Policy and Perception: The Rhetoric of Conflict
Every morning I like to scroll through my news feed while the TV talking heads hum in the background. I drink my first cup of coffee and find out what the world has woken up to. One recent morning, I was startled to hear that politicians, political analysts and pundits are calling the Syrian crisis, “the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII”. I was surprised by such a bold statement. After all, agenda driven statements that ignore fact to inflame sentiment, tends to lead the US into bad policy decisions and poorly designed and executed humanitarian and military strategies. Unfortunately, that is what we have seen in Syria, pragmatic, effective diplomatic and military strategy pushed aside in favor of agenda driven policies that are having little positive impact on Syria.
Worst Humanitarian Crisis Since WWII? No.
A glimpse at any history book will reveal that the Syrian Crisis is not the worst since WWII. Surely the Tutsis would beg to differ, given that over 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered during the 1994 civil war, the majority of whom were civilians. Less than a year and nearly double the casualties. And following the backlash by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, over 2 million refugees, mainly Hutus, were displaced, scattered throughout an already resource strapped Africa.
Or what about the Cambodian Killing Fields. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge Leader Pol Pot’s envisioned the creation of an idyllic Communist peasant farming society, apparently through the systematic starvation, execution, and forced labor of the country’s population. From 1975 to 1979 over 2,000,000 died.
The Bosnian War, 1992-1995, resulted in over 100,000 dead and more than 2 million refugees and displaced persons. In 1992, The New York Times called it Europe’s worst crisis “Since 40’s.”
In contrast, the six-year civil war in Syria has resulted in an estimated 400,000 dead, 150,000 missing and 1.3 million refugees. A truly horrific number. Yet an ideologically driven media and politicians hungry to push a self-serving narrative, would call the Syrian conflict the worst tragedy since World War II, facts be damned.
Middle East Unrest: Effective Policy vs Public Perception
Why does it matter if this is factual or an exaggeration used for effect? Because, inflaming passions and creating bold headlines about death and destruction get people to act, often rashly and without a good plan or a system to measure how effective their efforts are in solving the problem, winning the war, stopping the atrocities. Yet, it’s been 6 years and Syria is still crumbling. We don’t need emotion driven action, we need practical solutions to end the violence.
So, if US intervention isn’t the answer to the Syrian refugee crisis, what is? If only Syria had wealthy neighbors that could welcome the refugees, without necessitating arduous journeys to distant lands. A neighbor with a shared faith and resources to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees. But wait, they do. Saudi Arabia. A country with billions of dollars, equipped to feed and house millions of temporary guests every year that come for the Haj. Or Kuwait, another rich neighbor reluctant to take in the masses. Yet the media and politicians don’t criticize these countries, countries that provide a geographically more suitable location for regional refugees.
Many in the west would welcome regional leadership, not grand monetary gestures, but by taking the lead on housing and feeding refugees. Many pundits hail the significant monetary commitments made by countries like Kuwait, yet ignore the small issue of effectiveness. Refugees need a stabilized country, security, a strong government, and a chance to rebuild their lives in Syria. Instead, what they have is an international ideological battle over refugees, showy donations, extremist groups and competing factions vying for control Syria, and no end to the conflict.
With Friends Like These…
In Europe, our allies are pushing the same agenda. With our European allies chastising the US for its immigration and refugee policies. In Europe, the mantra is “welcome refugees, consequences be damned.” The rise of terror in Europe, mass sexual assaults by immigrants, inconsequential. In fact, anything that might tarnish the welcome mat is downplayed or kept out of the news, like mass assaults on German citizens by immigrants on New Year’s Eve 2016. Reality is irrelevant, what matters is looking good, throwing open your arms to the refugees, even as you offer little in the way real solutions to the crisis that created the problem. Under the Obama administration the same head-in-the-sand mentality prevailed. “Islamic Terrorism” was the phrase that shall not be named. As though the phrase held magical powers. The refusal to label terrorism conducted by Islamic radicals as Islamic terrorism, does not alter reality. Nor does politically correct phrasing and liberal immigration policies help solve unrest in the Middle East.
Cold War: Take Two
The United States and its Middle Eastern partners have mounted air strikes, and now a SOF campaign, against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Special Operations soldiers, battle hardened, combat proven and still exhausted from protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (part 2), fight alongside Kurdish and Iraqi forces in an attempt to push the ISIS army out of Iraq. If only there was a country that could help on the Syrian side of the border. A country that could work with the current leadership of Syria to provide air cover, bomb ISIS targets and cut off the ISIS source of oil revenue into Turkey, our ally. But wait, there was. Russia. Russia could put boots on the ground and provide air strikes with the intention of destroying ISIS, a common enemy. The US response? Senator McCain and others wanted to put in a no-fly zone. Most of the planes flying in the proposed no-fly zone were Russian.
At first, the Russian insistence on Assad being part of the solution was a stumbling block to cooperation. The West wanted Assad out, no negotiation. From a strategic point of view, Russia’s approach to including Assad was pragmatic and the West chose to ignore that, instead using Syria as a quasi-proxy war with Russia. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Libya removing an existing government, however tyrannical, resulted in chaos, factions, an environment conducive to the rise of extremist forces. So why insist on Assad’s departure, when there was no alternative ready to take over? Why clutch to a policy that has not worked to date, once?
If It Isn’t Working, Why Aren’t We Fixing It?
Syria is a mess; it is a humanitarian crisis and a military crisis. The suffering is real, there is no need to overstate the case. But such claims are designed to push policy makers into ill-considered actions based on public perception, rather than sound strategy. So, who benefits from pushing an agenda, based on bad policy, with no long-term plan for Syrian stability and reconstruction, that serves to bolster the influence, power, and finances of a few key players, none of whom are Syrian refugees? Politicians and special interests top the list.
After all, conflict creates opportunities for all.
Bombs, boots on ground, proxy wars with the Russians, training rebels to fight, throwing money at the problem, using a humanitarian crisis to score points off your political opponents, refugees as election props. You name it and it’s being done. Meanwhile, strong military and diplomatic policies are not being developed and there appears to be no realistic plan to stabilize Syria.
Nix the Rhetoric
The narrative is powerful. Dead and dying civilians. Unrest, Rise of Extremist groups. Whatever side of the political aisle you find yourself on, intervention is being pushed. But wasn’t it poorly thought out policy and adherence to geopolitical grudges that contributed to the worsening of the crisis? Yet, despite this there is a dogged determination to double down on a strategy that is not working. Over the top rhetoric has driven poor policy decisions and cost American lives. So maybe the headline is right, in a few years maybe Syria will be the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII.
Next week we will discuss how the defense industry is using fear to push poor policy for big profits.