Seeking refuge in Germany.

Photographer: Kay Nietfeld/AFP/Getty Images

The Year When Syria's Problems Came to Europe

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Middle Easterners sometimes observe wryly that although the West causes some of their region’s problems, Westerners don’t have to suffer the consequences. In 2015, that observation ceased to be valid, at least with respect to Europe. The world’s collective failure to solve the multidirectional Syrian civil war led to a refugee crisis that affected Europe profoundly. The open European borders promised by the Schengen treaty are in the process of being sealed, and immigration is now widely acknowledged to threaten the future of the European Union itself.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

What’s noteworthy in historical terms about this blowback isn’t just that it shows how small the world is, or how vulnerable the EU is to external shocks. It’s that Europe hasn’t reacted by trying to solve the Syrian crisis in a serious way, by trying to change the actors’ incentives or the strategic calculus. The U.S. hasn’t sent ground troops, but it is at least leading the bombing of Islamic State militants and trying to use diplomacy to frame a solution. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, heaven help us, is trying to solve the Syria crisis, albeit by strengthening President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

European powers pushed the United Nations Security Council to adopt the peace roadmap that it passed last week. And they’ve contributed some planes to the Islamic State bombing. But after taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, Europe’s main reaction to the Syria crisis has been to create a firmer barrier between itself and the Middle East. That barrier is called Turkey, and the EU struck a deal to make it into a repository for Syrian refugees that blocks them from crossing into the EU.

Given the unlikelihood that Turkey can absorb all future refugees, over and above the 2 million plus it already has, it’s worth asking: Why is Europe trying to free itself of the symptoms of the problem rather than trying to address the root cause, namely the collapse of Syria? What’s with the wishful thinking?

As long as Islamic State continues to flourish, refugees will remain a problem, and terrorist attacks like those in Paris are unlikely to disappear or even abate. How can Europe act as though Syria and Islamic State still aren’t a European problem?

There are two plausible answers, one charitable, the other cynical. It being the Christmas season, I’ll start with the nice one.

Maybe Europe isn’t trying to solve Syria because it’s learned the lesson that the West can’t solve Middle Eastern crises. Iraq might’ve taught the big European powers this lesson -- except it didn’t, because it was France and England that led the move to bomb Libya and take out Muammar Qaddafi. So, still being charitable, we might conclude that Libya taught the Europeans that removing a dictator won’t deliver a functioning state where the citizens can remain instead of fleeing.

The attraction of this theory is that, if European leaders think they can’t solve Syria, they might well be correct. Who would govern in the aftermath of a defeated Assad? No one can answer that question with confidence. Assuming Islamic State could be defeated, the best that could be hoped for would be a federal Syria, with an Alawite enclave, a Kurdish-dominated region and a Sunni Arab domain. That sounds a little too much like the much-tarnished ideal of a federal Iraq to make anyone optimistic about it.

Of course, the fact that solving Syria looks incredibly difficult isn’t a reason for Europe to think that the problem will go away if it just tries to hide from it. To the contrary: So long as the Syria situation shows no signs of improvement, that increases the likelihood of more refugees. Even according to the charitable interpretation, Europe is failing to engage Syria productively.

That leads me to the more cynical interpretation of Europe’s unwillingness to do more: It disclaims responsibility for what’s gone wrong in Syria or the region more generally. It’s easy to see how this logic would go.

First, blame the U.S., which began the shakeup in the region by invading Iraq, and bears enormous responsibility for the consequences, which include a weakened Iraq and therefore part of Islamic State's rise. There’s a lot to this, of course -- but the U.K. joined the U.S. in Iraq, and it’s part of Europe, at least for the moment.

Second, blame the Arabs themselves. Again there’s plenty of responsibility to go around. Assad and his father ruled as oppressive autocrats for decades. Sunni Syrians rose up against Assad bravely but have failed utterly to construct a credible opposition. Islamic State is made up mostly of Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria. Europeans can say with some merit that none of this is their fault.

The problem with this disavowal is that Europe has played a role in maintaining the system of Arab dictatorship over the last half-century. It’s not only a matter of buying oil but also of trade links and, broadly, the acceptance of the Arab dictators as plausible interlocutors for Europe’s own regional policies.

Third, ignore any history before World War II, in particular the legacy of European control between the wars. Yes, this was a long time ago, and in recent decades, Europeans have been secondary players in the Middle East rather than colonial or mandatory masters. But Europeans drew the maps and assigned peoples to states throughout the Middle East -- and did it badly. The U.S. was never a colonial power in Syria. France was.

A Europe that blames America and the Arabs for the region’s troubles and discounts its own historical role can easily act as though Syria is someone else’s problem.

But as 2015 shows, it isn’t. Europe contributed to the disaster, and more important, it can’t hide from the consequences. If 2016 continues the trend of refugee flows, Europe will have to reconsider some part of its approach -- not a moment too soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Noah Feldman at

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