The Future of Syrian Refugees May Be Answered by the Failures of the Past

On May 11, 1943 Shmuel Zygelboym wrote his final letter and addressed the question of “the conscience of the world”, acknowledging that “I know how little human life is worth today”. (1) Zygelboym, a member of the Polish Bund exiled in London was addressing the Nazi atrocities transpiring without much resistance from the rest of the
world. As Jewish men, women, and children were killed, the leading nations of the world held failed conferences in Evian-les-Bains, France and Bermuda that achieved nothing but appeared to offer lip service to a problem not being rightfully addressed. Within this historical context, the world was devastated by images emerging from Syria following a gas attack on Tuesday, April 4th. The attack killed dozens and generated haunting images of children and infants limply gasping final breaths as first responders tried fruitlessly to salvage their lives. It was a scene that should have been met with worldwide condemnation and definitive action. Instead, world leaders shook the heads, wringed their hands, and watched as the United States lobbed nearly sixty Tomahawk misses onto the Al Shayrat airbase, south of Homs. I am not making Assad out to be a new incarnation of Adolf Hitler, but his horrific abuse of power and disregard for human life emulates the acts of those who are among the most notorious dictators in modern history. If gassing the youngest members of his country is not enough to galvanize global leaders to neutralize the threat that is Bashar al-Assad, then what must he do in order to awaken a global conscience?
Historical Viewpoint:
As news of Nazi abuse against Jews intensified and the voices calling for action became louder, thirty-two nations sent representatives to the small French town of Evian. The United States decided to send Myron Taylor, a businessman and close confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt rather than a more prominent political figure. Over the
course of nine days, the participants took in the scenic beauty, drank, and lamented about the conditions of the refugees, but ultimately decided to not take any action, including allowing for amendments in refugee quotas. The German government was able to state with great pleasure how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when “the opportunity offer[ed].” (2) In the 1930s and early 1940s, nations could hide behind a wall of ignorance and deny confirmation of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis-that luxury does not exist today. The failings of the Evian Conference lie with the nations who refused to address the primary concern: Allowing refugees to enter other countries for safe haven. Instead of presenting realistic numbers for relocation, the Conference simply created the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees. This organization embodied the weaknesses of the League of Nations, as it possessed little power and existed for nine years without achieving any tangible results. The IRC examined relocation prospects though colonization of uninhabited areas to assuage the global issues of the potential of ten to twenty million displaced people that may exist by the time the Second World War ended. (3) Finding a solution to the refugee crisis of the 30s and early 40s was undoubtedly a daunting task, but the Evian Conference allowed the participating nations to present the impression of concern without forcing them to make any concessions.
Trump, the U.N. and the World
U.S. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that one “would be rather silly” to ignore that current actions of the Assad regime and the current political climate in Syria. (4)

He went on, like his boss Donald Trump, to blame the gassing of Syrian babies on the failings of the previous Obama administration by saying the assault upon the sovereignty of the lives of Syrian citizens as well as human decency was “a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution.” (5) It is at this point that Trump must cease with blame and angry tweets, halt all references to comments made years ago before he became the leader of the free world, and realize that Syria presents a tipping point in his administration as it relates to the role of the United States within the context of global diplomacy. Only three months into his tenure, Trump has created organised chaos in his White House and a sense of unsteadiness around the world. Over seventy years ago, the powers of the West talked about Jewish refugees and the possibility of Nazi atrocities; in 2017, the nightmare of the Assad regime plays out in real time and the suffering is both unimaginable and unavoidable. The priority for America, her allies, and even those who do not share her worldview, is to set aside philosophical differences in the name of assisting those in dire need. The time for fear-mongering about immigrants, calls for “extreme vetting”, and the stalled passages of travel bans have passed; if the United States fails to lead in this instance, her credibility will be damaged for untold decades to come; the need for leadership is apparent and cannot only constitute scarring military runways and a segment of the Syrian air force. The attack by the United States potentially reshuffles the deck in terms of regional relationships, bringing Turkey closer to America and beginning to move away from Russia, while quickly ending the perceived friendly, two man, mutual admiration society occupied by Trump and Vladimir Putin. Turkey is among the nations looking for regime change that is a daunting task and has limitless questions about what would happen once Assad is out of power. Regime change is not the goal at this moment-the crisis in Syria is a humanitarian issue more than a political conflict. Assad had significant military forces, a nation still significantly occupied with fighting off the Islamic State around Raqqa, and has Russia as a close ally. Each of these issues makes the removal of Assad either impossible or even unreasonable. The more pressing issue at this time is the condition of Syrian refugees and providing the humanitarian assistance they so desperately need.

“For six years now, the Syria people have been victims of one of the worst conflicts of our time”, said Secretary-General António Guterres in March. (6) Statements such as this reflect the dire conditions of the Syrian people, but this is well known; nothing about the Syrian crisis should come as a surprise. Whether it is the bodies of children washing ashore along the Greek coast as they attempted to reach the safer ground of Europe, or children writhing from a chemical attack, the world is well aware of the Syrian suffering. There is no time for an Evian Conference moment in 2017; the patience of the world should be at a breaking point, and world leaders must demonstrate actual global, resolute leadership. Failure to act in a significant fashion would do more than send mixed messages about the influence of the United Nations or the commitment to human rights by the Trump administration; a decision to not reverse policies of discrimination and isolation would only solidify the belief that Syria is being treated as a political chip more than a human catastrophe.
3) Wyman, David. Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941. pg. 59
4) Barnard, Anne and Michael Gordon. “Worst Chemical Attack in Years; U.S. Blames Assad” (Accessed 4/7/17)
5) Ibid.
Featured Image: Evian Conference 1938: Photo Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)