The Syrian refugee crisis and what it means to Americans

The Obama administration has said the U.S. will accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Good idea? Bad idea? Humanitarian necessity? Unnecessary risk? CommDigiNews EIC has some answers.

Base photo courtesy of UNHRC -
Base photo courtesy of UNHRC -

WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, 2015 – Pundits are comparing the Syrian refugee crisis to the humanitarian crisis during World War II when Nazi Germany terrorized Europe in its quest for ethnic and religious cleansing.

Then, as now, the situation is one that is confusing to most Americans. There is a lot of talk about which countries are willing to take on refugees and how America should step up and help. The U.S., like the majority of countries globally, are participants in the 1951 U.N. Treaty on Refugees, whereby signatories agree to provide asylum to those fleeing from a brutal regime or natural disaster.

Many countries are stepping up to help the Syrian refugees.

Giving aid to Syrian refugees heading to Greece

Turkey shares a border with Syria and has taken in over 1.9 million refugees, 14 percent of whom are being sheltered in camps (CNN.COM). Many are children and teens – 50 percent under the age of 18 (UN).

Lebanon has taken in 1.1m Syrian refugees, increasing the country’s population by 25 percent, to 4.4 million. This gives Lebanon the dubious distinction of be the country with the highest per capital concentration of refugees.

Last year, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said: “The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country. For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering,”

Jordan is offering refuge to persons from Iraq, Somalia and Sudan and Syria. Syrians comprise the largest number, with 20 percent of those refugees living in camps.

Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic also share a border. Iraq is sheltering 249,463 Syrian refugees. The majority are being housed in Erbil (82,098 persons / 35,491 households) Duhok (42,462/13,550) and Domiz (40,790/13,382). Thirty-two percent of all Syrian refugees in Iraq are living in camps, according to the U.S. State Department.

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawairis is trying to help Syrian refugees. Some 132,00 so far have emigrated to Egypt. Sawairis is attempting buy an isle from Greece or Italy for refugees.

The Persian Gulf states that share close ties to Syria, sharing linguistic and cultural, have taken few refugees. Saudi Arabia had taken in zero refugees. These states include the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, has characterized the Gulf countries’ inaction in this matter as “shameful” despite the fact that those countries have, according to the U.N., given more than $500 million in relief aid over the last two plus.

Angela Merkle, chancellor for Germany, is calling for quotas to be set for every country to take a “share” of displaced individuals. Presently there are nearly 100 thousand Syrians located in Germany; Sweden has 64,700 new souls, Britain and France has each taken about 7,000 refugees; Denmark, 11,300; and Hungary, 18,800. Other European countries taking refugees include Spain (5,500), the Netherlands (14,100), Austria (18,600) Switzerland (8,300) and Bulgaria (Bulgaria).

With the United States in turmoil over illegal immigration over the Southern border, fomented as a Humanitarian Relief necessity, America is now being faced with admitting Syrian refugees. So far, the U.S. has welcomed about 1,500 refugees since January of this year.

“The United States is committed to maintaining a robust refugee admissions program, and is particularly aware of the needs of the Syrian refugee population,” a State Department statement said. “In the last year, in light of the significant number of Syrian refugees displaced in the Middle East region, we have made substantial efforts to facilitate increased admissions from this population, and aim to admit meaningfully increased numbers of Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2016.”

The United States has given the largest share of aid to the Syrian refugee crisis, more than $574 million, or 31 percent of total aid donated, the United Nations says.

With Syrian refugees coming into the U.S., the fear, as it is in many countries, is how to make sure those refugees are in fact refugees, not jihadi attempting to enter the U.S.

Refugee immigration is now a massive problem in Europe

House Committee on Homeland Security chairman Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas., fears terrorist may be exploiting refugee status and cites that lack of actionable intelligence on the ground in Syria to bet able to vet refugees before they enter into the U.S. “I can’t support a policy that would allow a jihadist pipeline into the United States,” the Texas Republican told Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” program. “We’ve read their documents themselves when they talk about exploiting the refugee issue to get into the United States.”

McCaul further said that he thinks the migration is a “tragedy of extraordinary proportions,” but at the same time, “we’ve got to do this thing right. [Bringing] thousands of Syrians into the United States, not knowing who they are, I think would be very irresponsible.”

So what is the story? Are we Compassionate America or Safe America?

Migrants, refugees, and the dying American soul

When I want to better understand the issues challenging us, I turn to Communities Digital News Editor in Chief, Lisa Ruth, a former CIA officer and expert on the Middle East and terrorist groups, for some answers.

Jacquie Kubin/CDN: Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., is calling the crises the fault of the “failed, feckless, foreign policies of Barack Obama.” Do you agree?

Lisa Ruth: It is tempting to blame the Obama Administration, as it clearly has lacked a coherent policy regarding Syria and Assad, Iraq, ISIS, and many other foreign policy issues. However, the situation with Syria is far more complex.

The Syrian opposition is, and has been, highly fragmented and divided. The groups initially were as interested in fighting among themselves as they were in fighting Assad, and the situation was further complicated by a group of leaders in Turkey who claimed to lead the opposition while the Free Syrian Army inside Syria claimed to lead the opposition.

Their own bickering and sometimes physical fighting made it very difficult to figure out who the U.S. could support. When the U.S. did attempt to back small “moderate” groups, the results were bad at best, disastrous at worse. We know that many of the arms we provided these groups ended up in the hands of hard-line Islamic fundamentalists, and we know that many of these moderates worked with those groups.

I’m not just talking about ISIS, but also Al-Nusra and others.

There is also the fact that Russia and China have used their veto power in the U.N. repeatedly to avoid having stronger sanctions or military action against Assad. Russia has a base in Syria which it desperately wants to hold on to, and it sells massive amounts of weapons to Assad. Russia also does not want another U.S.-friendly government in the region. Again, a complication.

Once ISIS became a real threat in the country, the situation became even more difficult. If Assad leaves today, there is a very good chance Syria will fall to ISIS. That isn’t an outcome anyone wants.

That said, the only way to really resolve this mess is with a strong, international force. Where Sen. McCain could be right is in the fact that the U.S. has not stepped up to lead this multinational effort and that neither Russia nor China is at all concerned about U.S. bluster on the subject.

But again, right now, removing Assad would almost certainly create a vacuum that ISIS would be happy to fill. If you want to see what that looks like, look at Libya. The international community needs to be very, very careful before it takes action in Syria, and really needs to understand the situation far better than it does currently.

CDN: Sen. McCaul says that the U.S. problem with accepting refugees is due to concern about the lack of human intelligence on the ground that would all the U.S. to track jihadists and vet those who would like to immigrate to the U.S., which is different than when we welcomed refugees from Iran: What changed and why?

LISA RUTH: Humint (Human Intelligence) isn’t really the answer in terms of vetting refugees. One problem my colleagues are telling me about in terms of Syrian refugees is lack of documentation and the transliteration of names. It is extremely difficult to check backgrounds when there are no records.

Additionally, it isn’t that we welcomed the Iraqi refugees in with welcome arms.

Under a U.N. agreement, the US agreed to take about 7,000 Iraqi refugees right after the U.S. invasion. Very few of those actually made it in.

Since 2007, there has been a program under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program where Iraqi nationals can be referred for resettlement into the United States. The process is still long and arduous.

According to U.N. statistics, approximately 203,321 Iraqi’s have gotten appropriate referrals for the program. Of those, 84,902 have arrived in the U.S. According to a colleague in the U.N. office, “Millions and millions want to apply but don’t even get referrals.”

Again, however, humint isn’t the answer. More intelligence on the ground might help identify some jihadists, but when you are trying to deal with lack of records, names that are difficult to transliterate/trace, devastation, humint would not really add very much.

CDN: Gulf Persian States are throwing money at the crisis, but not helping with refugee sheltering. Many are saying that they should be leading this effort as they share the border, speak the same language and share religion. Why won’t they help with the physical refugees?

LISA RUTH: Most Gulf states have very strict regulations regarding immigrants. Gulf states are hiding behind the fact that they don’t have an official refugee designation – they haven’t signed the U.N. treaty on refugees, so anyone fleeing would have to apply for a visa just like anyone else.

The reality, however, is that they are worried about stability and security, and believe they can pay their way out of this. Gulf states do not want to open their borders to potential terrorists, but they also do not want to deal with potentially disruptive refugee camps.

According to one source in Saudi Arabia, having a large non-Saudi population could “change the dynamic” of the country. “And that is something we just don’t want to deal with.”

CDN: The Gulf Persian State and refugees are Sunni Arabs versus Sunni Extremists that are building the ISIS caliphate. Is there an easy way to identify the difference? Is it as simple as their views on Sharia law and human rights?

LISA RUTH: The difference is whether they belong to a terrorist organization or not. They are Sunni Muslims. They are Sunni Arabs. Some are also Sunni Extremists. The Sunni part does not define whether they are terrorists or not.

CDN: Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is running for the Democratic nomination, says that the U.S. should do as the U.N. subscribes and take 65,000 refugees by the end of the year.

Can we safely take in that number of refugees, properly vetting them to insure our national safety?

LISA RUTH: Absolutely. If the vetting process is legitimate and comprehensive, we can. The question is whether that can happen, and right now, I don’t believe there is a methodology to do that.

The other issue is the humanitarian one, and how to help these people who have been through so much assimilate and thrive. We have had mixed results with other refugee groups.

Some Somalis, for example, have found it extremely difficult to find work in the United States, even with training. There are some who believe that if we bring in refugees and essentially end support to them after several months – as we did with some Somalis – we create communities ripe for extremist recruitment.

If we are going to take in refugees, we have to understand that there is more to it than bringing them to the United States. Think about this: if we bring in refugees and they become disenfranchised for whatever reason, but now they have a passport, that’s not good for national security either.

It is, again, a very difficult situation.

CDN: If we opened our borders to Syrians, as the administration did along the Texas border and Gov. O’Malley says we should do now, would we be able to retroactively track those persons to insure against terrorists sneaking in as well.

LISA RUTH: Retroactively track them? I don’t think so. If we vet them properly, then terrorists won’t be “sneaking in.” But I think the idea of keeping tabs on them after they are here is 1. Difficult and 2. Unpalatable.

From a national security standpoint, I am still not convinced we have the ability to fully clear individuals coming in to this country, at least not in a short period of time. That means balancing national security with humanitarian concerns.

That is a very tough situation to be in.

CDN: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says that the U.S. must lead in the effort to defeat Assad and ISIS to end the crisis. Can America end these terrorist regimes if we “want to”?

LISA RUTH: Yes, but it would take an unprecedented effort and I’m not sure that the American people, the American government or anyone else wants to see that. It would take a full-fledged, all out deployment of all our forces – military and intelligence.

I think a better solution would be a multi-national force going in. However, the problem with ISIS is different than the problem with Assad. ISIS is not a top-down movement. It was borne from the bottom up, from the grassroots, so eliminating the leadership doesn’t eliminate the ideology.

I know it’s unpopular to say, but unless we are willing to really address the root causes of the violence – disenfranchisement, anger, poverty, or whatever else – we will not defeat the ideology.

It may be called something else, but it will remain.

Also, to eliminate ISIS, any force needs to launch against them not only in Syria but also in Iraq and throughout the region. Otherwise, they can use an escape valve and we will just end up pushing them into areas like Libya, which currently lacks an effective government, where they can continue to operate.

I also again warn that defeating Assad opens the way for ISIS unless there is some counter-weight to the two of them, which doesn’t seem to exist currently. We don’t want to eliminate one problem only to face another.

CDN: Donald Trump is outright blaming President Barack Obama for the crisis, citing what (many) see as the president’s failure to act in 2012 when he said that if Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed the “red line” of chemical weapon use, but then did nothing.

Did the president’s lack of action make us weak? Or was something “done” that most American’s are not aware of?

LISA RUTH: Back to my initial answer…removing Assad doesn’t eliminate the problem. Not in itself. On the chemical weapons, it was a huge issue to have those weapons removed, but it was also a huge message to Assad – and probably more importantly, to Russia – that nothing was going to happen.

We know Assad continues to use barrel bombs and there are continued reports of Assad using chemical weapons against his own people. He is a brutal, bloody dictator. But the current crisis is as much about ISIS and the devastation in the country as it is about Assad.

The situation has simply deteriorated to a crisis point, and the problem now is there is virtually no realistic way to get the lid back on.

CDN: Does ISIS have such a stronghold that we can no longer stop the insurgence in the Middle East?

LISA RUTH: Defeating ISIS would take a huge effort on a number of fronts. There is no question it is strong, that it is wealthy, that it is expanding, and that it is embedded. Even if we have military gains against ISIS, the ideology is likely to continue to fester and resonate.

Al-Qaeda continues, Al-Shabab continues, Boko Haram continues. They are all manifestations of this same terrorist ideology. The question is how to defeat terrorism, how to stop it before it starts.

Right now, ISIS is the biggest game in town, fed by massive financial resources. Success attracts followers, as does it’s slick social media campaign.

Yes, we need to defeat it militarily, because the toll it is taking on people and places is immense. But again, we also need to use intelligence and other resources to really understand the conditions that allow these terrorist groups to flourish and we need to find ways to eradicate that.

Otherwise, we will keep fighting these same wars over and over, people will continue dying, and peace will remain elusive.

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