The calamity that has befallen the people of Syria has put the entire world to shame. The image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying facedown on a beach, dead, after his family sought to escape the horrors of their country’s civil war, has touched the world. But compassion without action is pointless.
Thousands of refugees are battling European governments. Today, it’s Hungary. Last month, it was Macedonia. Desperate people are paying thousands of dollars to traffickers to take them to safety; scores have died of asphyxia after being locked in trucks that failed to reach their destination; thousands have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
We are living in the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and yet the truth is that world leaders have failed to manage the crisis. They will, of course, answer to history. But in the meantime, the situation will only become worse without drastic action: More will die, more refugees will arrive unwanted, more countries will become destabilized and, if this goes on much longer, we will have a generation of Syrians who have grown up in the kind of conditions that perpetuate conflict.
It is too late to prevent the current crisis, but there is plenty we can try to do moving forward to try to ease it.
For a start, world leaders should convene a top-level emergency gathering to focus on the key aspects of this crisis. The conference should be called by a group of countries, including Germany with strong backing from the United States, and should include the European Union, the United Nations and other world powers, Syria’s neighbors, and also Russia and China. The objective should be threefold: to stop the killing, to help the refugees and to bring an end to the war.
Arab nations must play a major role in addressing the Syrian crisis. We are all responsible. But the people of Syria are their neighbors, their brethren. The conflict is in their midst, its impact close to home. To be sure, the neighborhood has not completely failed Syrian refugees. The overwhelming majority of those who have fled Syria — millions of them — are now living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and Arab states have helped finance those costs. But more is needed.
Once convened, this international conference should work to develop a comprehensive international plan to help refugees, one that involves a much greater role for Arab and other Muslim states. Indeed, wealthy Gulf states should be encouraged to not just make an outsize financial contribution, but countries like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia should be pressed to welcome refugees.
Of course, Europe and the United States should also receive more from among the millions of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing conflict. But so should thriving Muslim states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and of course Iran, whose support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad means it has additional moral responsibility for what is happening. (And speaking of Asia, this could be an opportunity for a country like Japan, with its demographic crisis, to boost its population, or at least do its part to share the burden of this major humanitarian emergency.)
But giving refuge to those who are fleeing the horrors of conflict is not enough — the crisis also needs to be tackled at its source. So, to at least try to slow the killing, it is time to give serious consideration to the establishment of safe zones inside Syria, a proposal that is actually more complicated than it might sound.
For example, when Turkey proposed such an approach, some feared that it secretly planned to expel Syrian refugees from Turkish territory and send them back inside Syria to any safe zones. If the system is to work, these zones must come with an ironclad vow from countries hosting refugees not to force anyone to return to Syria before the war is over.
Safe zones will, of course, require a military commitment to be effective, perhaps from the United States, NATO and other allies, to guarantee the “safe” in “safe zones.” They will therefore need to become no-fly zones, with air patrols and anti-aircraft support on the ground. The betrayal of so-called safe areas in Bosnia’s Srebrenica must never be allowed to happen again.
Above all, though, it is imperative to bring an end to the war, to defeat ISIS and — just as crucially, although this point now often gets overlooked — to bring an end to the regime of al-Assad, whose rejection of peaceful demands for democratic reform laid the groundwork for this epic human displacement and for the upsurge in extremism.
And epic this displacement has truly been — more than 320,000 people have been killed in the war, according to one monitoring group, and there is no end in sight. Before the war started in 2011, about 23 million people lived in Syria. Fully half of them have been displaced. Some 7.5 million are internally displaced. More than 4 million are registered with the United Nations, and many of those fleeing have not been. It is estimated that there are almost 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, at least 600,000 in Jordan and perhaps 1.1 million in Lebanon, where they now make up nearly a quarter of the total population.
Such an enormous movement of people is further destabilizing an already unsettled region, and bringing with it a level of disruption that could very well sow the seeds for another generation of conflict and extremism.
The West’s initial approach, which effectively viewed the Syrian civil war as “their problem,” has merely underscored how in reality there is no way to contain such conflicts within national boundaries — this war has spawned ISIS, its videotaped beheadings and sanctioned sexual slavery, scattering its poisonous extremist ideology far and wide. And while an international gathering cannot undo the devastation that has been wrought, it can still be a positive first step toward winding down this conflict.
This is the moral and strategic challenge of our time. So far, the world has failed. But if its leaders can begin to publicly and materially empower those who stand for a pluralistic, tolerant and democratic Syria — one that will eventually welcome back the millions of citizens who have fled — then we might be able to turn the compassion we have seen in recent days into a more hopeful legacy for the country and its people.