Food for Thought: "Responses to the Refugee Crisis: Elements of a Foreign Policy Strategy"

"Which could be elements of a strategy which can help us better deal with the root causes of this major catastrophe in the Middle East?", Wolfgang Ischinger asks in our latest Monthly Mind column.

Wolfgang Ischinger is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (Photo: Kuhlmann / MSC).

We Germans have recently presented our European partners with a number of riddles. First criticized as merciless apostles of austerity, during the last weeks Germany has welcomed the surge of refugees with open arms. Now the whole world is cheering the German "culture of welcome", while only a short time ago images of right-wing riots had been dominating the debate. After having dismissed a reform of the Dublin Regulation so far, Berlin now pushes for a reform of the European Asylum System. And after quite rightly bristling at the conditions in Hungary, Germany found itself forced to reinstate border controls. This is politics under a permanent state of emergency.

The crucial point here is the following: Neither generously accepting more refugees nor tightening border controls provides for sustainable solutions. These approaches do not address the causes of the tragedy: mass murder and war in Syria and civil strife and instability in its neighboring countries. The numbers of refugees will further increase and threaten to generate severe political disruption in some EU member states. The Schengen system is close to its breaking point, and the Europe of open borders which we have all got used to is under threat. Despite the admirable commitment of so many volunteers, the longer the refugee surge lasts and the bigger it becomes, an increasing number of German voters will also drift to the far-right. And supporters of the British withdrawal from the EU are given additional fodder. The refugee crisis thus develops into a historical challenge for the political and moral solidarity of the European Union.

What should happen? Which could be elements of a strategy which can help us better deal with the root causes of this major catastrophe in the Middle East? Here are four elements of a strategy that tackles not only the symptoms, but also the causes.

First, a political solution in Syria will be found only with and hardly against Moscow – and Tehran. German Foreign Minister Steinmeier was quite right in calling for a diplomatic initiative, an extensive contact group for Syria in order to benefit from the momentum given by the Iran deal. Therefore, our Polish and Baltic friends have to understand that military reassurance by NATO is no Russia strategy on its own: without Moscow there will be no solution in Syria and even less in Ukraine. One does not have to become a "Putinversteher" (the German expression for Putin sympathizers) in order to comprehend this. 

However, those suggesting fighting ISIS with the help of Assad want to replace one evil with another. It is after all the war the Syrian dictator is waging against his own people that paved the way for the rise of ISIS. Moreover, Assad is responsible for many more civilian deaths than ISIS. Thus, we have to actively pursue both goals: Syria needs a new political start without Assad, and ISIS must be resolutely fought. It will not be possible to achieve all these goals at once, but a fundamental common understanding about the long-term objective must be found with all parties, including Moscow.


Second, we urgently need more refugee assistance on the ground. Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative for migration, is right: EU refugee assistance in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey should be immediately and massively increased. Four million Syrian refugees have already fled to those countries and will also push into Europe when they and their children are not provided with housing, jobs and schooling.


Third, the EU – together with its partners and under UN mandate – must be enabled to take decisive action not only politically, but also militarily. In order to sink smugglers' boats still in the ports or to seize them out at sea, in order to create safe or no-fly zones, in order to organize a possible future peacekeeping operation, and in order to fight ISIS we need options that include military means. Understandable skepticism towards military action notwithstanding, it is wrong to declare this instrument a taboo right from the start. A couple of years ago, neither Obama nor Cameron wanted to intervene in Syria despite the crossing of initially declared red lines. Paris did not and could not act alone, and Berlin was relieved that no German military commitment was requested. But as we can see now, not acting also bears consequences, and looking the other way does not free someone from responsibility. Several thousand deaths have turned into 300,000 – and millions of refugees. Many opponents of intervention at that time warned about a regional conflagration. Now this conflagration has materialized, yet not as a consequence of intervention but as a result of collective inaction. And the conflict has come crashing through our European front door.


It is true that military interventions alone do not resolve conflicts – but good words alone do even less so. Assad never really had an incentive to find a negotiated settlement since he never had to seriously fear a Western military reaction. The EU thus needs the necessary capacities to be able to present a credible common security and defense policy. Here again, Berlin must take the lead and the initiative.


Fourth, the regional powers must now become more involved in the burden sharing. What are the rich Arab states in the Gulf region doing to put an end to the catastrophe in Syria, but also in Libya? Where is the Arab League, where is the Saudi contribution to alleviate the refugees' misery? Supplying Assad's opponents with weapons and money and dropping bombs in Yemen is hardly a sufficient approach. Time has come for regional powers and actors to participate fully, both politically and financially.


Why don't we try to gather all parties involved, from Moscow and Washington, Riyadh and Cairo to Brussels, Paris, London and Berlin around the negotiation table? In the context of Afghanistan the Bonn Agreement – with Iran's participation – became a milestone of international crisis diplomacy.
Why don't we convene a large Middle East conference on refugees in order to firstly decide upon short-term measures against the distress and exodus of millions of people, including some sort of donors’ conference, and to secondly establish a format that could become a platform for building a new security architecture for the region?


Berlin could – in the spirit of an honest broker – launch a large EU initiative and thus kill several birds with one stone: the Arab League and the Gulf states would be reminded of their duties, Moscow would finally see itself taken seriously by Washington, Washington would have to sit down at a table with Tehran, and the rival regional powers Riyadh and Tehran could finally – and without losing face – start a conversation with one another.


And, very importantly, the common EU foreign policy would be strengthened by Berlin. Berlin could thus show the EU partners that we are not only willing to give, but also capable of strategic thinking.


Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) and teaches international politics at the Hertie School of Governance. This article first appeared on September 19, 2015, in the German news magazine "Focus".

24 September 2015, by Wolfgang Ischinger