Well, now the refugee problem has gone well beyond Syria’s borders. It is a crisis that is Europe’s. And ours. And a little boy’s body washed up on a beach weighs on our collective conscience. Or it should. Because as world leaders fiddled for the past two and a half years, and as that refugee crisis blossomed into true and unrelenting desperation, the international community has offered a collective and full-shouldered shrug. Over and over again.
“It is borderline isolationist and there is a strategy — people are claiming there is no strategy. There is; it is called containment. We are containing the problem inside the borders of Syria.”
Those were the words of an administration official who urged greater intervention in Syria in April 2013.
“I disagree with this approach on a number of places, beginning with the moral bankruptcy of it,” the official said then. “Two, the refugee issue will become a strategic problem for countries like Jordan.”
And now beyond. The world has seen the West’s solution to the crisis in Syria: men in suits flying between capitals to talk to and occasionally negotiate with other men in suits. Meanwhile, Western air strikes and special operations have done little to change the facts on the ground for Syrians.
This crisis is now about sea-soaked parents and drowning children, refugees sweating on trains and dying in trucks just to get away from a fight the world wants to forget.
No one can say that the world did not see this coming. It was in plain sight for all to see, or at least for everyone who was willing to look to the horizon.
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has dropped barrel bombs from the sky in plain sight and in real time, sending children plunging from balconies in their own homes. Refugee numbers have mounted. The estimated number of dead now equals the population of Boise, Idaho; or Spokane, Washington.
Oh, world leaders have warned. And urged and prodded. In fact, United Nations officials awkwardly admitted they have genuinely run out of words to describe the “terrible human and humanitarian consequences” of the Syrian conflict. Words don’t seem to do their job when ears are shut and the capacity for outrage is capped.
International nongovernmental organizations asked, urged, and then pleaded for more money. When governments failed to ante up, World Food Program food rations were cut. Less food for the needy as dollars dried up. Neighboring countries have repeated to the world that their means to deal with the onslaught of refugees would be coming to an end.
Back in June 2013, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that “the $5 billion figure being requested for Syria amounts to what Americans spend on ice cream in 32 days, what Australians spend on overseas travel in 10 weeks or what German drivers spend on petrol in 6 weeks. But austerity and economic crisis can hold back funding.”
The UNHCR continued, “The current crisis is threatening to the entire region with dramatic implications on regional security end socio-economic development.”
And High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the Syrian war would unleash the “worst humanitarian crisis of our time.”
His words now ring true. What is unclear is whether the gut-searing sight of a toddler lying dead in the sand, instead of playing on a summertime beach, killed by the world’s indifference, will make any difference.
Will a father’s shattering loss pierce the world’s long-held “NIMBY” approach to Syria’s refugees? And the war being allowed to fuel it through containment? Some will say that whatever the world does, it will have been a long time coming.
“At the end of the day, we are going to be pulled into this, one way or another,” this official said. “The only thing is we are going to be pulled into it kicking and screaming and not on our own terms.” That was two years ago, too.