In the media frenzy surrounding the escalating refugee crisis in Europe, and particularly in the wake of the Paris attacks on 13 November in which there have been hints that one of the perpetrators may have possessed a Syrian passport, it is often all too easy to forget the very real and harrowing circumstances that have brought so many Syrians to Europe’s gates. Fleeing war, destruction and chaos, the hundreds of thousands of people clamouring for asylum and humanitarian aid have too often been portrayed as terrifying “swarms” or calculated migrants rather than those who have simply no other place to go.
“No one wants to be a refugee,” says former Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works agency (UNRWA) Karen Koning AbuZayd, “these people come here because they have to.”
AbuZayd, who is in London to give the keynote speech at the fourth annual Palestine Book Awards, also spent 19 years working with Palestinian refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. She then worked with UNRWA for 10 years. Now, she serves part of the UN-headed Independent International Commission Inquiry on Syria, set up in 2011 to seek a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict.
With such a professional pedigree, and a wealth of personal experience working with refugees and on refugee issues, AbuZayd is able to bring much-needed clarity to the occasionally hysterical media and international discourse on the current refugee crisis, especially when it comes to highlighting the political reasons behind the current exodus of Syrians.
“There’s no solution to the refugees until there’s a solution to the Syrian conflict,” she tells me. “We need inclusive negotiations that include everyone; to take it slowly and work together on the problems that have to be solved to put the country back together.”
For this reason, AbuZayd is cautiously optimistic about the recent Vienna peace talks between various parties to the conflict, especially the involvement of Iran, although she is wary of the fact that the talks did not include the Syrian regime or opposition members.
“There has to be a Syrian-led solution,” she stresses. “If you won’t include [Bashar Al-]Assad and you won’t include Iran then there won’t be a solution.”
However, she also warns against the popular Syrian opposition view that simply removing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will end the crisis: “The whole idea of Al-Assad stepping down being the solution is misguided. There’s a whole structure that’s in place that won’t be dismantled. We knew from the start that this would be a long conflict and that it wouldn’t be solved militarily.”
While AbuZayd is keen to stress the need for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, not just to bring peace to the country but also to potentially stem the flow of refugees fleeing war-torn cities and villages, she is also wary of the “great entanglement”, as she calls it, of foreign and Western powers in the Syrian arena.
“There’s just too much interference,” she laments. “Not just from Iran and Hezbollah but also from the Gulf Arabs too who have been pouring money into [Syria].”
It is these Gulf Arabs, who she refers to as “a poisonous lot”, who are ultimately behind the rise of extremist organisations such as Daesh, although she acknowledges that the present incarnation of the terrorist group may have exceeded the expectations and desires of its original Gulf backers. The presence and strength of Daesh, too, makes the prospects of a military incursion all the more troubling, especially now that Russia “has created more chaos” by conducting air raids over parts of the country. “Daesh aren’t going to disappear,” says AbuZayd, “they’re like a Hydra that if you cut off the head then there’ll be many more.”
Ultimately, AbuZayd reflects that she is “not at all hopeful” for a swift and clean solution to the Syrian crisis, and that the after-shocks of the current situation in countries such as Syria and Iraq could have devastating consequences for the Middle East as a whole. As she understands it, the fundamental problem in the region is the presence of Israel, which is able to capitalise on its close relations with Western allies to pursue its own agenda in destabilising its Arab neighbours: “Israel’s behind all of this,” she affirms. “That’s what they want; to break up the Arab world and take more control.”
A pessimistic outlook indeed, but one that is perhaps not entirely unfounded. “If I were younger maybe I’d have more hope,” AbyZayd sighs, but she no longer harbours much optimism about the possibility of returning Syria to the multicultural and multi-ethnic secular country it was before the war. “That was the beauty of Syria, its secularism and its tolerance. It was beautiful and sophisticated and kind, even under the dictatorship.”
Now, however, even the opposition factions are dominated by Islamists, echoing a trend that has swept across the Arab world in recent years, from the rise of Hamas in Gaza, to the Ennahda Party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Indeed, part of the current problem in the region as she sees it is the utter failure of the secular left to build an alternative narrative to that of the Islamists, which has resulted in many leftists and secularists in countries such as Egypt advocating for equally repressive regimes. In her words, “the secularists in Egypt support [Abdel Fatah Al-]Sisi because they are so afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
It is this spectre of Islamism, and the failure of the left to combat it, that will continue to haunt the region for many decades to come; especially in the wake of rising Islamophobia in the Western world. “I like to tell people I’m a Muslim just to shock them,” says AbuZayd, whose late husband was Palestinian. “There needs to be much more cross-cultural understanding in the world.”
Here, too, her message resonates with the current plight of Syrian refugees in Europe, where the right-wing and populist press has taken great pains to demonise ordinary Muslim families and hold up the actions of extremist groups and individuals as emblematic of Muslims worldwide. Perhaps, as AbuZayd says, there will only be a solution to the refugee issue when there is a political solution to the Syrian crisis; but perhaps, too, the issues raised by the influx of Muslim civilians on the borders of European countries run much deeper than politics alone can ever resolve.
Keep an eye on the Palestine Book Awards’ website to stay up to date with news and next years opening dates and nominations.