Of Refugees and Rebels

The influx of refugees in Europe is a major problem for all the countries that are trying to cope with what could well become a crisis.  All of a sudden, Europeans have been forced to face the fact that when people are forced to flee from a country for whatever reason — usually war — they have to find somewhere to go. It has taken them a long time to realise what some other countries have had to cope with for many years.

According to the saintly organisation, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), “Pakistan hosts almost 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees — still the largest protracted refugee population globally,”  which makes Europe’s troubles look like a drop in a bucket, especially when you realise that the 1.5 million people are only those who are registered formally with the authorities and the UN. According to a government spokesman, “We have about 1.7 million registered refugees and another 1.3 or 1.4 million unregistered refugees,” which is a staggering number of people for a poor country to have to look after. These refugees had a comparatively easy time when they moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan because they experienced a single land border, which although undoubtedly hazardous for some, was nothing like the many obstacles faced by those trying to escape privation in some other countries.

The countries from which most refugees are at present escaping to Europe are Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, but many more have had to flee Iraq. In July 2014 UNHCR reported that over 1.9 million Iraqis had been displaced from their homes, and that the “refugee crisis has impacted both Iraqis who fled and the communities that they left behind. Engineers, artists, lawyers, academics, doctors, and other professionals were among the first to escape the war . . . The 2003 US invasion displaced approximately 1 in 25 Iraqis from their homes, with fighting connected with the Islamic State contributing to additional displacement . . .  According to the Iraqi Medical Association, approximately half of Iraq’s registered doctors fled the country in the years immediately following the 2003 invasion. Where once Iraq had among the region’s best health care system and health indicators [when President Saddam Hussein was in power], the current patient-doctor ratio puts it significantly behind neighbouring countries.”

Then in Libya, as noted by Amnesty International, “The international community has stood and watched as Libya has descended into chaos since the 2011 NATO military campaign ended, effectively allowing militias and armed groups to run amok. World leaders have a responsibility and must be prepared to face the consequences, which include greater levels of refugees and migrants fleeing conflict and rampant abuse in Libya. Asylum-seekers and migrants are among the most vulnerable people in Libya and their plight must not be ignored.”

The root cause of Iraq’s refugee crisis was the US invasion, and that of Libya was the seven-month US-Nato blitz of some 26,000 airstrikes (after which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commentedjocularly about the murder of President Gaddafi that  “We came; we saw; he died”)  ;  but what of Syria?  There has not yet been a US ground invasion of that unfortunate country, but there are “2.1 million Syrians registered by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon [and]1.9 million Syrians registered by the Government of Turkey.” These people fled disruption in their native land because of a rebellion against its government and consequent massive expansion of the fanatical Islamic State. What is not widely reported in the West is that the rebellion against President Assad has been fomented, funded and otherwise supported by Washington, as made clear by a State Department announcement in March that almost $400 million had been given to Syrian rebels.

Reuters reported in July 2012 that “President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing US support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government . . . Precisely when Obama signed the secret intelligence authorization, an action not previously reported, could not be determined. The full extent of clandestine support that agencies like the CIA might be providing also is unclear.”  In October 2013 the Washington Post reported that “The CIA is expanding a clandestine effort to train opposition fighters in Syria amid concern that moderate, US-backed militias are rapidly losing ground in the country’s civil war,”  and last September the “US Congress gave final approval . . . to President Barack Obama’s plan for training and arming moderate Syrian rebels to battle Islamic State . . . NBC News reported that the Free Syrian Army had obtained nearly two dozen surface-to-air missiles, weapons that could be used against Assad’s helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.”

The belief that there could be any grouping of insurgents that could be described as “moderate rebels” is bizarre and it would be fascinating to know how Washington’s planners classify such people. It obviously didn’t dawn on them that any citizen of any country who kills people in the course of a rebellion could not be defined as being moderate.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter eventually admitted to a Congressional Committee that it is difficult to find Syrian rebels who are both “moderate” and willing to fight Islamic State fanatics, saying “It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria.” The supposition that there could be some means of assessing the intensity of an armed rebel is so absurd as to verge on the clinically crazy, but the grimmest part of the sordid saga is that the rebellion was given so much impetus by Washington which has poured weapons into the hands of insurgents, thereby hugely accelerating the fighting and resulting in further destruction — and causing even more refugees.

US Fox News sees it differently, and declares the Syrian catastrophe to be the fault of the government in Damascus because it is fighting against rebels who are trying to overthrow it and turn the country into a desert of religious fanaticism. Following Washington’s official line, it also criticizes Russia for supporting the government in its fight against the US-supported militants who have plunged the country into chaos and caused four million citizens to flee.

On 5 September Fox News Security Analyst, Kathleen McFarland declared that “Russia is trying to prop up the Assad government, like the Iranians are; and so Russia is sending military equipment; it’s sending it by sea, it’s sending it overland, it’s sending it by air, to try to prop up the Assad government to continue the fighting.

Fox News Interviewer : To continue the refugee crisis?

McFarland : Oh, sure, exactly.”

There was even more fantasy at a hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee on September 16 when General Lloyd Austin, who commands US Central Command, was asked how many US-trained rebels were involved in fighting in Syria and replied “it’s a small number . . . the ones that are in the fight, we’re talking four or five.”

These rebels are supposed to be fighting against the Islamic State rebels who are fighting against the Syrian government and who in May seized and destroyed much of the historic city of Palmyra in the centre of the country, yet General Austin declared that “progress is being made” and “there haven’t been any dramatic gains on either side.”  This was such indisputable nonsense that even the usually emotively supportive Committee was astonished.  Its chairman, Senator McCain, was moved to comment that “So, basically you’re telling us everything is fine . . . as we see thousands of refugees flee, as we see 250,000 Syrians slaughtered in the war. I’ve never seen testimony as divorced from the reality of every outside expert as this.”

Hillary Clinton rejoiced after the murder of Libya’s President Gaddafi that “We came; we saw; he died,” and ignored the consequences, which included the appalling refugee crisis inflicted on Europe.

No doubt her successor will avoid making such a repulsive statement if President Assad is murdered. But he will be able to take heart from the fact that the ensuing cataclysmic shambles would have been facilitated by “moderate” rebels. All five of them.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation  on September 23.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.