It’s a terrible sight to be sure – the image of a drowned toddler washed up face-down on a beach, something none of us ever wanted to see but which still, compellingly, must be seen, demands to be seen, and cannot be unseen.
Just last week, I found myself irate upon reading about the plight of a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, who was photographed selling pens on the street while his daughter slept on his shoulder. The photo was shared on Twitter by an Icelandic tourist, and within days, over $100 000 had been crowdsourced for the man, a single father of two who hoped to someday make it to Europe.
I was irate because, while surely this man and his children were deserving of compassion, the difference between his case and that of the other four million plus Syrian refugees is pretty much non-existent, whereas the difference in international reaction couldn’t be more stark. Whereas for years the vast majority of refugees have been demonized, their motives intensely scrutinized, their access to healthcare cut off, and their ability to find safe haven in the West heavily restricted, this one photogenic man was, for whatever reason, able to inspire sympathy in the hearts of the Twitterverse. Though I don’t for a second begrudge him and his family the help that they’ve received, I wondered to myself when we would be able to look at all refugees with this kind of compassion and generosity. If he deserved it – and surely he did! – then why didn’t all the others deserve it as well?
And then the tragedy of the Kurdi family blazed its ways into our news feeds and our headlines and, most irrevocably, our brains, our memories. Lord knows why this particular drowning was the one that went mainstream – because there have been a lot of drownings, that’s for sure, over 1800 in the first half of 2015 alone. But for whatever fickle reason of the news cycle, we’re talking about the refugee crisis now, and so now is the time to push the issue. So I’m going to devote all my posts for the next five days to the international refugee crisis.
Today being Fallacy Friday, I’d like to focus in particular on our Prime Minister’s reaction to the outrage over the drowning of Alan Kurdi, his brother Ghalib, and his mother Rehan.
There’s been a lot of politicking around this issue since the story broke a few days ago, and I’d like to deal with that all in detail in Sunday’s round-up of this week’s election news. For now, though, I want to take a close look at one particular thing that Stephen Harper has been saying repeatedly ever since his sycophantic yes-men went underground to ride out the media frenzy: that a key way Canada can help refugees is by continuing its war against the Islamic State.
For a typical example of that, here’s a four-and-a-half minute video from Harper’s daily news conference earlier today. The first two minutes consist of him distorting his government’s record on refugees, but the latter half of the clip is all about ISIS:
For Harper, destroying ISIS is a key component in solving the refugee crisis. In fact, it’s so essential that he’s willing to use it as a wedge issue to attack the opposition parties even as he insists that his government has a sterling record on immigration – an assertion which is easily debunked.
But Harper’s logic is dubious in the extreme, and the flaws in his reasoning are numerous.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at Syria. To hear Harper tell it, ISIS is the only problem that Syria is presently facing. But the Syrian Civil War has been dragging on for four long years now, three years longer than IS has been a significant force on the battlefield.
And many of the atrocities which have caused people to flee the country were committed not by IS but by the government of Bashar al-Assad – of which IS is an enemy. Which is to say, by striving to destroy IS, we are as a direct consequence aiding the regime of a notorious war criminal.
This tension became even more apparent this past week, amid news that Russia’s air force was preparing to intervene in the Syrian conflict – against IS, which is to say, on the side of NATO. Or, sort of.
Because the Russian government is supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, you see – which means that Russia’s support would be supportive of NATO’s goals in the short term, but not in the long term, NATO having previously declared that it favours a new Syrian government made up of supposedly “moderate” rebels, which the United States has been arming and training for quite some time, which has mostly resulted in weapons and expertise flowing to more radical jihadist organization, such as, for instance, the Islamic State.
And then there’s the major role that climate change played in the lead-up to the Syrian conflict – a drought of Biblical proportions which unfortunately is likely a terrible sign of things to come, with experts predicting that there will be over 150 million climate refugees by 2050.
Or, more briefly, Syria is friggin’ complicated, and our war “plan” is pretty short on specifics of how all this ends well for anybody. And as awful as IS is, it’s hard to be certain that their destruction would on balance benefit the people of Syria.
Consider as an example the regime of long-time Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi was indubitably a bad man, but while he was in power, there was no major outflow of refugees from Libya – certainly nothing compared to what we see today. To produce such a crisis, it was first necessary for NATO to intervene, providing air cover for an ill-defined organization of rebels who in many ways turned out to be far, far worse than Gaddafi. Once they were ensconced in power in Tripoli, NATO went on its merry way, indifferent to the well-armed chaos it had left in its wake. The massive stockpile of weapons that Gaddafi had built up for his army over the decades were seized by various militant groups, and made their way south across the Sahara, where they enabled a coup in Mali, and east, into Syria and Iraq, where they helped enable the rise of – guess who? – the Islamic State.
That ill-considered military intervention, by the way, was one in which Canada was proud to take part, as we saw ourselves as intervening on the side of democracy. And how’s that worked out?
Political infighting and clashes between rival militias escalated, triggering armed conflicts in Benghazi and other parts of the east in May , and in Tripoli and its environs in July.
The fighting caused widespread destruction of property, and civilian injuries and deaths. Around 400,000 were internally displaced in Libya, including about 100,000 residents of Tripoli. Another 150,000 people, including foreigners, fled Libya. Most foreign embassies, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and international agencies withdrew their staff and closed their missions in July.
Militias attacked, threatened, assaulted, or arbitrarily detained journalists, judges, activists, politicians, and ordinary citizens with impunity. Lack of protection for the judiciary resulted in a near breakdown of the justice sector in cities such as Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte, Sebha, and Derna.
(Which just scratches the surface of a dour and disastrous situation, as detailed in the Human Rights Watch report linked above which you ought to read in full.)
As I’ve written before, our open-ended engagement in Iraq and Syria, like our bombing of Libya before it, is about domestic politics far more than it is about securing any kind of stability in the Levant. Our war there is fought with no reasonable, plausible end game in mind. The very fact that we are attacking one specific group while ignoring the wider conflict of which they are an intrinsic part speaks profoundly of our unwillingness to consider the intense complexity of the situation – and if we aren’t even willing to try to understand what we’re intervening in, how good are our prospects for “success”, however success is measured?
And all of this analysis takes the existence of groups like the Islamic State as a given. They are, in Harper’s analysis, a pure evil which arises seemingly from nowhere and which all decent people must get behind destroying.
But the rise of the Islamic State is inextricably tied to nearly three decades of Western military intervention in Iraq and Iran. As I wrote in May:
Imagine if the US and its “coalition of the willing” hadn’t invaded Iraq under manufactured pretences in 2003 and proceeded to undermine the nation’s fundamental infrastructure and fuel sectarian conflict.
Imagine if Iraq hadn’t endured over a decade of international sanctions in the 90s, which by some estimates killed up to half a million Iraqis, mostly children. (Canada was party to those sanctions, by the by.)
Imagine where ISIS would be today if that hadn’t happened.
They probably wouldn’t exist.
If our purpose was to “degrade and destroy” organizations like the Islamic State, maybe we could start by not creating the hell-like collapsed-state conditions that lead to the rise of such groups in the first place.
Instead, we have a war in search of a purpose, fought with a half-assedness that almost nobody makes any attempt to conceal, which is succeeding at pretty much nothing except for polarizing people both regionally and internationally.
If fighting wars in Iraq brought peace and stability to Iraq, then why are we fighting there again?
But Harper’s solution to the horrors of war is – surprise! – MORE WAR! We’ll bomb our way to peace, kill our way to a better world! It’s a solution offered without qualifications, without any acknowledgement of the fact that we’ve tried this before and it’s worked out horribly, without any explanation of why this time things will be different.
If Harper thinks that more war will help resolve the global refugee crisis, if he thinks that more bombings of civilians will pacify the situation, if he thinks that laying the groundwork for future conflict is an acceptable price to be paid in exchange for being able to lay down tough anti-terrorist rhetoric on the campaign trail, if he thinks he can distract and fear-monger his way out of the raging controversy over his government’s immigration policies, then he’s a bigger fool than most folks thought.
Our fight with the Islamic State will do nothing to help the millions of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. It’s an ill-fated war, a conflict in search of a purpose, a poorly-conceived intervention that has no possible pathway to success. Its most likely outcome is the further radicalization of people in the region, the further hardening of hearts and minds against NATO, against the state, against whoever is responsible for the vicious death of their loved ones. Its most likely outcome is more war, more death, more suffering – and yes, more refugees.