TSG IntelBrief: Syria: The Humanitarian-Security Nexus
March 20, 2017

Syria: The Humanitarian-Security Nexus

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• In an in-depth report released today, The Soufan Center argues that in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, humanitarianism and security are mutually reinforcing aspirations.

• With the prospects for any near-term resolution to the Syrian conflict highly tenuous, a larger and more committed international response to the refugee crisis is essential to prevent a continuing and worsening regional and global security crisis.

• Western countries must take steps to meaningfully address the refugee crisis both in the region and in Europe; politicized anti-refugee policies—ostensibly enacted to enhance security—threaten to exacerbate drivers of extremism, thereby generating the security threat they are intended to counter.

• Only when the international community properly acknowledges the mutually reinforcing and co-dependent humanitarian and security crises in Syria can it properly strategize how to achieve long-term peace and stability.

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The debate around how to most effectively confront the Syrian refugee crisis revolves around an essential question of international security: must countries choose between humanitarianism and security, or are the two inextricably linked so that investing in one promotes the other, while ignoring one deteriorates both? In an in-depth report released today, The Soufan Center argues that in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, humanitarianism and security are mutually reinforcing aspirations.

Without question, the Syrian conflict is exceedingly complex. Various actors pursue independent interests, contesting territory and trading military offensives. All the while, civilians bear the brunt of the pain, as victims to constant fighting and hopeless ceasefires. Estimates indicate upwards of 400,000 Syrian civilians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011. More than 4.9 million Syrians have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and as many as 6.6 million more have been internally displaced within Syria. Further, upwards of 75% of Syrian refugees are women and children. By UN estimates, 8.4 million Syrian children—more than 80% of Syria’s child population—both in and outside the country, have been affected by the conflict. The experience of war has robbed young Syrians of their youth, and the indignity of prolonged situations as unwanted refugees could prime them to be vulnerable to the messages put forward by violent extremist organizations. Without meaningful international intervention, these young people—inside and outside of Syria—risk becoming members of a lost generation. 

With refugee camps filled to capacity and routine international failure to meet humanitarian funding benchmarks, the countries on Syria’s borders—forced to play an enormously disproportionate role in addressing the refugee crisis—are experiencing increasing strains on internal stability. Though Western European countries and the U.S. are among the most economically capable in the world of accommodating large influxes of refugees, the issue has largely been a political non-starter. In Europe, the task of confronting the bulk of the EU refugee crisis has been relegated to economically weaker European states in Greece and Eastern Europe. The long-term socioeconomic implications of marginalizing refugees are likely to destabilize the EU as refugees struggle to enter the workforce, find adequate housing, or gain access to social services. The refugee crisis has been an important point of disunity for the EU, increasing Euroskepticism among the bloc’s members.

In the U.S. the European experience of the refugee crisis has been used to justify a 120-day ban on refugee admittance, despite obvious and substantial differences between the situation in Europe and the U.S. While the connection between refugees and concerns of terrorism in the EU is overstated, it remains a legitimate concern. The proximity to conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa, vast numbers of refugees, lack of influx controls, and open borders within the Schengen Area expose the EU to the real possibility of terror groups exploiting the refugee crisis to infiltrate operatives into Europe. The U.S. does not suffer from any of these challenges. The current processes in place for refugee resettlement in the U.S. involve multiple extensive interviews, biographic and biometric checks, and multi-agency intelligence and security reviews; the entire process can take up to two years to complete. Insulated from the direct impact of the Syrian refugee crisis, and far more capable economically and in terms of security capacity to accept and accommodate refugees than any other country in the world, the U.S. has thus far proven derelict in its duty to lead the Western world in the appropriate and necessary response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

With the prospects for any near-term resolution to the Syrian conflict highly tenuous, a larger and more committed international response to the refugee crisis is essential to prevent a continuing and worsening regional and global security crisis. Even if hostilities were to cease altogether, the consequences of the dual-pronged humanitarian and security crisis will continue for generations. The multigenerational fallout from the Syrian crisis parallels the experience of other conflicts—from Afghanistan, where children recruited from Afghan refugee camps later formed the Taliban, to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon recruited into militant groups that fueled the Lebanese civil war. The international community’s failure to stem the mass displacement and marginalization of Syrian refugees risks repeating a similar genesis among a lost generation of Syrians, whose collective disenfranchisement may make them increasingly vulnerable to a variety of influences—including radicalization and recruitment by violent extremist groups.

The humanitarian and security crises cannot be addressed independently of each other. In fact, addressing either one in a vacuum will only prolong and contribute to policies that fundamentally misunderstand the dichotomous nature of the conflict. Only when the international community properly acknowledges the mutually reinforcing and co-dependent humanitarian and security crises in Syria can it properly strategize how to achieve long-term peace and stability.

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Click here to access a copy of The Soufan Center’s full report.

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For tailored research and analysis, please contact: info@soufangroup.com

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