Syria and northwestern Iraq have become the geographical crucible of the Middle East’s sectarian bloodshed and tumult in a way that few international observers predicted when the civil war there began as a series of minor protests in the sway of the Arab spring. And yet the toll of the war has reached a staggering 216,060 dead, half of whom were civilians. The Islamic State is in control of 1/3 of Iraq’s territory, much of it of strategic value, and its capital, al-Raqqah, sits comfortably within swaths of land in Syria.
From 2011 on, a mass exodus of Syrians and Iraqis poured into neighboring countries. Lebanon, with an initial population of four million and a constitutional system predicated on a delicate balance of its demographics, has accommodated over one million refugees with limited, strained success. Jordan, population of six million, has established large-scale refugee camps under the auspices of the UN for 650,000 refugees. All the while, a growing number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East trickled into Europe through a dangerous Mediterranean sea-path.
In response to these developments, Europe dithered and America shrugged. As the UN’s humanitarian agencies issued increasingly urgent requests for more funding from member states, underlining the large gap between contributions received and their targets, the world answered limply. Europe had more urgent matters to attend to: the Eurozone crisis, lagging growth rates, and nationalist tensions. The United States was in the very process of disengaging from the Middle East, which promptly left the gaping Iraqi power vacuum that the Islamic State filled and terrorized to superb theatrical effect. Leave the periphery to itself seemed the modus operandi of these past four years.
But now the periphery is leaking. The Syrian Civil War’s destabilizing influence has continued unabated and the Iraqi government’s advances against IS have come to a grounding halt. Lebanon and Jordan are reaching a tipping point as the conditions in which Syrian refugees live daily continue to deteriorate. Hundreds of thousands are now flowing through Europe by way of Turkey. Germany, hailed internationally for allowing all incoming migrants in to be processed for the past two weeks, has just ordered temporary border restrictions. It expects to process a record 800,000 migrants by the end of the year. Europe can no longer dither, but America should no longer shrug.
The Obama administration announced last Thursday that they were increasing the number of refugees for resettlement in the United States to 10,000. This is nowhere near enough. The United States has done more than its fair share to cause the migrant crisis with which the EU is coming to grips. The 2003 invasion of Iraq oversaw the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, a powerful secular Sunni autocracy, and its replacement with an unstable, highly sectarian, and corrupt government with a failed army that stood by as IS captured its territory with ease in 2014. America has provided military assistance, weapons, and training to moderate rebel forces in Syria, and it has conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. We helped supply the canvas and design the contours of the portrait of sectarian chaos and bloodshed being painted there. By contrast, France and Germany, the two nations leading the EU response to the migrant crisis knocking at their doors, were united against the war in Iraq but now must deal with its fallout more than ten years later.
Almost too obviously, geography is at the crux of the difference in response. We remain an ocean away from conflict, while Europe must deal with the immediate problem of a neighboring region of growing disorder overflowing into its territory. This distance has played a historic role in maintaining a certain isolationist sentiment in our global outlook. But to believe that the United States should do no more or nothing at all to help Europe manage this crisis is to either willfully ignore the US’s responsibility for its policies or the plight of hundreds of thousands travelling hundreds of miles to flee bloodshed and destitution.
Many observers who have decried Hungary and other Eastern European nations’ anti-Islamic and anti-migrant response to the crisis drew parallels to the millions of refugees in Europe following World War II. Similarly, just as the United States acted as the guarantor and architect of European peace and a new international order then, so America today must act to demonstrate its commitment to Europe and to the world. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has called on the Obama administration to allow in 100,000 Syrians in the next year. That should be our minimum.