The following is a speech written by Al-Hayat journalist Jaafar El-Ahmar for the Conference on the Middle East Migration Crisis: Genesis and Response hosted by Initiatives of Change in collaboration with the Next Century Foundation.
As we speak, the number of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes has risen to around 17 million, of which five million fled the country, including almost two million children, and around 12.2 million internally displaced people, including 5.6 million children.
The world reaction towards this humanitarian crisis was a bit slow, until the 2nd of September 2015, when the image of the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, struck the world, when his body was found lying face-down on a beach near Turkish resort of Bodrum.
Before this date, thousands of desperate Syrian refugees died silently unnoticed in the Mediterranean, during their attempts to flee the war in their country. And even after that, More than 2,500 refugees and migrants have died, trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in the first five months of this year, as William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman has said in 30 May 2016.
The international support to handle the refugee crisis is crucial, but not enough. The only solution is political, to put an end to this tragedy.
After five years of bloodletting in Syria, this has left no one in a quandary! Everyone has come to the conclusion that cessation of war is necessary, and the solution is the same as it was five years ago. Only a negotiated political settlement will give Syrians a sustainable and enduring peace.
The western approach at the beginning of the crisis did not help to promote a political solution, as the west took side and stated that the Regime and its leader must go.
It was clear, at the beginning, that a significant group of Syrians wanted reforms, and some wanted the regime to go.
At the same time, it is imperative to acknowledge that a substantial number of Syrians find security in the regime. Many are afraid of change, and especially fearful of the kind of change the opposition will bring. These Syrians view the religiously motivated opposition as an existential threat to what being “Syrian” means to them, or to the very survival of their communities.
There is nowadays a growing international consensus that Takfeeri Extremism is the main gross danger, which must be defeated. The effects have rippled across the global landscapes. Incidents in Orlando, Paris, Brussels and elsewhere, are indicative of the chilling waves.
The need is to confront the ideology behind the extremism: education, mosques, preachers of hatred, and stop funding, and focus on defeating ISIS headquarters mainly in Syria and Iraq.
There appears also to be some consensus today, that the structures of Syrian state must not be allowed to collapse, to avoid the disaster Libya, Iraq and Yemen are facing.
This will require leadership from all countries to support a political process that will help end the fighting.
These goals can be accommodated by the Geneva process, or elsewhere, with a negotiated solution between the regime and the moderate opposition, allowing for a transitional phase, during which a new Syrian government would be formed, and the unrealistic preconditions will have to be dropped.
The healing process will not be quick, and the Syrian State will remain fractured for the foreseeable future. But the transition must be defined clearly enough, to give all sides the assurances they will need to know: that the state structures will remain intact, local councils will be respected, militias will be decommissioned, and a representative form of governance will be established, to give all of Syria’s people a stake in their collective future.
It won’t be easy to defeat the extremists, and it won’t be easy to convince the regime to surrender its absolute hold on power, and to share it with the others. But this must be the focus of international pressure, if Syria and Syrians are to find a way out of this horrible long war.
Genuine, lasting reforms in political and economic realm can only begin with the end of conflict.