The paralysis over Syria

The refugee crisis cannot be resolved without tackling conflict there

There is turbulence in the euro zone and its disquieting genesis lies in the protracted civil war in Syria, some 1,200km away to the east.

As Europe's demography and ethnicity are poised to be transformed by the relentless influx of those fleeing the conflict to seek refuge on the Continent, the international community needs to brazen out a resolution of the Syrian campaign as much as it will need to cope with the surging asylum-seekers.

With the deadly impasse having endured for the past four years and nine months, rivals United States and Russia are now seeking to outmanoeuvre each other in gaining an upper hand on the crisis. The US-led coalition's perceived ineffectiveness against both the authoritarian Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadi militants who now control half of that country finally emboldened Russia to move in briskly on Sept 30, in its first military operation beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War.

Starting with aerial attacks against rebel forces ranged against President Assad who is its staunch ally, Russia is now targeting ISIS encampments and already claims to have smashed the control and logistic network of the terrorist organisation. With the US' 2,410 air strikes against ISIS-held areas since Sept 23 last year seen to have had little impact, President Vladimir Putin is rallying other countries to join a Russia-led coordination centre that will share intelligence between his country's armed forces and Syria, Iran and Iraq. While he seeks Mr Assad's ouster, President Barack Obama claims the US-led coalition comprises 60 countries, with 24 of them actively participating in the military operations.

The two superpowers will be queering the pitch as each will be loath to join the other's coalition - to avoid submitting to the other's command - and will also be hesitant to articulate their respective strategy in Syria. While the Americans see an end to the conflict through regime change in Syria, Moscow sees a solution in the annihilation of Mr Assad's opponents.

The conflict in Syria swirled in January 2011 as another Arab Spring uprising against Mr Assad's autocratic rule and escalated into a full-blown civil war between the protesters and the presidential loyalists as well as between them and ISIS. Over 220,000 Syrians have been slain in the internecine skirmish that has internally displaced 7.4 million inhabitants and sparked the mass exodus of four million others.

As distraught migrants surge in primarily from war-torn Syria and occasionally from other conflict zones in the Ukraine, Iraq, Eritrea, Yemen, Afghanistan and sub- Saharan Africa, an alarmed European leadership is striving for a consensus on ad hoc measures that can at best contain this calamity.

Challenged by the worst refugee crisis since the last war, leaders of the 28-member European Union (EU) have pledged €1 billion (S$1.6 billion) for international agencies assisting refugees at camps near their home countries. The EU has also approved a plan to relocate 120,000 migrants across Europe, on top of the resettlement of 40,000 refugees who have arrived in Greece and Italy.

The eventual costs of identifying refugees and integrating them socially, linguistically and culturally within Europe, educating their children, and providing them jobs, medical aid and housing will be staggering as their numbers swell. The International Organisation for Migration estimates a record 522,124 people to have crossed over into Europe this year, more than 388,000 of them having entered via Greece. Syrians constituted over 181,710 of them, the largest single refugee grouping.

While the US has resettled 140,000 Iraqi refugees in the six years since 2009, US Secretary of State John Kerry now says the number of overall refugees taken by his country will rise from 70,000 this year to 85,000 next year and to 100,000 in 2017.

As the international security arbiter, the 15-member UN Security Council should not have allowed the Syrian conflict to fester so long. It has, however, been thwarted by Russia and China, two of its influential permanent members, which have all along safeguarded their ally Mr Assad - who has been president since 2000 - by vetoing resolutions on four occasions to deflect action against his government, when the 13 other council members have voted affirmatively.

The UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has found continued atrocities by both the Syrian government and terrorist groups such as the ISIS and the Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that is fighting against the Assad government. There was also evidence of the use of chemical weapons in the civil war. Other atrocities have included direct attacks against civilians, summary killings, systematic bombardments and prolonged sieges of predominantly civilian areas that have led to deaths from starvation and from lack of adequate medical care, and widespread torture and even rape of women and children in detention centres.

Finding refuge in Europe would, however, disadvantage the asylum-seekers in the long term as they would be better placed to be assimilated in countries with which they are more ethnically, culturally, linguistically and traditionally aligned.

An Amnesty International (AI) report notes that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt have hitherto together hosted 3.8 million refugees from Syria - a country with a population of 22.5 million and a territory measuring 185,180 sq km - with the first three countries having shouldered most of the responsibility. As a result, one in every five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.

There has been no offer whatsoever to resettle any Syrian refugees by the prosperous six-member bloc of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Arab countries like Syria and comprising Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Bahrain. With an average per capita gross national income (GNI) of US$68,702 (S$97,400), these affluent countries with huge expatriate populations have a cumulative population of 48.6 million living across a total geographical area straddling 2.4 million sq km, making a population density of 20.25 persons per sq km. In contrast, with per capita GNI of US$35,672, almost half that of the GCC's, the 28-member EU has six times the population density, of 121, with a combined population of 508.2 million inhabiting 4.2 million sq km.

The UN should be appealing to the GCC governments on humanitarian grounds to accept the refugees and to act in accordance with their international obligations, though they are not signatories of the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, the key international legal document relating to refugee protection.

Russia and China are two other countries that should share the refugee burden, having impeded efforts towards resolving the Syrian crisis. While China is the world's most populated country, with 1.39 billion inhabitants, it is also the world's fourth largest, with a land area of 9.6 million sq km, making for a population density of 139.54 people per sq km. Russia is by far the world's largest country, with an area of 17.08 million sq km, but a population of just 142.8 million, a density of 8.4.

While the world has stood by as the Syrian disaster has unfolded, the resultant humanitarian crisis now compels a more definitive action to resolve it.

• The writer is the executive editor of Business India in Mumbai.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'The paralysis over Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe