muslim world. I do not for a moment excuse the evils of ISIS, but the beginning of wisdom is to see our role in the past in creating the present.


  1. A pre-fascist climate now exists in both Europe and the United States

March 1, 2016 was “Super Tuesday,” and for the first time the world noticed that a Mussolini-type figure was succeeding in US politics. Some of the closest friends of the United States and stalwarts of capitalism became deeply worried. The renowned economic commentator Martin Wolf wrote a column for The Financial Times that very afternoon entitled “Donald Trump embodies how great republics meet their end.” Wolf used an analogy with Rome in his comments: “The US is the greatest republic since Rome, the bastion of democracy, the guarantor of the liberal global order. It would be a global disaster if Mr. Trump were to become president. Even if he fails, he has rendered the unthinkable sayable.” And Wolf concluded the piece: “An American ‘Caesarism’ has now become flesh. It seems a worryingly real danger today. It could return again in future.” There were many, many observers who felt similarly. For example, David McReynolds, whose politics are very unlike Mr. Wolf’s, commented well before Super Tuesday, “I am glad I caught the speech Donald Trump gave in which he called for blocking any Muslim from entering the US. It was a speech that clearly bordered on fascism and marks a shift for Trump, from bad to much worse.”

Martin Wolf’s own parents fled the Netherlands to come to England during World War II, so he is well aware that fascism develops gradually, in steps, until it becomes fully entrenched. In the EU, far-right forces have come to power in certain governments, and within Germany itself the Alternative für Deutschland party has gained in the most recent regional polls. That is a bad sign, since Angela Merkel has been by far the best of the European leaders on the refugee issue.

Also, ISIS itself is a form of clerical fascism, so it is no exaggeration to make the observation that fascist ideas are now present in the Middle East, Europe and North America.


  1. Russia and the United States have co-operated to achieve the fragile truce in Syria

One of the striking elements surfacing from news reports is the fact that the US and Russia are deeply at odds yet are at the same time co-operating on certain elements of this crisis. On Jan. 7, 2016, the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an important article in The London Review of Books entitled “Military to Military: Seymour M. Hersh on US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war.” For some time, according to Hersh, the US military has been sharing crucial information with both the Russian and the Assad governments because of American generals’ judgement, in his words, “that Islamic State must be stopped.” The exchange of information had to do with targets and bombing, but there is a division within the top staff. In late February, the American Commander of NATO, in a gambit to get more US troops in Europe, gave congressional testimony in Washington claiming that Russia and Assad are deliberately channelling refugee populations to Europe in order to undermine the EU. The realities on the ground belie that Air Force general’s claim. “The caliphate” is forbidding people to leave its territory and is now using extreme force to impose its will and forcibly keep people within its area.

This winter, The Independent in the UK carried reports from Robert Fisk, who was embedded with Syrian government troops in that country, and from Patrick Cockburn in Iraq. Fisk wrote that during this winter, “For the first time Syrian army Special Forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters operated together with tanks and helicopters, blasting through 20 miles of villages and open countryside [north of Aleppo] in just eight days.” (Feb. 27, 2016) Along with 5,000 Iranians, another 5,000 foreigners were with the Syrians, including Afghans and Pakistani Shia.

Meanwhile, from Karbala in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn, writing for the same UK paper, reported that ISIS was “under heavy attack from its numerous though disunited enemies, the most important of which are the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the Iraq Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).” Cockburn pointedly added that these armies on the ground “are not very large, but their fire power is greatly multiplied by the close support they receive from US and Russian air strikes.” (Feb. 24, 2016 – emphasis added) In his recent essay for The London Review of Books, “End Times for the Caliphate?” (March 3, 2016), Cockburn clearly described the US-Russia relationship:

A new loose alliance between the US and Russia, though interrupted by bouts of Cold-War style rivalry, produced an agreement on 12 February for aid to be delivered to besieged Syrian towns and cities and a ‘cessation of hostilities’ to be followed by a more formal ceasefire. A de-escalation of the crisis will be difficult to orchestrate. But the fact that the US and Russia are co-chairing a taskforce over-seeing it shows the extent to which they are displacing local and regional powers as the decision-makers in Syria.

It is important to note that this period of Middle East diplomacy, with John Kerry negotiating for the United States and Sergei Lavrov representing Russia, may not survive the next US election if Hillary Clinton is elected, as seems most likely at this time.


  1. A solution to the greater crisis requires general reconciliation

The phrase “general reconciliation” comes from Gilles Keppel, whose ideas I suspect would be quite different from the tone of the these notes here in Montréal Serai. Nonetheless, the refugee crisis demands reconciliation within Europe – in other words, a true EU to deal with an influx of 1 million refugees and migrants per year to be absorbed over the next few years into an EU population of 500 million. Unfortunately, the EU is showing signs of disintegration at a time when real collective will is needed.

In the Middle East, a minimum of pragmatic stoicism (if not real reconciliation) is also needed. Pierre-Jean Luizard is unquestionably right when he insists that a huge historical shift is now taking place, one that involves exactly the last one hundred years beginning in 1916 with Sykes-Picot. Great powers, states, client states, sub-states should all beware – a giant wave is rolling across the region that will require sang froid to navigate. Events of this magnitude overwhelm even the most confident actors.

The people on the move do not control governments. They endure and persevere. Governments, all governments, need to think of them and strive to imitate their modest, human strength.



Patrick Barnard is Montreal teacher, Green space activist, filmmaker and contributing editor of Montréal Serai.