Getting to the Cause of the ‘Plight’ of Syria’s Refugees

By Jeremy Salt

The connections between the body of the small boy washed up on the beach at Bodrum, the destruction at Palmyra and the hundreds of Libyans drowning in the same Mediterranean the parents of that poor boy were trying to cross with their children go to the heart of the vicious and remorseless wars launched by ‘western’ governments and their regional allies. Ultimately this boy was the victim of these wars and thus the victim of the governments that have launched them and the media that has supported them.

In the past 12 years the ‘west’ and its allies have finished off two countries in the Middle East and half-finished a third:

1) Iraq 2003 – a war that shattered a country already terminally weakened by the war of 1990/91 and the ten years of genocidal sanctions that followed, causing the death of half a million children amongst all the other dead and driven out.

2) Libya in 2011 – a war launched by the US, Britain and France, with Qatar playing the key supporting role in the Arab world, culminating in the murder of Mu’ammar al Qadhafi and the destruction of the country.

3) Syria 2011 to the present day – a war launched by the US, Britain and France, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey playing central roles in the mayhem that has ensued.

The photo of the drowned boy lying on the beach at Bodrum, where he was washed up, is indicative of far more than the ‘tragic plight of the refugees’ as the Guardian writes. In any case, by supporting the so-called ‘rebels’ who have torn Syria apart and by throwing at the Syrian government any piece of muck the ‘activists’ could dream up, the Guardian shares the responsibility for their ‘plight.’ In any case, again, a tragedy is what happens when lightning strikes or when towns and cities are devastated by an earthquake. This is a willful completely man-made catastrophe inflicted on Syria by ‘western’ and regional governments. They took a deliberate decision to perpetuate violence in Syria rather than try to bring it to an end.

The central lands of the Middle East and parts of North Africa have been reduced to a smoking ruin by the guardians of ‘western civilization’ and their regional allies, reminding us yet again of the bipolar personality of the ‘west’ throughout its (relatively short and rapidly declining) history: philosophers, composers, great novelists and painters on one side and massive death and destruction on the other. The Islamic State is straightforward in determination to destroy everything that stands in the way of its own interests and civilizational ideal. Is the ’west’ any different? Is this not exactly what it has done to other countries throughout its history, apart from the fighting within its collective self, and what it has done most recently in Iraq and Libya and what it is now doing in Syria?

The photo of the boy on the beach has galvanized European opinion even more than the discovery of the bodies of more than 70 Syrians (including children) locked in a truck and left to die by the side of an Austrian highway by people smugglers. The cry goes up: ‘Do something!’ Yes, ‘do something’, by treating these victims of western-orchestrated wars humanely, but ‘do something’ by realizing where the ultimate responsibility for these hideous situations lies. ‘Doing something’ by treating the refugees more humanely is only palliative: the cure is the end of the war on and in Syria so they can return to their homes. Unfortunately that will require such a reversal of policy it is hard to imagine any of the governments involved having the guts to do it.

The war on the Syrian government is actually a war on Syria and its people. Not even the real opposition, inside Syria and committed to the end of Baathist-dominated rule, supports this armed assault on their country. The consequences have been catastrophic yet the governments that orchestrated this attack seem determined to continue it, despite the death so far of close to 300,000 people and the flight from their homeland of millions more. And what is this all about? Certainly not democracy because the armed takfiri groups despise democracy. They might be fighting amongst themselves, there might be an official enemy (the Islamic State), but they are all ideological soulmates and if the Syrian government finally is destroyed it is they, and almost certainly the Islamic State, that is going to inherit.

So far these groups have failed to break the resistance of the Syrian government and military against the most remorseless assault launched in modern history against an Arab country. For a country that only has limited resources this is an extraordinary achievement but the military is bleeding badly and in parts of the country the government’s authority has collapsed. In the north, the vacuum has been filled by Kurds, the Islamic state and other takfiri factions, all at each other’s throats.

The ambivalence of the Turkish government’s attitude towards the Islamic State has been underlined again with yet another video showing explosives and war material being moved into IS territory from the Akcakale border crossing while customs officials stand by nonchalantly. The publication of video stills precipitated the recent police raids on the Gulen-affiliated newspaper Bugun (Today) plus raids on other companies within the Ipek family’s holding and even on Ipek Unversity. Having called the Gulen movement a ‘parallel state’ the government is now calling it a terrorist organization.

Similar photos published earlier by Cumhuriyet newspaper showed jandarma searching trucks near the Syrian border early last year. Unknown to them the trucks were part of an MIT (Turkish national intelligence organization) operation. Beneath a layer of packets of medicine the trucks were transporting weapons into Syria. The government insisted despite the video evidence that the trucks were carrying ‘aid’ to the Syrian Turkmen, who responded by saying the government had never given them anything. All of this ties in with a tapped conversation leaked early last year in which MIT head Hakan Fiden said that so far Turkey had sent 2000 trucks into Syria.

Officially, under an agreement signed with the US, Turkey has now signed on to the ‘war’ –such as it is – on the Islamic State. In fact, Turkey, while carrying out some air attacks on presumed Islamic State positions in Syria, doing little apparent damage, has launched hundreds of air strikes against PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) targets in northern Iraq. The PKK has responded with attacks on Turkish soldiers and police. The cycle of renewed violence sets the scene for general elections in November in which the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) caretaker government will hope to regain ground lost in the June elections.

This war has been catastrophic for Syria and disastrous for Turkey. Erdogan and his now Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, crowed four years ago that Bashar would soon be gone. They saw themselves as masters and servants of the new Middle East, as Davutoglu said, but instead they have found themselves caught up in an intractable situation. Two million Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey, 300,000 hosted as ‘guests’ inside camps alongside or near the Syrian border and another 1.7 million scattered across the country, sleeping rough, begging, being used as underpaid labor and seeking escape with the help of people smugglers along the Aegean coast. The refugee influx was unavoidable once Erdogan and Davutoglu had committed themselves to the overthrow of the Syrian government. The longer the war continued the greater has been the number of Syrians crossing the border. The burden on Turkey has been enormous, with billions of dollars spent on supporting both camp and non-camp Syrians

An estimated 1000 Turks have joined the ranks of the Islamic State, which also has a support network across Turkey: in late July, only days before the suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc which killed 32 young Turks and Kurds on their way to help the people of Kobane rebel, Islamic State supporters held an open-air gathering on the outskirts of Istanbul. The Suruc suicide bomber was a Turk from the southeastern city of Adiyaman, known in past years as a recruitment centre for the Islamic State. Belatedly, given the number of takfiris who have crossed Turkey into Syria over the past five years, the Turkish government now says it has stopped thousands of them from taking the same route.

It is impossible to see any Turkish national interest in this war yet the government has not budged from its policy (as it says) of simultaneously fighting the PKK and the Islamic State, while continuing to regard the Syrian government as the third enemy and ultimately the fons et origo mali of the whole desperate situation in Syria. But this is about the interests not just of Turkey but of all the governments which decided to destroy the government in Damascus, in the hope of bringing down the central pillar in the strategic relationship between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. Instead of choosing to end the conflict in Syria they chose to perpetuate it and the refugees are the end product of the decisions they took.

Thus talk of the ‘refugee plight’ diverts attention from the core issue. Food and shelter for the refugees is palliative: the solution is to end the war by ending all support for the armed groups and working with the Syrian government rather than against it. Its enemies in the ‘west’ and within the Middle East region have to make up their minds because if the government in Damascus falls the Islamic State is going to take over all Syria. Mass slaughter will follow, far surpassing what we have already seen and then of course there will be more handwringing and more talk of Syria’s ‘tragic plight’.

Many governments (including the US) have been ambivalent about the Islamic State, condemning it in public statements while apparently seeing it as a useful tool deserving of active if furtive material support. With the Islamic State continuing to advance and thriving amidst their indecision the time for ambivalence has run out. These governments might not ‘like’ Bashar (yes, like or dislike have nothing to do with their strategic plans) but in their own interests, let alone any humanitarian consideration, do they really want to see the Islamic State taking over Damascus in his place? If the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘we don’t mind’ then the decline of the ‘west’ has proceeded far further than even Oswald Spengler could have imagined.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to


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