Why we must accept the Middle East’s new normal

Refugee flows are changing the demographic maps of the Middle East and Europe, writes James Zogby

Almost a half of all Syrians have become refugees or IDPs, with over four million having left the country and nearly eight million displaced within Syria. Aris Messinis / AFP
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The conflicts raging in Iraq and Syria have unleashed an unsettling dynamic that is transforming the Middle East and beyond. The consequences of the fighting are so profound that there is no simple solution that will restore normality any time soon. It is imperative to recognise that there is a “new normal” that policymakers must recognise and to which they must respond.

Even before the advent of ISIL, Iraq experienced massive population transfers that occurred during the civil war that followed America’s foolish invasion and occupation. A Shia-led sectarian government was ushered in by the US, giving Iran new influence over Iraqi affairs. Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods were “ethnically cleansed”. Minority communities were removed from ancestral homes. And the Kurdish-controlled region was given all but formal independence over its internal and external affairs. Meanwhile, the disenfranchised Sunni Arab population became so marginalised and embittered by the behaviour of the Shia-led government that many fell prey to the lure of the extremist militias.

At the peak of the conflict, one-fifth of Iraq’s population had become refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). Since then, some Iraqis have returned to their country – although not to their homes – but recent fighting has created a new wave of displacement. About 500,000 Iraqis are registered as refugees and about four million are IDPs.

It was a massive and prolonged drought that first displaced large segments of Syria’s population. The mishandling of this by the corrupt and brutal regime in Damascus precipitated the now four-year-long war.

Almost half of all Syrians have become refugees or IDPs, with over four million having left the country and nearly eight million displaced within Syria. About two million have fled to Turkey, a million are in Lebanon and about 750,000 are in Jordan.

While most of these Syrians are housed in camps in Turkey and Jordan, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have settled in Turkey’s larger cities where they have opened businesses and are attempting to create a new life. The fighting in Syria has also unsettled the Kurdish regions of both Syria and Turkey. Kurdish victories against ISIL in Syria have provoked the Turkish government, which has long opposed any moves toward Kurdish independence. This has spawned increased repression of Turkey’s Kurds, creating more refugees and IDPs.

The situation in Lebanon is different. Because that country did not create formal camps, the Syrians who flooded across Lebanon’s borders have spread out across the country, renting apartments or setting up informal structures. The pressures on tiny Lebanon have become enormous – straining the country’s capacity and its infrastructure to its limit. Schools are overcrowded, medical and social services are in short supply, as are water and electricity. Lebanon’s population, at first receptive to the influx of their neighbours fleeing war, have become resentful as they have witnessed increases in prices for basic commodities, housing shortages and increases in unemployment and poverty.

Many Syrian and Iraqi refugees have joined Afghanis, Palestinians, Libyans and others who have risked everything trying to reach Europe, by land or sea. Best estimates put the number of refugees in Europe at one million and growing fast.

As they go north, there has been a steady flow south of thousands of alienated and radicalised Europeans seeking to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Some have sought to conflate the two population flows to buttress their ­anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim campaign, resulting in the growth of right-wing xenophobic movements.

But there is no end in sight to the current situation. If peace is restored in either Iraq or Syria, it will be through imperfect and tentative arrangements.

Even if ISIL is defeated, there are dozens of other armed sectarian gangs on the ground that will not support the emergence of a tolerant, welcoming pluralistic social and political order. In the best-case scenario, Iraq and Syria will remain divided countries. It will take decades to reconstruct their infrastructures and economies, and even longer to build intercommunal trust and social cohesion.

The bulk of refugees will remain where they are. Lebanon and Jordan will need to accept a long-term or even permanent presence of Syrian communities. And Turkey will have to come to grips with long-repressed Kurdish aspirations for self-determination.

Similarly, the refugees in Europe are not going to disappear. It will be impossible to stop the flow of people coming across borders or to send them back.

Europe will also need to recognise that it is not migration that breeds extremism, it is the failure of many countries to incorporate immigrants as productive equal citizens in their societies. Persistent discrimination and unemployment breed the alienation that makes young European immigrants susceptible to the lure of radical ideologies. This problem will only be exacerbated by the rightward drift of some European governments.

It is important that international coalitions have formed to defeat ISIL and to find political solutions to Iraq and Syria. But as US president Barack Obama has proposed, the United Nations should also convene an emergency summit to address the challenges that have been created by the refugee crisis. In addition to addressing the material needs of the refugees, attention must be paid to the needs of the host countries.

The refugee flows have created new realities that are changing the demographic maps of the Middle East and Europe. The sooner we address this, the better it will be for the refugees and for their host countries.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa