The Wrong Argument and the Right Answer for Syrian Refugees

By Morgan Deane:

President Trump’s executive action concerning immigrants and refugees continues to dominate the headlines. There is a great deal of moral concern for refugees on one side and a respect for national security on the other. These are important topics, and need to be argued respectfully. Unfortunately, most of the debate has been incredibly emotional at the expense of rational discussion.

Something is missing from the debates; essentially, we are having the wrong argument. The refugee crisis is the result of decisions years ago by President Obama, who prolonged the fight in Syria and created a wave of migration while failing to provide those fleeing with options to stay.

In 2017, NGOs estimated there will be over 13 million internally displaced persons in Syria. Most of these refugees have fled to neighboring countries, but the pipeline from the Middle East to Europe and America is shorter than many people think. The refugee plan of many countries consists of letting them travel to the next. From Turkey, they can get to Greece; from North Africa, they can sail to Italy; and from Europe, they have many options to get to America.

The only options presented to stop the civil war in Syria have been a hysterical fear of “boots on the ground,” straw man about sending half a million soldiers for 20 years, and a rather dilatory air campaign. There are many other options that could have ended the civil war far earlier. In 2011, there were credible non-jihadist opposition groups that could have been armed. Actively arming rebels and tipping the balance in the civil war are still options that could help ease the refugee crisis by going to the source. Most would prefer to be able to stay in their home countries if given the chance.

Humanitarian no-fly zones might have given NGOs enough breathing room to set up decent camps, schools, and hospitals as well as given Syrians a chance to form an internal resettlement plan. These people—and especially the children—face risks that include malnutrition, dehydration, infectious diseases, and injury that could be helped in-country much better than later in Western countries (if they make it at all).

Many need support after being exposed to traumatic events, violence, and human rights abuses and violations. The UN already has a plan to help these people, and it would be more effectively administered in their home country compared to refugee camps around the Middle East and the world.

President Trump and other Republicans got a good deal of mileage out of promising to “carpet bomb” ISIS. It wouldn’t be that hard for a recently victorious president to use his tough guy credentials to solve an unprecedented global problem. A no-fly zone that protected a large portion of the 13 million displaced persons would be the kind of big, shiny, gold-plated policy decision that he promised, and that won him the presidency.

The no-fly zone has numerous advantages. Its humanitarian purpose and nonmilitary value would decrease the risk of confrontation and incidents with Russia. It has a history of working, as NATO implemented humanitarian no-fly zones during the Bosnian civil war. A joint operation with NATO countries would strengthen allies who are a bit nervous after Trump called the alliance “obsolete.” They would have an interest in taking part in that operation since they have many more refugees and a much larger debate over the matter.

Leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel are facing stiff challenges from anti-immigration opponents, and ought to be interested in offering alternative solutions that keeps displaced persons in their home countries. This option is not risk-free, however. A single shot-down, tortured pilot would turn American opinion against the action, and a rapid withdrawal would damage American credibility. This almost happened in the Bosnian no-fly zone when Bosnian Serbs shot down Scott O’Grady’s plane; he dodged Serbian hit squads for six days before being rescued. Relations with Russia remain tense, and they are likely to vigorously oppose and test an American presence in the region. A single incident has the potential to start a war that Americans don’t seem to want.

Overall, the option has a great deal of merit, especially compared to the arguments over a mere few thousand refugees. A great many Syrians would choose to stay if they had a choice, and there is a better solution to the crisis that avoids the long, dangerous, and uncertain path of refugees. Instead, due to a lack of leadership and poor strategic choices since 2011, the civil war has raged for years and ravaged the country. As a result, there are few options for refugees except to move to someplace else.

This critical debate has devolved into partisan talking points and hysteria about downstream issues. Instead of arguing about the difference between the 50,000 refugees and the previously established 110,000, there is still a chance to help the 13 million displaced persons still inside Syria. Too many are attacked as warmongers for wanting to intervene in Syria, but there is a compelling human interest that could solve a much bigger problem, help more people, and use largely the same assets that America has already committed in their air campaign against ISIS. In short, if President Obama had been a bit more assertive in 2011, he could have prevented much of this crisis that we see today.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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