Middle Easterners sometimes observe wryly that although the West causes some of their region’s problems, westerners don’t have to suffer the consequences. In 2015, that observation ceased to be valid, at least with respect to Europe. The world’s collective failure to solve the multidirectional Syrian civil war led to a refugee crisis that affected Europe profoundly. The open European borders promised by the Schengen treaty are in the process of being sealed and immigration is now widely acknowledged to threaten the future of European Union.
What’s noteworthy in historical terms about this blowback isn’t just that it shows how small the world is, or how vulnerable the EU is to external shocks. It’s that Europe hasn’t reacted by trying to solve the Syrian crisis in a serious way, by trying to change the actors’ incentives or the strategic calculus. The United States hasn’t sent ground troops, but it is at least leading the bombing of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militants and trying to use diplomacy to frame a solution. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to solve the Syria crisis, albeit by strengthening Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime.
European powers pushed the United Nations Security Council to adopt the peace roadmap that it passed week before last. And they’ve contributed some planes to the bombing of Daesh. But after taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, Europe’s main reaction to the Syrian crisis has been to create a firmer barrier between itself and the Middle East. That barrier is called Turkey and the EU struck a deal to make it into a repository for Syrian refugees that blocks them from crossing over into the EU.
Given the unlikelihood that Turkey can absorb all future refugees, over and above the two million-plus it already has, it’s worth asking: Why is Europe trying to free itself of the symptoms of the problem rather than trying to address the root cause, namely the collapse of Syria? How can Europe act as though Syria and Daesh still aren’t European problems?
Removing a dictator
There are two plausible answers: One charitable, the other cynical. It being the Christmas season, I’ll start with the nice one. Maybe Europe isn’t trying to solve Syria because it’s learned the lesson that the West can’t solve Middle Eastern crises. Iraq might have taught the big European powers this lesson — except it didn’t, because it was France and England that led the move to bomb Libya and take out Muammar Gaddafi. So, we may conclude that Libya taught Europe that removing a dictator won’t deliver a functioning state where the citizens can remain instead of fleeing. The fact that solving Syria looks incredibly difficult isn’t a reason for Europe to think that the problem will go away if it just tries to hide from it. To the contrary: So long as the Syria situation shows no signs of improvement, it increases the likelihood of more refugees.
That leads me to the more cynical interpretation of Europe’s unwillingness to do more: It disclaims responsibility for what’s gone wrong in Syria or the region more generally.
First, blame the United States, which began the shake-up in the region by invading Iraq, and bears enormous responsibility for the consequences. Second, blame the Arabs themselves. Al Assad and his father ruled as oppressive autocrats for decades. Sunni Syrians rose up against Al Assad bravely, but have failed utterly to construct a credible opposition.
Third, ignore any history before the Second World War, in particular the legacy of European control between the wars. A Europe that blames America and the Arabs for the region’s troubles and discounts its own historical role can easily act as though Syria is someone else’s problem. But as 2015 shows, it isn’t. Europe contributed to the disaster, and more important, it can’t hide from the consequences. If 2016 continues the trend of refugee flows, Europe will have to reconsider some part of its approach — not a moment too soon.
Noah Feldman is a columnist and professor of Constitutional and International Law at Harvard.