HUman catastrophy at the doorstep

No matter how much one prefers to look the other way, one now has to admit that the humanitarian crisis as well as the massive devastation in Syria have already reached catastrophic proportions. That it takes place in 2013, in a not-so-far-away corner of Europe, right before the eyes of humanity which remains unmoved by its magnitude and indifferent to its impact on our common future, only raises the level of shame. These are times we will all remember with profound regret.

The Syrian conflict exposes Turkey’s economic and social vulnerabilities. It stands as a case study of how sometimes in human history, taking the moral high ground and acting to deal with crisis can clash with each other.

“Regionally, the Syria conflict symbolizes how Turkey’s ‘zero problem’ policy has become multiple problems. Ankara’s bitter feud with Damascus and open support for the opposition fighters box it in. The crisis has blocked Turkey’s main trade routes to the Arab world and has opened a new front in its Kurdish problem. Whereas Turkey in 2008 was praised for its ability to speak to all regional players from Israel to Iran, it has now aligned itself predominantly with conservative Sunni Muslim partners such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. New threats from Syria and Iran have persuaded it to revitalize security ties, albeit partially, with its US and EU partners. Turkey is seen increasingly as a partisan actor. While Turkish leaders claim the country has sufficient resources to be the region’s main power, leverage over Syrian events is clearly limited.”

This is the bitter assessment in a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), titled “Blurring the Borders: Syrian Spillover Risks for Turkey.” With Syria turning into a failed state, the greatest and most urgent challenge is the refugee crisis. As the meticulous, 45-page-long study points out, Turkey has spent over $750 million so far and it has been accommodating between 300-350,000 Syrian refugees on this side of the border. But, adds the ICG report: “100,000 Syrians are now stuck in insecure, miserable conditions on the Syrian side of the border and the UN predicts the total number of those fleeing could double or triple this year. Opposition fighters and Syrians with passports can cross the border freely, but Ankara allows incoming refugees only when there is room in camps.”

This also implies that the total number of refugees in Syria’s four neighboring countries will swell to closer to 2 million -– maybe more. Any sound reasoning should at this stage call for resolute action, which the ICG does.

But there is more in the report on Turkey’s policies, with both praise and criticism. “Turkey must stop betting its reputation on a quick resolution of the Syria crisis and make some long-term changes of emphasis. In order to talk to all parties from a position of greater moral authority, it should avoid projecting the image of being a Sunni Muslim hegemon. It should also re-secure its border and ask Syrian opposition fighters to move to Syria,” it stresses.

The ICG’s report should be read with concern and lead to engagement. It ends with a series of recommendations, not only addressing Turkey, but also Washington D.C., and Brussels (NATO and the EU).

Some of the highlights are as follows, with my short comments.

1)   “Turkey should allow entry to all Syrians who flee. The international community should increase funding and European states should share the burden by accepting more Syrian refugees.”

2)    “UN agencies should engage immediately with Damascus. Syria should cooperate fully with the UN and relevant humanitarian organizations and allow them to deliver cross-border aid.”

3)    “Turkey should stop betting on a quick resolution of the Syria crisis, give full support for a negotiated settlement and take steps to avoid any perception in the region that it is seeking to act as a partisan, Sunni Muslim hegemon.”

4)   “Ankara should sustain initiatives to keep inactive Syrian opposition fighters away from Alevi-populated areas and to settle new Sunni Muslim refugees elsewhere.”

My conclusion is the following: All efforts must now be focused on settling the Syrian crisis by the end of this year. It should not be allowed to spill over into 2014.

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