The refugee crisis currently unfolding across Europe has created much debate, anger, pity and more but little in the way of genuine, workable strategies to deliver a long-term solution as opposed to a quick fix.
The tragedy of young Aylan Kurdi has only made matters worse as understandable emotion has started clouding sound strategic thinking, for as harsh as it may sound, a lasting solution will only be found by clear minds understanding a highly complex situation and, importantly, learning from the many errors of strategy of recent history which led us to this point. Strategy, both good and bad, leads cause to effect and many of the effects caused by what we have, and are, seeing were predictable.
Here in the UK we have almost become immune to politicians launching policy without thinking through what the medium to long term effects of that policy may be (cause and effect). In short, they launch policy but ignore strategy, which is, of itself, bad strategy. Some, me included, would suggest politicians simply do not understand strategy leaving the rest of us to suffer the after effects of populist policy badly delivered.
This is important to understand for much of the hostility to housing refuges in the UK can be found in frustration founded in years of policies which have failed to provide the population with an adequate stock of social housing, numerous benefits cock-ups, an underfunded NHS and a perception of job shortages made worse by an influx of workers from other EU states.
Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy, introduced at a time waiting lists were already growing, was extremely popular at the time. Incredible as it might sound, it has contributed to the social housing shortage. Every politician since has failed to grasp the issue as the gulf between what is needed and what exists has grown. The policy; Right to Buy, lacked a supporting strategy which ensured a continued, adequate housing supply for future generations. That shortage is now part of the fuel to the hostility as people question how we can take in refugees when, for example, 4500 former service men and women are homeless? And that is one small component of the complex strategic failures of successive UK governments, this is not a party political failure, it is a Westminster failure.
But in order to resolve the crisis, we need to look beyond simply a capability to take in (or not) refugees, we need to know that the flood can be reduced to a trickle and even stemmed. This is not a UK issue, nor even an EU issue, although its open border policy has definitely not helped; this is a global crisis born of poor strategy on a global scale. To comprehend how we fix the problem, we must understand some of its making, a highly complex making of which the following can only be a simplified summary for fear of turning an article into a book!
One strand of the problem’s history can be found in Beirut but the cause predates even that and can be traced back to western governments’ policy of hostility to the Palestinian cause. Note, not to support for Israel but to hostility for the Palestinian cause. The margins here are fine and within the refugee camps of southern Lebanon and Beirut displaced Palestinians could not understand how the west could consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation. After all, they had insisted on free and fair elections in Gaza, elections won by Hamas by a majority western leaders only dream of, elections declared free and fair by independent observers. And yet, the west refused to do business with the elected government of Gaza and the populations of displaced Palestinians in Beirut could only scratch their heads at the injustice. Play the west’s game and still they ignore you, still they leave you isolated. The west’s strategy of demanding free and fair elections had back-fired and their devil had been elected. But rather than support the democracy they had insisted on, they changed strategy and looked the other way. Cause and effect; what were many of those Palestinians to think of the west and how might a handful react?
While most still saw their main cause that of Palestine, from this resentment of the west, ISIS was born as a very small minority took extreme misinterpretations of the Koran to create a new approach. However without other circumstances conspiring, that small group would have remained just that, a small group. But nature abhors a vacuum and the west was about to create a vast vacuum that ISIS could fill.
The civil war in Syria has multiple root causes ranging from downtrodden people mimicking the Arab Spring to drought driving farmers to the cities and many more besides. Those many causes collided and a civil war began.
A war weary west with armies depleted by budget slashing politicians and cautious after going into Iraq without just cause didn’t want to intervene without confirmed backing and so sought international agreement for support for the Syrian rebels. For strategic reasons of their own, China and Russia blocked the move and the west, instead of supporting, sat back to watch what might unfold. Lacking clear strategy the west had been out thought and out-played by Russian leader Vladimir Putin who protected his nation’s arms sales in the region but, more importantly had tested the west’s resolve for doing the right thing when it mattered ahead of planned interventions in Crimea and Ukraine (and, still possible, the Baltic States).
The rebels in Syria saw vocal support from the west without genuine support in the form of hardware if not military action. In a world where ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ into the void stepped a small, largely unheard of group from the refugee camps across the border in Lebanon. ISIS had a small, but strategically important toe-hold and used it to grow and spread their message of terror and hate to devastating effect. Before a strategically inept west realised what was happening, ISIS had grown beyond all recognition and was establishing their self-styled caliphate.
Still the west did not react and what had become a three or four sided civil war in Syria became an invasion of Iraq as the caliphate grew. The Kurds resisted, the Iraqis ran before regrouping, the Syrians continued fighting each other as well as the now powerful ISIS. Finally, too late, the west woke up but instead of employing a decisive strategy to remove ISIS from the region, decided on air strikes only. It was, and still is, too little too late.
In Syria, some people were already fleeing an oppressive regime and a war which was destroying once habitable cities but now they were also fleeing the terror of ISIS, fleeing beheadings, child rape and forced marriage in a warped interpretation of religion. In northern Iraq, people were fleeing the same.
The Lebanon faced a humanitarian crisis as a new generation of refugees arrived, not the Palestinians of recent history but Syrians and Iraqis. Jordan and Turkey too were faced with crisis. Before long those camps were having to cope with 4 million refugees and inside Syria and Iraq a further 3.5 million were displaced. It was a ticking bomb waiting to go off.
And here we are. What did our governments expect? Their short-sightedness, failed strategies and self-denial has led us to where we are. And where we are is in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis since the 1930s and 1940s with an ineffectively opposed foe at the root cause (cause and effect) and no sign of an end.
Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect any sort of competent strategic thinking from the very ‘leaders’ who brought us to where we are and so, short of the short-termism of where to place the refugees, no one is thinking, no one is planning to address the root cause of the problem. And without doing so, the refugees will keep coming. The estimated 800,000 on mainland Europe could double and treble in size within a few months because no one is looking over the horizon and asking, “how do we solve this problem?” Not the symptom, refugees, the problem, what they are fleeing.
The text books are full of various types of strategy coming under a vast range of terms but there are in reality only two types; issue based strategy and vision based strategy. Issue based to address an immediate problem before you can proceed, vision based to design a vision of a future you desire and then plan towards it.
This global problem requires global co-operation to find a solution. If Vladimir Putin chooses to block that co-operation then now is the time to proceed without him. The globe, all nations, need to agree to aid Europe in addressing the current refugee crisis (an issue based strategy). The globe, all nations, need to then agree a vision based strategy for addressing the issue at its heart – the annihilation of ISIS. If nations choose not to participate the rest must proceed without, because hand-wringing and argument won’t solve the issue, sound strategy properly deployed by competent leaders will.
Back in the UK, our armed forces are the smallest they have ever been. Currently, we don’t even have an aircraft carrier. It has been said, and I agree, that to protect peace you must be ready for war. Part of our own vision based strategy must be to rebuild our armed forces, it must provide affordable housing for all, an NHS which works, and benefits which provide a genuine safety net not a scroungers charter; it must deliver the land fit for heroes that was promised long ago.
There will be those who say we should avoid war at all costs; we should house as many refugees as it takes. While I applaud their humanity, I cannot agree. We either solve the crisis short-term and address its root cause medium to long term, or we will end up at war anyway because without destroying ISIS, that war is coming if it’s not already here.
Let there be no more Aylan Kurdis. Cold, clear, quality strategy will get us there, let’s not let emotion lead us further down this wrong path of simple, emotion driven solutions which we have been on for too long. Let’s not address a highly complex issue like it is a simple puzzle.
© Jim Cowan, 2015.