In the last week, heart-wrenching photographs of dead children on Europe's shores have re-ignited calls for wealthy western states to reform their refugee policies and re-settle more people fleeing the wars in the Middle East. As a result, Tony Abbott announced on Wednesday that Australia will accept an extra 12,000 refugees from Syria. While increasing refugee intake is important, it will not solve the crisis, which is not about refugee policy, but about the need to end one of the worst civil wars of our time.
There are currently two wars raging in Syria. The first is a civil war between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition over the way the Syrian state is governed.
If world leaders are serious about responding to the refugee crisis, they need to be serious about ending the Syrian civil war.
The second is broader and we hear more about it – it is the war waged by Islamic State to establish a Caliphate across the region. Too often, these two wars have been conflated, and the former has been complicated and obscured by the grotesque and show-stopping horrors of the latter.
The Syrian civil war began when non-violent protests against the Assad government were met with brutality in March 2011. Since then, 12 million people have been affected, which is more than the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and Haiti earthquake combined. Half of Syria's population has been displaced: 4 million to neighbouring countries, and nearly 8 million within Syria. The war has killed more than 250,000 people, nearly a third of which were civilians. It is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, and it shows no sign of abating.
This war has seen nearly unprecedented levels of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Assad regime has waged a campaign deliberately targeting civilians. He has used chemical weapons, chlorine bombs and barrel bombs, all of which are illegal under international law and cause massive human casualties and suffering. In the first two years of the war, Assad's forces killed 11,000 people in prisons through starvation, torture, gouging out eyes and mutilating bodies. Assad has cut off opposition areas from essential supplies, including food, water, and medical provisions. He has conducted a systematic campaign of fracturing opposition forces, including through tacitly allowing ISIS to establish itself in Syria to create a second front against which rebels had to fight.
The world has largely looked away. Early efforts to negotiate a peace deal between the Assad regime and the opposition forces failed, partly because there was little incentive for Assad to negotiate: backed by Russia, he knew that he could still win militarily over the rag-tag forces of the Free Syrian Army. Then the Islamic State war began, and all eyes focused on that.
If world leaders are serious about responding to the refugee crisis, they need to be serious about ending the Syrian civil war, and this means disentangling their responses to these two wars. Bombing IS will not contribute to resolving the Syrian civil war. And ending the Syrian civil war will not end the IS war, but it would be a first step in filling the power vacuum that IS has exploited, and would undermine its power base and support networks.
The international community has helped end civil wars in the past, and we can draw on those lessons now in responding to the Syrian civil war.
First, a no-fly zone must be established over Syria to stop the aerial bombardment of civilian targets across the country. This would remove the strategic advantage the Assad regime has, and create a dynamic in which neither the regime nor opposition forces can realistically hope for military victory. This mutually hurting stalemate would help create conditions which are 'ripe' for third-party mediation – a negotiated peace settlement would become a more attractive option for the regime and opposition.
Second, the international community should stand ready to actively facilitate and support a negotiated peace process, and should ensure that all parties to the civil war are included.
Lastly, the international community should commit sufficient resources to the implementation of the peace settlement and the rebuilding of the country to ensure that peace has the best chance of 'sticking'. This will require the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission to oversee the demilitarisation of the country, and the re-establishment of security and governance systems.
The solution to the refugee crisis currently flooding the media is not changing refugee policies in developed countries. Increasing Australia's refugee intake by 12,000, or even by 800,000 as Germany is considering, is a drop in the ocean when 12 million people are already displaced, and more will be as the war continues.
There need to be renewed efforts to end the war in Syria through a political settlement, and this is what we should demand our governments work towards. It may be hard, but it's not impossible, and it's the only option. Until the war ends, the flood of refugees will just keep coming.
This opinion piece first appeared in The Age
Image credit; AP