Syria and its neighbours have borne witness to many horrors over the years. These have intensified of late, and the country has seen its citizens brutalised, its economy and infrastructure deliberately and cynically degraded, and its population trapped between the twin horrors of Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. None of this is new; none of it is novel. The roots of this current tragedy are the brutal repression by the Assad regime and the emergence of a civil war, the first acts of which took place in early 2011. The current refugee crisis – which stems inexorably from this first act of repression – is the obvious end result of a civil conflict in which over 9 million have been made refugees and over 200,000 have been killed.
The default reaction to this from the wider world – especially European nations – has been one of indifference tinged with sporadic bouts of interest. But the current situation – one in which thousands of refugees take to dangerous waters in a bid to reach safety in another continent, and one in which a terrible number perish in the attempt – appears to have elicited a different reaction from the peoples of Europe and other nations in general. Now, many ordinary citizens of these countries, in addition to their politicians, are expressing their heartbreak and concern publicly, and increasingly those same politicians are facing pressure to admit more refugees from Syria and the region.
While on the face of it this attitude is commendable, it comes after years of indifference, at best, and active animosity, at worst, toward the Syrian people and their struggle for freedom. There is a great deal of European (and specifically British) hypocrisy on the issue of refugees from the Middle East.
The refugee crisis in Syria has been an ongoing humanitarian disaster for many years, one which has practically overwhelmed neighboring nations and depleted many already scarce resources. According to United Nations statistics, Lebanon alone has had to accommodate more than 1 million Syrians; the real figure is much higher. States neighbouring Syria have been left to shoulder this heavy burden by themselves for several years, effectively unaided by the wider international community. But now European publics have started to take an interest in these matters, though they do so for singularly transient reasons and in spite of their previous opposition to actions that might have prevented the terror in the first instance.
Europe has for many years exhibited a deeply unsatisfactory attitude towards those born in foreign climes, and many European nations – Britain included – have witnessed a rise of nativism and reactionary attitudes towards migrants of every stripe. In light of this pronounced aspect of the European character, the apparent transformation of this perspective into one more approaching tolerance and solidarity ought to be treated with some scepticism. Until very recently, after all, British politicians like Nigel Farage of Ukip, a hard-Right political party, saw fit to issue statements and take positions very similar to those of the current Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who apparently sees Muslim refugees as a threat to ‘European Christianity’. Just last year, Farage said that Britain should only accept Christian refugees from areas threatened or controlled by ISIS; and the worst of it is that this reprehensible suggestion was the result of a backlash from his party, which vehemently rejected his previous position, a position that was seen to be too soft on those seeking asylum. During the recent general election campaign, Farage said that migrant boats should be turned back rather than rescued.
It seems that these comments have a wide constituency: Farage and his party secured nearly 4 million votes in the ensuing May election. Such an attitude cannot be taken lightly – and it cannot be simply shrugged off by the wider world in the face of some transient evidence of new-found compassion. (In any case, the very newness of the compassion expressed deserves scrutiny. After all, the crisis is not a new one; and some of us have been writing about it for years.)
And it is often those who most bitterly opposed the suggestion of action against Assad, which might have minimized the scale of the immense human tragedy in Syria and the region, who now criticize governments and peoples for not doing enough to help the victims of this inaction. Farage was in the front rank of those who opposed David Cameron’s desire to intervene in Syria in August 2013, in a move spurred by the chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta carried out by the Assad regime. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, and many other apparently Left-wing voices agreed. (Not coincidentally, many of the same ilk are also ardent supporters of any deal and accommodation with Iran. Presumably they are either ignorant or selectively deaf to the knowledge that Iran, in addition to unstinting support of Assad, sponsors its own sectarian proxy war in both Iraq and Syria, as well as being a strong destabilising influence further afield.)
Organizations like the Stop the War Coalition – an outfit which represents a cynical coming together of the far-Left and theocratic Right – advocated against the proposed no-fly zone in Syria in August 2013; in fact, part of its output even suggested that, pace Seymour Hersh, “the Syrian opposition, as well as the government, potentially had access to [chemical] weapons.” Furthermore, according to the same thinking, the desire to punish the Assad regime and institute a humanitarian no-fly zone was “clearly [intended] to help precipitate regime change by launching a bombing war against Syria.” Not only did it oppose removing Assad – the root cause of Syria’s suffering – it labelled those who did ‘neocons’ and ‘Washington hawks,’ all the while insinuating that the Syrians had somehow gassed themselves. Now Stop the War and its ideological allies cry crocodile tears about refugees, and seek to blame this tragedy on the usual culprit: the West in general, and its current leaders in particular.
By all means, Europe must take its fair share of migrants. But it should do so while at the same time acknowledging the errors in its own recent history and attempting to make amends for its sins.
A version of his piece was originally published at NOW News.