The Battle for Syria: First review

By William Armstrong in Hurriyet, 22 September 2016

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, up to 500,000 people have been killed and 2 million have been injured. Over 4.8 million have fled the country and 6.6 million more are internally displaced. Large parts of Syria’s cities are in rubble and the economy is in ruins. A U.N. report estimated that by the end of 2013 Syria had already regressed 40 years in its human development. Two years later half of its public hospitals had been closed, barely half of its children werbook-pilee attending school and over 80 percent of Syrians were living in poverty. Average life expectancy in the country dropped from 70 to 55 in four years.

The situation is only getting grimmer and there is no end in sight. “The Battle for Syria” by Chatham House associate fellow Christopher Phillips gloomily concludes that the conflict is likely to rage for many more years because of the external dynamics now driving it. Phillips describes his book as a corrective to most accounts of the war that focus primarily on internal dynamics. He argues that while internal factors were all-important early on, external actors became increasingly crucial as the conflict dragged on.

Phillips stresses that his book “does not deny agency to either Assad or his opponents, and certainly does not indulge conspiracy theories that either acted as an agent of a foreign power from the beginning.” But it does give international factors a central role in the narrative. “The Syrian civil war cannot be explained without a detailed understanding of the international dimension,” Phillips writes, arguing that from the start external actors pursuing regional or global agendas have been essential in enabling and facilitating both regime and opposition actions.

Indeed, there are few events in world history that have not involved outside meddling in some form. French secret agents were involved with the leaders of the 1776 Americanrebellion against the British crown; the British government supported Greek nationalists in the 1820s revolt against the Ottoman Empire; Spanish, French and German agents supported Irish leaders in their wars against the British government; Germanintelligence supported and financed the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917-1918. Noting these factors in isolation from all other events only leads to apologetics or conspiracy theories. In Syria, foreign involvement did not cause the war. But it did exacerbate it, and the international struggle over Syria is today the single biggest obstacle to peace.

Phillips describes today’s Syria as a battleground in the “post-American Middle East” after the failure of the Iraq war, the financial crisis and Barack Obama’s preference for drawdown. “The post-American Middle East was already developing before 2011 but the Syrian civil war, as well as being partly a product of this change, helped catalyze it further.” Syria was both a symptom and a reinforcer of this regional shift.

“The U.S. remains the most powerful actor, but now other powers are independently asserting or reasserting their influence,” Phillips writes. As Washington drew back, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey all saw an opening to extend their influence. Each of them deepened cooperation with proxy forces on the ground and acted as their voice on the international stage. The result is Syria as the bloody crucible of an emergent multipolar Middle East.

Phillips notes that involvement by a foreign state on one side can shorten civil wars by increasing the chances that its ally will win or force its enemy to negotiate. But “balanced interventions,” when multiple actors become involved on both sides, lengthen wars by creating a stalemate. That is what has happened in Syria. Both the regime and its opponents received external support from multiple sources, but it was not sufficient for either to achieve military victory or force the other side to negotiate. The six players in Syria were strong enough to affect the conflict, but not strong enough to sway it decisively in one direction. The result is grim stalemate.

Turkey is a good example of a regional power whose ambitions outstrip its capacity: Rolls Royce dreams but Tofaş reality. “Compared to all other major players, Turkey is in the worst position compared to 2011,” Phillips argues. Back at the start of the Syrian conflict, Ankara had ambitions for regional leadership. These ambitions appear to now be in tatters. The war has contributed to Turkey’s internal challenges: The country now hosts over 3 million refugees, is targeted by ISIS terrorism, and is confronted by the radicalization of many of its own citizens. Turkey’s internal Kurdish situation has considerably worsened as a result of the Syrian war, while Ankara has watched allies of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) carve out a proxy state in Rojava across the border. Former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu once talked of Turkey being the “owner, pioneer and servant of the new Middle East,” but the Syrian morass now physically blocks it from the region.

“The Battle for Syria” is a crisply argued book enriched by interviews with top officials and representatives on all sides of the conflict. But Phillips is probably overstating it to suggest that the international dimension is underappreciated. News coverage of Syria today is overwhelmingly focused on the jostling of various international players. The hopeless suffering of ordinary Syrians seems like a secondary consideration.

Phillips argues that “some kind of update to the 1967 Khartoum Agreement, in which regional states agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty, is sorely needed to prevent the post-American Middle East descending into a chaos of local wars and failed states.” But he is not optimistic. There seems little appetite from the main regional players to accept such a balanced system. “Until the various external actors involved either have their goals sufficiently satisfied or cut their losses and leave the stage, the war is likely to continue in some form,” he suggests.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, regional states are scrambling around to maximize their advantages. In Antonio Gramsci’s over-quoted but germane words: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

‘The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East’ by Christopher Phillips (Yale University Press, $30, 320 pages available here.

Turkey’s Syria Intervention: A Sign of Weakness not Strength

By Christopher Phillips in Newsweek, 22 September 2016

Last month, Turkey intervened directly in northern Syria, sending tanks and troops in support of Syrian rebels. Operation Euphrates Shield targeted the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) after the deadly Gaziantep suicide bombing but Ankara made little secret of its desire to simultaneously engage another enemy, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s affiliate of the Turkish Kurdish separatists the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has swiftly established a buffer zone free from both ISIS, the PYD and its allies. Yet, while some pro-government commentators in Turkey have claimed this intervention is a display of strength, Ankara finally flexing its muscles to achieve its objectives in the long-running civil war, the reverse is closer to the truth. This military action represents the failure of Turkey’s Syria policy.

For Turkey the Syrian civil war has been disastrous. Five years ago, when peaceful protest against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Turkey looked set to benefit most from the anticipated regional shift. The ruling AKP’s ‘zero problems’ policy had transformed Turkey’s economic and political ties with the traditionally hostile Middle East. Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party was hailed by western leaders and regional activists as a model for Islamic democracy, the economy was booming and moves towards resolving Ankara’s long-standing unrest with its Kurdish population were cautiously being made.

Today, the picture is very different. Erdogan, now president, is widely condemned for his creeping authoritarianism. Crackdowns on journalists and academics have grown steadily as the AKP founder tightened his grip on power, and accelerated sharply after an attempted military coup against him in July. The PKK’s insurgency has resurfaced in the East, while the economy has been affected by the arrival of 2.7 million Syrian refugees and a decline in tourism following a string of ISIS and Kurdish terrorist attacks. Regionally, Turkey’s dreams of playing a leading role in a post-Arab Spring Middle East seem to be in tatters.

Turkey’s policies in Syria have played a major role in weakening its position. Determined to topple Assad, Ankara facilitated the flow of foreign funds and weapons to disparate groups in the rebellion, often turning a blind eye and even encouraging the rise of radical jihadists such as ISIS. This contributed to the division and weakness of the opposition, helping prolong the war, and allowed ISIS to form cells in Turkey that it would later activate against Ankara.

Similarly, Turkey used its influence with the rebels and international powers to exclude the PYD. This reinforced the Syrian Kurdish group’s mistrust of the rebels prompting them to stand alone and carve out their own autonomous territory, known locally as ‘Rojava,’ in northern Syria. As a result, Turkey now faces what it considers a PKK proto-state along its southern border, offering strategic depth and inspiration for attacks inside Turkey. Indeed the reigniting of violence in Turkey’s Kurdish regions was initially prompted by outrage at Ankara’s policies towards Rojava.

Turkey’s regional position was likewise hit. Its historically close ties with the U.S. was strained by Obama’s unwillingness to intervene directly against Assad despite Erdogan’s assumption that he would, due to Turkey’s initial reluctance to join the anti-ISIS campaign and then over Washington’s support for the PYD in its fight against the jihadists. Moscow’s foray into the war backing Assad also ruptured what had been close links between Erdogan and Putin, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015, leading to the death of a Russian pilot. Relations with Saudi Arabia also temporarily frayed on Syria because of Turkey’s closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh’s enemy.

Turkey has therefore spent the past few months trying to repair some of the damage from its Syria policy. In May, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was suddenly dismissed with Erdogan’s supporters blaming the departing premier for what were often the president’s Syria policies. Soon afterwards, alongside improving ties with Israel and Egypt, a rapprochement with Russia was sought, and Erdogan publicly apologized to Putin for the Russian pilot’s death. Tensions with Washington were also eased.

These rapprochements all facilitated Turkey’s Syria intervention in August, which would not have been possible without U.S. air cover and Russian assurances not to respond. Washington similarly ordered its ally, the PYD-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, to remain east of the Euphrates—the limit of Turkey’s incursion. There were also domestic reasons for the move. Erdogan, in his bid to change Turkey’s constitution to give greater powers to the presidency, is courting the votes of right-wing nationalists by portraying himself as tough on Kurdish militancy. Similarly, with the country rocked by the attempted coup in July, a foreign campaign is a welcome distraction for an anxious public and a military uneasy at the purges of alleged plotters currently underway.

However, this is no sign of strength. Erdogan has invaded northern Syria after all else has failed. He could not persuade the U.S. to intervene against Assad and proved unable to help forge a united and effective rebel force to overthrow the Syrian dictator. Instead he has had to send in Turkish troops directly, not to achieve his initial goal in Syria from 2011—toppling Assad—but to deal with new problems—ISIS and the PYD—that emerged partly as a result of his own policies. Moreover, with no clear exit strategy outlined and 10 troops already killed in the first month, a sharp contrast to the total of 20 lost by Russia in a year of operations, this move could yet turn into a quagmire and another costly Turkish failure on Syria.

The US and Russia could help end the Syria conflict

But are they hurting enough?

By Christopher Phillips, in Prospect, 26 August 2016

The shocking images coming from Aleppo in recent weeks are a stark reminder that there still seems no end in sight for Syria’s brutal civil war, now well into its fifth year. Over 500,000 have been killed and five million are refugees. What began as a largely peaceful revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship has now morphed into a brutal, multi-facetted conflict with heavy international involvement. Might international players hold the key to the war’s overdue end?

International interventions in civil wars are nothing new and political scientists have long sought to analyse their impact. Several studies show that while heavy intervention on one side can bring about a swift end to a civil war, “balanced interventions,” when multiple actors intervene on each side, prolong conflict by creating a stalemate. Syria is a clear case of such a balanced intervention. From the beginning of the war Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, have been willing to commit more to helping the regime than its foreign enemies—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the west—have to toppling it. By providing weapons, money, diplomatic support and more recently troops and airpower, Moscow and Tehran have ensured the regime’s medium-term survival. However, they have not solved Assad’s chronic manpower shortage, making it difficult for the regime to reconquer and hold hostile lost territory. Assad’s enemies have given the rebels money and weapons, but this has been hampered by western reluctance about the involvement of radical jihadists in the opposition and by rivalry among Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. While the rebels gained sufficient support to remain in the field in some capacity, they have never received support that matches that given to Assad. Toppling the Syrian dictator by military means is extremely unlikely.

Negotiation rather than military victory has therefore long seemed the most likely way the conflict can end. However, as seen by the failure of peace processes in 2012, 2014 and this year neither the regime nor the rebels seem willing to make significant compromises (primarily on whether Assad can remain as president) and their external backers have proved unwilling or unable to pressure them.

Again, political science offers some explanations for this. In past civil conflicts, belligerents have only seriously negotiated when they feel they will gain more from peace talks than war. This tends to happen when actors have reached a “hurting stalemate”: when continuing the war is more costly than compromise. However, neither of Assad’s key international allies are currently in such a position. Both Iran and Russia have lost personnel since both stepped up their involvement in 2015, but with Russia losing around 20 and Iran 400 men, not enough body bags are arriving home to create significant domestic pressure for them to change their policy on Syria. Nor is either really financially burdened by the campaign: Russia is reportedly spending $4m a day in Syria, but with an annual defence budget of $50bn this is affordable, despite the weak state of Russia’s economy. Likewise, Iran’s anticipated economic opening after the end of western sanctions gives it more money to pour into the campaign. Of the rebels’ key supporters, Saudi Arabia is not hurting either. Again, its economy is struggling with low oil prices, but the financial support sent to the rebels is still easily affordable. Moreover, unlike Syria’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia has not suffered the conflict’s immediate spillover in the form of refugees or radical militants, so has little incentive to shift its approach.

The two key external players that are hurting are the west and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, these are the actors seemingly most willing to change position. Turkey, struggling with over two million Syrian refugees and multiple terror attacks from Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish groups linked to the Syrian war, has recently softened its line. A growing rapprochement with Russia has seen prime minister Binali Yıldırım suggest there is some leeway on Assad’s future, previously a red line for Ankara. Damascus seems open to this new stance, symbolically bombing Turkey’s Kurdish enemies in Hasakeh last week. European leaders, suffering from the migrant crisis and increased IS terrorism have also hinted at a softer line on Assad, with various leaders suggesting the Syrian president may not have to leave immediately, while US Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly in deep discussions with Moscow about a possible settlement. However, even though Turkey and the west are hurting, both have invested heavily in the Syrian opposition and it seems unlikely either is at a point to cut their losses and walk away, which would represent an unacceptable loss in international prestige.

So what might change to make these key international actors hurt more and take negotiations more seriously? The election of a new US president in November may shift Washington’s approach. Some hope that Hillary Clinton, who advocated more action in Syria as Secretary of State and is closer to the anti-Assad Gulf states than Barack Obama is, will adopt a more aggressive stance, such as deploying a no-fly zone over rebel held areas or sending better weaponry. However, to escalate the US presence to the point that Russia and Iran begin “hurting” sufficiently to compromise would require a major commitment of US military resources. It would risk retaliation from Russia in an arena that the US has not historically seen as in its vital interest—an argument regularly made by Barack Obama for his own limited involvement. Moreover, US presidents rarely seek out major conflicts “of choice” early in their first term in office, fearing a quagmire that may damage their reelection prospects. Crucially, outside the DC Beltway, there is little domestic demand for the US to play a more active role in Syria.

Alternatively, should Donald Trump be elected, with his preference for a reduced international role for the US, it is possible he might entertain a deal with Vladimir Putin, perhaps keeping Assad in power and ending US support for the rebels. However, were Trump even to entertain such a potentially humiliating climbdown, there is no guarantee that allowing Assad to “win” would end the war. As discussed, even with Russian and Iranian assistance, Assad lacks the manpower to reconquer all of Syria. Large stretches of territory would remain potentially dangerous “ungoverned spaces” controlled by rebel groups, the Kurds, IS and new groups that may yet emerge. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey would be unlikely to accept such an outcome and, with their ties to the US already strained, would likely keep backing anti-Assad forces, continuing the war in some form.

Sadly then, it seems unlikely that enough key foreign actors in the Syrian civil war will experience enough hurt to end the conflict any time soon. A change in US president does not seem likely to prompt such a shift. More dramatic but less likely changes seem necessary, such as a major shift in Russian, Iranian or Saudi policy. In their absence, Syria’s brutal civil war looks set to continue.

The Battle for Syria – available for pre-order!

My new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East is out in September, but you can pre-order now on Amazon or via the publishers, Yale University Press.

Book cover

Most accounts of Syria’s brutal, long-lasting civil war focus on a domestic contest that began in 2011 and only later drew foreign nations into the escalating violence. Christopher Phillips argues instead that the international dimension was never secondary but that Syria’s war was, from the very start, profoundly influenced by regional factors, particularly the vacuum created by a perceived decline of U.S. power in the Middle East. This precipitated a new regional order in which six external protagonists-the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar-have violently competed for influence, with Syria a key battleground.

Drawing on a plethora of original interviews, Phillips constructs a new narrative of Syria’s war. Without absolving the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime, the author untangles the key external factors which explain the acceleration and endurance of the conflict, including the West’s strategy against ISIS. He concludes with some insights on Syria and the region’s future.

‘Syria’s horrific civil war has been profoundly shaped by the competitive interventions and proxy wars by external powers. The Battle for Syria offers a brilliant, essential account of the international dimension of Syria’s descent from uprising into insurgency and brutal state violence. This sober and judicious book will become a standard text for those seeking to understand Syria’s tragedy.’ – Marc Lynch, author of The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the Middle East

The Battle for Aleppo and the Politics of Intervention

As fighting in Aleppo intensifies, I recently made a few media appearances, discussing the conflict and the chances of a sustainable ceasefire.

BBC News at 10 on 3 May 2016 (around 2:03)

BBC 5 Live Drive on 3 May 2016 (around 1:53)

As well as this, in March I took part in a panel as part of a book launch at the London School of Economics. The audio file can be found here, with my segment beginning around 00:54 mins. The book, to which I have contributed a chapter, is Mandy Turner and Florian P Kuhn (eds.), ‘The Politics of International Intervention: The Tyranny of Peace’ (London: Routledge 2016) can be purchased here.

 

 

 

A UK strategy for Syria?

By Christopher Phillips

These comments were first made at a Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) panel discussion at the UK Parliament, 4 November 2015

Caabu2

The first question we should ask is whether there has been a UK strategy for Syria so far. For four years UK policy on Syria has been confused and reactive, with many of its stated goals, including its desire to remove Assad from power, not matched by a capacity to achieve them. Instead, Britain has done more to fuel the civil war than resolve it.

Let’s go back to 2011: three things are worth recalling about when protests first emerged against the Assad regime in Syria. Firstly, Syria was a state over which the west had little leverage. It was in Russia and Iran’s sphere of influence, trade was limited and there were few personal ties with the elite or military, unlike, say, Egypt. Secondly, it was an era of military and financial retrenchment in the west. Obama had come to power determined to leave the Middle East while Britain was war weary from Iraq and cutting military spending. Thirdly, from the very beginning western leaders recognised the potential combustibility of Syria – its ethnically mixed population, its proximity to recent civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdish Turkey, its large stock of chemical weapons and the potential for radical Jihadism. For these reasons leaders were slow to condemn Assad when his forces gunned down unarmed protestors, urging him for months to reform.

None of those conditions changed, and yet in August 2011, five months after protests began, the UK joined with President Obama and other western leaders in calling for Assad to stand down. This was a political decision. The British, French and American ambassadors in Damascus were all reporting home that Assad was not likely to fall anytime soon, having sufficient support among Syria’s military, Middle classes and ethnic minorities. However, this decision was overruled by elected leaders, including in the UK, who felt under pressure to act and ‘do the right thing’.

This locked Britain into an anti-Assad policy – which it is still locked in – that it had only limited capacity to achieve. The UK tried to persuade the Americans on several occasions to deploy greater military pressure, but Obama was already reluctant to be dragged into another unwinnable quagmire like Iraq and he saw the instability of post-war Libya – the last conflict he had been persuaded into. It tried to pressure Assad through sanctions, but Syria was not integrated enough into the global economy nor had an economic elite independent of the regime for this to prompt any internal coup. It tried UN Security Council resolutions, but Syria’s old ally Russia protected it. It worked with the Syrian opposition in exile, but having no historical relationship had to start from scratch and struggled to overcome the deep personal and political divisions that prevented it from becoming a united and effective force.

Britain and the west declared a policy of regime change, yet lacked the capacity and will to bring it about, but the actors in the region didn’t know that. Of course, little was done to dispel their misperceptions that the west could intervene any day – indeed it was (wrongly) hoped that the implicit threat behind calling for Assad to go might prompt a scared elite to turn against him. Convinced that western intervention, like that seen in Libya, would eventually come, Qatar and Turkey and eventually Saudi Arabia helped arm rebel forces against Assad with the tacit approval of Britain and the West. The opposition already favoured a zero sum view of the conflict, that Assad must go, but they were encouraged to maintain it by their regional supporters and, indeed Britain. At the two peace conferences on Syria thus far, in 2012 and 2014, the UK along with other western leaders reaffirmed their uncompromising stance that Assad must go as a precondition – contributing to their failure.

Western commitment to regime change impacted Assad’s allies too. Russia and Iran, already strong supporters of Damascus, saw in the west’s August 2011 declaration a move to try to pull Syria from their influence. This redoubled their determination to ensure the regime survived or, at least prevent Syria from falling into enemy hands. Yet the difference for Assad’s friends was they were defending their regional position and were willing to commit much more to the fight than Assad’s enemies. Both Russia and Iran have risked their regional reputations, large sums of money, and their own troops, while Assad’s enemies have deployed financial and political support only.

The result of this is a balanced conflict: all the external actors have helped fuel a war that neither side is likely to win. The limited capacity and will of each state means they are able to provide enough support to keep the war going, but not enough to tip the balance. At the same time no state is hurting enough from their involvement to prompt a change in policy. Indeed, despite optimistic hopes that Iran and Russia will soon reach a ‘breaking point’ Russia’s recent deployment of air power and Iran’s sending more troops illustrates that both states have a long way to go before that happens. Moreover, for all the states involved, the Syrian civil war is just one piece in a wider picture: the Iran-Saudi regional rivalry, Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds, Russia’s bid for great power recognition and, of course, the west’s clash with ISIS. The question is whether anyone is willing to make concessions on their wider goals to stop Syria’s war.

So that brings us to what the UK can do now. I don’t have a specific plan but I think that given the mistakes and miscalculations outlined so far, three things in particular should be encouraged.

Firstly, Britain should recognise that its capacity in Syria is limited. It acts like it has a big mouth but a small stomach, declaring big intentions but without the ability to fulfil them. Of all the players in the civil war, Britain’s leverage is among the smallest. It has largely mimicked the US’ position, but this has not translated into much influence. Rather than being a US echo chamber Britain would do better to act as an innovator – proposing or trialling ideas initially unpalatable to its ally the US, such as brokering talks with controversial actors. Alternatively, Britain could use its profile to spotlight aspects of the conflict missed by other actors. William Hague did this by highlighting sexual violence and initially the UK was making loud noises about Syria’s refugees, before its negative attitude to the extension of that crisis to Europe undid much of this good work.

Secondly, Britain must not be involved in any escalation of the conflict. The war has seen a steady pattern of escalation and counter-escalation by states supporting and opposing Assad. Four years of war has shown that there is no military solution as, every time Assad’s enemies make gains, his allies counter, and the danger is this will go on until there is no Syria left to fight over. Britain must use what limited leverage it has to urge de-escalation upon the region and certainly not contribute by launching military moves itself. Engaging in the Vienna peace process is a start. Britain should lead by example and abandon its self imposed zero sum call for Assad to go as a precondition. It is from concessions such as this that confidence building measures, such as ceasefires and halts to barrel bombing can be obtained from Russia and Iran.

Thirdly, Britain must think long term. The potential for Syria’s uprising to turn into a civil war, the refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS were all visible from a long way off, yet next to nothing was done about it. Today, there are other clear fallouts from the war needing attention including instability in Syria’s neighbouring states and the unknown fate of Syria’s refugees which, if left untreated, could be the source of the next crisis. Ensuring all Syrian refugee children get a proper education, for example, would be a way to avoid their future radicalisation, and building schools is cheaper (and more effective) than dropping bombs.

Such vision and innovation has so far been absent from the UK, and consequently it has contributed far more to fuelling the war than it has to resolving it. A re-evaluation is therefore sorely needed.

Syria’s Refugees: When did the West become so heartless?

Recently I went to see Miss Saigon at the West End, a tragic musical set in the years after the Vietnam War. In one scene, the lead characters flee on a crowded boat full of migrants from dictatorship and violence in their homeland, risking their lives in search of safety. This suddenly began to look familiar. For those who have followed the Syrian civil war since its outbreak in 2011 the story is sadly well known: millions have fled, thousands by boat, but without the singing, dancing and comic relief. My interest piqued: how was the Indochina refugee crisis dealt with and what might we learn for Syria? Even a cursory investigation showed there was one standout difference between then and now: the western governments of that era put today’s leaders to shame.

(Syrian migrants rescued - Image from UNHCR)

(Syrian migrants rescued – Image from UNHCR)

The late 1970s saw a massive refugee crisis in Indochina. Communist takeovers in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, along with Vietnam’s wars with its neighbours created millions of refugees. By 1979 over a million had fled, mostly to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, who housed them in camps. In the first six months of 1979 alone 209,000 refugees had arrived, including many ‘boat people’ that died making the perilous journey. Malaysia and Thailand, both overwhelmed, declared they would take no more. At the invitation of the UN Secretary General in July 1979, 65 countries came together at a conference where Western states agreed to accept 260,000 refugees a year. In the space of 18 months, more than 450,000 Indochinese refugees were resettled from camps to new homes in the west, mostly in the US, Canada, France and Australia.

The scale of the Syria refugee crisis dwarfs that of Indochina. There are currently over 4 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR who, like the Indochinese have fled a vicious conflict and brutal dictatorship (whether Assad or ISIS) mostly to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. As these countries have become overwhelmed and increased restrictions on the refugees, thousands have resorted to boats across the Mediterranean hoping to make it to the EU. In a sad retelling of the Indochinese tragedy , today Europe has its own ‘boat people’ risking their lives to flee. According to UNHCR Syrians make up by far the largest number of the boat people, with the number crossing to the Greek islands close to Turkey peaking this summer. 160,000 migrants have crossed to Greece since January, 20,843 alone. In contrast 27,000 were arriving by boat per month at the height of the Indochinese crisis.

So where is the UN Secretary General and the conference to resettle Syria’s refugees the way western countries so admirably did in 1979? In December last year UNHCR asked members to pledge resettlement for 130,000 Syrians – half that asked for (and met) in the Indochina crisis. Yet the response was lukewarm at best. As of August 2015 73,863 places had been promised by western countries. A handful of states shouldered most, with Germany promising 35,000 places, Canada taking 10,000 and Norway 9,000. The US has offered a separate ‘open-ended resettlement’ to 16,286. Sweden’s relatively low 2,700 should not mask that it with Germany has so far hugely outstripped other EU members’ efforts (Sweden has 40,000, Germany 100,000). The most shameful figures came from France and Britain, two states that have been heavily involved in the Syria conflict, with France offering only 1000 places and Britain only 197 in its Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. While many Syrians have come to Britain and France independently and then successfully claimed asylum, these are mostly the wealthy and/or educated and not the same as resettling refugees. This does little to ease the burden on those states hosting the most in need.

So what has changed? Why were western states willing to resettle four times as many Indochinese refugees a year in 1979 as they have been willing to house in total from Syria? Westerners are no worse off or less capable of hosting refugees than they were in the late 70s. Taking arguably the worst offender, Britain, as an example, the economic situation then was not dissimilar to now. In 1979-82 Britain suffered a recession, far worse than the sluggish growth it has faced during the height of the Syria refugee crisis (2012-15). GDP per capita averaged $9k, comparable in today’s prices to the $40k it averaged in 2012-15, while unemployment averaged 7.5%, compared to 7.3% in 2012-15. In another parallel, in May 1979 a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power on a platform of rolling back the state, one seemingly emulated by David Cameron and George Osbourne today. Yet that government accepted nearly 25,000 Indochinese refugees, compared to 197 from Syria now.

Two things stand out when comparing government attitudes to Syria’s refugees and those of Indochina. Firstly, there was a greater recognition of the refugees’ victim status. States with few historical ties to Indochina such as Canada (and indeed Britain) were willing to provide refuge (and relief for the overwhelmed host countries) out of a sense of moral duty. Today, that moral duty extends only to funding the host countries – Britain points to its generosity in this regard when deflecting from its poor resettling record. Yet politicians including the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary don’t hesitate to use dehumanizing language about asylum seekers approaching their shores.

Secondly, the western sense of responsibility for the refugees’ plight that drove proceedings in 1979 seems absent today. The US, which had a military presence in Vietnam for decades and bombed Cambodia and Laos, eventually took over 1 million Indochinese from 1979-97, while another combatant, Australia, took 185,000 and the former colonial master, France, over 100,000. Each seemed to implicitly accept some responsibility for the mess. Today, the US, Britain and France have all contributed to Syria’s civil war, providing political, economic, lethal and non-lethal support for the rebels. They may claim this was the morally right thing to do against Assad’s onslaughts, yet won’t extend the same morality to resettling the conflict’s refugees. Moreover, many of the destabilizing forces driving violence in Syria today – Jihadism, sectarianism, regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were the product of or greatly exacerbated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.

Of course many of the other states who have helped fuel the war in Syria are just as bad, with Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, having resettled barely any refugees (the Gulf states house many Syrians but, like Britain and France, mostly wealthier and skilled workers who have arrived independently). Yet this is not an excuse for a lack of leadership from western states and it would be much easier to pressure those states to accept more refugees once the west has done likewise. After years of refusing to deal with the problem, it is high time western leaders rediscovered the spirit of 1979 and took the lead.