The Sword of Damocles

As the Syrian civil war enters its second decade in 2021, what started as a peaceful uprising against the political administration in Syria has developed into a power struggle amongst a myriad of foreign powers in the geopolitical bedrock of the Middle East.  Syrians protested in the wake of the Arab Spring a few months after it took hold in late 2010 across the Arab states.  The protests were met with force, violence escalated, and the country descended into civil war.  Ten years on, eleven million Syrians are displaced, both internally and as refugees mainly across Europe and neighbouring countries, whilst Bashar Al-Assad remains Syria’s President.  However, his power holds sway under a sword of Damocles.  The President has his allies but their allegiance is conditional, and that, like the horse’s hair from which the sword of Damocles hangs, creates an unpredictable situation.

President Assad’s orders to his military to forcibly stop protests before they engulfed the nation in April 2011, came not long after pledges of government and social reforms.  However, Syrians had lost hope in the transformation of the nation from a socialist to a market economy through the government’s tenth five year plan, which started well and should have come to realization in 2010 but had begun to falter.   The demonstrations spiralled into armed confrontation and civil war. 

Syria was provided military support by its longstanding financial ally Iran. Substantive support began with the sending in of a contingent of 4,000 troops in 2013.  There are many reasons for Tehran’s support for Syria, a nation at the cutting edge of the Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East. The demographic makeup of Syria is multi faceted and a point of contention. Pre war population statistics are obviously no longer valid and indeed there has in any case not been a credible census in Syria since 1963. However the NCF estimates the pre war population of Syria as being:

Sunni Arab 51% (average of all best estimates 56.5%)
Kurdish 14% (average of all best estimates 12.5%)
Christian 8.5% (average of all best estimates 12% which seems high)
Alawite 14% (average of all best estimates 14%)
Druze 3% (average of all best estimates 3%)
Others e.g. Yazidis, Jews, Turkmans, Shiite 6% (average of all best estimates 2% which seems low)

Certainly if the Kurds are numbered with the Arab Sunnis there is a Sunni majority, whilst President Bashar Al-Assad is from the Alawite minority, regarded (on a very tenuous and scarcely credible basis) by Iran’s leadership as being a sect of Shia-Islam.  Arguably the relationship began as a tactical and strategic partnership, initiated in the 1980s by both governments’ shared contempt for President Saddam Hussein during the Iraq – Iran conflict.  This alliance has been sustained for strategic reasons and perhaps reinforced by a mutual distrust of Israel. Furthermore, geographically Syria is situated on a thoroughfare between Iran and its Lebanese Shi’a militia ally Hizb’Allah. 

Iranian support for Syria has of course also been financial, and has gone beyond mere remittances. Iran has provided the Central Bank of Syria with a $4 billion line of credit.

In the early days of the war, Arab nations including Saudi-Arabia and Qatar provided financial assistance to Syrian rebel fighters.  Israel also provided assistance to Free Syrian Army rebels in 2017 and carried out air strikes, which continue today, with one of the deadliest attacks allegedly killing 57 Syrian and Iranian soldiers last week.  These attacks have escalated in the last few months in the run up to the transition of power in the White House.

Iran’s strategic reasons for retaining President Assad as an ally go way beyond mere personal interest.  A change in strategy for Iran is none the less improbable despite talk of a new “Syrian Karzai”.  Meanwhile for Iran the prospect of brokering peace with anti-Syrian government rebels, who have been in the line of Iranian fire since the infancy of this war is a taller order than supporting the current status quo. 

Despite strong Iranian support, President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against the rebels took a new turn at the end of September 2015, when he called on Moscow to help in the fight with the rebels who were gaining strategic control of key towns in Syria.  Some say that this call for help came directly at the request of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, although the Institute for National Strategic Studies reports the Russia’s decision to intervene came prior to General Soleimani’s visit to Moscow.  Russia has been a long term ally of Syria. However, Putin’s willingness to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power may be more covetous.  The war in Syria and decisions by other states have provided Putin with an opportunity, one that he has taken advantage of and which has fundamentally shaped his strategy

Russia’s strategy has been described as functional. “It constantly seeks to improve its short-term economic, military, and political advantages while reducing the short-term advantages of prospective adversaries.”  Its long-term vision is to become a global power in the region.  To achieve political hegemony, enhancing military bases in the region is critical, and the Syrian War has provided this opportunity. 

Russia is keen to orientate the Middle East towards itself and away from the US, with countries such as Iran this provides a mutual understanding, however re-orientating other regional actors, such as Turkey and the Gulf States is a greater challenge.  The crevice that Moscow regularly exploits is the sovereignty of leaders over their state, both from “external intervention and internal insurrection” by directly attributing the cause of such violations to the West’s foreign policy, demonstrated by the toppling of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Al-Gaddaffi.  Russia’s opportunity was further enhanced with Trump’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria in October 2019, which is illustrative of the US’s lack of interest in the region, making it easier for President Putin to induce the leaders of the Arab nations to regard him as a safe bet.

War is not a cheap venture through proxies or otherwise, and both Iran and Russia have accumulated a large tab in the course of their interventions.  Iran’s costs are between $600 and $700 million a month and that doesn’t account for the human loss with boots on the ground.  Despite avoiding heavy human casualties, as Moscow’s offensive interventions have predominately been airstrikes, the cost to Moscow comes in at $4 million a day for airstrikes, this doesn’t include the heavy investment in Syria’s Armed Forces in the form of arms and training.  Despite the advantages of the intervention, such as testing new military systems, combat experience and building up its bases, the long term gain for Russia in recouping the financial costs are high.  Both of Syria’s allies are taking a stake in the country’s infrastructure.  An agreement between Damascus and Moscow a few months after the departure of US troops permitted Russian energy companies to develop three blocks of oil and natural gas.  Reconstruction deals have also been struck by both countries, although there is contention between them as to how the spoils are shared out.

The longevity of the war in Syria is also taking its toll on those loyal to the President.  With high gains in the initial years of the war, their fortunes have turned.  The Caesar sanctions imposed by the US are crippling Damascus’ financial support network, as they specifically target third-country actors with cross-border business activities with Syria.  With the loss of revenue, President Al-Assad has turned on Syrian loyalists such as his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was Syria’s richest national with investments in telecoms, real estate and hotels.  Makhlouf expressed his discontent in futile social media posts in May 2020, as the President confidently grappled for the countries assets and unpaid taxes to replenish his coffers

The exploitation of family division has been a feature of Bashar Al-Assad’s presidency. That said, in the eyes of some it exposes the pressure that Moscow can apply on Damascus, as Makhlouf was close to Iran and involved in contracts with Iran-affiliated Syrian businessman, a point of discord with Russia.  The family division in fact runs deep as President Bashar Al-Assad has a history of arresting and imprisoning cousins that displease him, though whether it reflects allegiances to Syria’s allies is questionable.  The Syrian military remains strong and confident in its own right. The lead command of the Fourth division is Maher Al-Assad, the President’s brother who remains intensely loyal and whose commanders are advised by Tehran.  Whilst the air intelligence affiliated militia fighting for the Syrian army, The Tiger forces, led by the charismatic Suhayl Al-Hassan, have attained elite fighter status and benefit from Russian support.

The impact of not only the Ceasar sanctions, but also sanctions applied to neighbouring Lebanon and Iran by the US are also damaging President Bashar Al-Assad’s cash flow.  This along with the ongoing cost of the war is filtering down to ordinary Syrians loyal to the Syrian government.  The war has caused the Syrian pound to lose 80% of its value, Syria’s agriculture and tourism industries have been destroyed, and the flow of currency coming in from oil exports lost. Eight out of ten people live below the poverty line.  In June 2020, fresh protests by Syrians living under Damascus’ control echoed the protests of 2011.  These Syrians add to the list of those the President is struggling to please, and as a token gesture he fired his Prime Minister Hamid Khamis.

The elections for the Presidency are scheduled for June 2021, and despite the outcome being predictable, a final victory in the war in the President’s eyes would solidify his support from those around him.   Syria’s civil war that enters its tenth anniversary in March, has been dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, and drawn in many regional actors.  Now President Assad wishes to gain control of the final rebel strong-hold. 

Idlib a province in the North East of the country remains under Turkish backed-rebel control.  This is the area in which many civilians and rebels have escaped to after their towns came under siege from Syrian’s armed forces, including Eastern Alleppo, Homs, Darraa and East Ghouta.  Despite Syrian government supporters believing they can take military control over the area, there are many factors that make this unfavourable.  Firstly, the area has strong Turkish military support.  Turkey borders northern Syria and hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and their repatriation will be less likely if President Assad takes control of Idlib.

To avoid an escalation, Russia met with Turkey at the Astana framework talks in April 2020 between Russia, Iran and Turkey. 

Another reason why an outright Syrian Army assault on Idlib will not be favoured by Russia, is doing so could arguably contravene UN resolution 2254 that was unanimously agreed upon by all member states including Russia, in December 2015, three months after Russia intervened in the war.  This calls for a ceasefire, constitutional revision, and new free and fair elections. 

Although this UN resolution was described by the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, as “Syrian-led, Syrian owned, credible, balanced and inclusive”, President Assad has a large swathe of influence over the committee formed to revise the constitution, as half the members are nominated by the Syrian government providing him with a de facto veto power, and those representing the Western approved factions of the opposition present seem to have little interest in progressing matters.  The ceasefires agreed to date have all collapsed and the most recent agreed through the Astana framework by Turkey, Iran and Russia in March 2020 remains perilous with incidences of violence.  The failure of these ceasefires is because these ceasefires are often used as strategic military tactics to pause the war on one front and to re-align troops to another front that is on the verge of being secured.  However more importantly, these ceasefire agreements do not initiate peace agreement talks that are inclusive of Syrians. 

Arguably further military intervention in Idlib by the Syrian government’s coalition forces would exacerbate the existing humanitarian catastrophe.  There have been grave breaches of humanitarian law throughout this war and they continue, including the targeting of civilians and torture of prisoners by all sides as reported by the UN Human Rights Council.  An assault on Idlib, that homes nearly three million people, over three times its population before the war, would be difficult for the international community to swallow, especially as there are no other humanitarian corridors that could provide protection to the Syrian refugees trapped there.  Conditions in Idlib are dire for the tens of thousands in makeshift camps, with freezing temperatures and flooding, the situation exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19.  Furthermore only one of the two remaining border crossings for humanitarian aid remains open, after the UN resolution 2533 to keep the other, Bab-Al-Salaam open was vetoed by Russia in July 2020.  Although open military assault is not currently being pursued in Idlib, humanitarian assistance is being restricted to maintain a stranglehold over the province. 

To avoid a humanitarian disaster in the region and with the agreed ceasefire in Idlib, the UN needs to use this space to secure a peace deal that sees a political settlement providing Syrians with a voice in their country’s future, and for this security is paramount in Idlib.  Setting up an administration made up of Syrians in Idlib to start negotiating a peace agreement, that includes the repatriation of Syrians could be a next step.  This could only be possible if the UN mandated a protectorate force to provide the necessary security in the region, a force that would be tolerated by the rebel forces.  

However this may not be acceptable to President Al-Assad. The end strategy will need to be carefully negotiated with Iran and Russia, who both share interests, but may reassess their allegiances as President Biden enters the Oval office in the White House. 

Edited by William Morris

Turkey’s Dexterous Juggling Act

Turkey’s involvement in multiple wars from Syria to the Caucuses may initially have been down to external circumstance, a reaction to short term need for internal security and territorial integrity, rather than down to its own long term planning; but as the situation develops, its list of adversaries grows.  With the multiple balls it needs to juggle, Ankara may need to follow Dwight Eisenhower’s advice that “planning is everything, the plan is nothing”.

At the end of October President Erdoğan threatened to launch a new military operation in northern Syria if Kurdish armed groups were not cleared from areas along its border with Syria. To be fair, this was a day after a Kurdish fighter blew himself up in a town in the border province of Hatay. 

However, President Erdoğan’s more recent response to the deadliest Russian air strike since the Turkish-Russian truce in March, on the face of it was relatively passive. President Erdoğan announced that Moscow was “not looking for peace in the region”.  The Russian strike targeted a military training camp for Failaq al-Sham, one of the largest Turkey-backed armed groups in the area, in the Jabal al-Dweila area northwest Idlib province killing 35 people.  This indicates both Turkey’s strained relations with Russia, but more importantly that the main priority for Ankara remains the Kurdish issue. 

Turkey and Russia are fighting not just on many fronts but many fronts in multiple wars.  Syria, Libya and more recently the Caucasus.  Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in its fight against Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is looked upon with disdain by Russia.  Both countries remain at loggerheads, supporting opposing sides with both hoping to expand their military presence and political reach in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  This aspiration for hegemony helps explain their shared in interest in Syria – Syria being the geographically artery between East and West.  However, their interest in Libya, where both countries support opposing forces, is more obviously based on the prospect of lucrative rewards.  Over the past year, thousands of Syrian fighters have been sent to Libya by Turkey to fight on behalf of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, against the Russian-backed forces of Libya’s National Army, under General Khalifa Haftar.  Turkey aligned itself with the GNA in January 2020, as a counter to the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF) which is made up of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Turkey wanted to have a say in energy transfer across the Med to Europe from Asia.  This military intervention was two months after the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Government of National Accord on maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean.

As the fairly recent strike on Turkey backed militias demonstrates, Russia will continue to prowl the Turkey-Syria border and be a thorn in Turkey’s side when it comes to its perceived long term interest in suppressing aspirations for autonomy by the Kurds on its border with Syria. Russia can also use its clout as leverage against Turkey’s involvement in the battle on Russia’s doorstep in the Caucuses. However Libya’s war provides the high income stakes for both parties. 

That said Turkey is losing a key supporter for their cause. Up until the 2020 US elections President President Erdoğan had an ally in President Trump.  This support was much needed given the scrutiny being given to two decisions by Ankara.  The first was the purchase of a Russian made S-400 anti-aircraft system, at a reported cost of Euro 2.1 billion in 2019.  Second, was the case against the Turkey’s state-owned Halbank, for violating Iran sanctions, in charges brought in October 2019.  The bank is accused of aiding a Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab in a “multi-billion dollar scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran”, its executives standing accused of illicitly transferring “approximately $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds”.

The Trump administration have so far postponed sanctions, known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), over Turkey’s purchase of its Russian anti-aircraft missile system.  President Trump’s reluctance has been explained as him correcting the mistake of the Obama administration for not providing Turkey with the US-manufactured Patriot missile defence systems.  However, incoming President Joseph Biden, doesn’t bode as well for Ankara as his predecessor. Biden may be more swift in applying sanctions, which have proved to have a severe impact on the Turkish Lira on two previous occasions that the country was reprimanded by the US.  In August 2018 the Lira crashed following the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports, over the imprisonment of an American pastor, and similar response to a Turkish military operation in Syria in 2019, had the same impact on Turkish markets. 

Biden’s choice of sanction could be more severe and could include anything from excluding Turkey from the US banking system to export licence limitations.  This is not only because Biden’s outlook on Middle East and Mediterranean issues are incongruent with President Erdoğan’s. It also enables Biden to curry favour in a Republican-led Senate on a bipartisan issue.

The Turkish President claims to be a filling the void left at the time when Biden was Vice-President and the US made its decision to withdraw US boots from the ground in Iraq.  This decision by the Obama Administration led to a change in policy in Ankara, from one of “zero problems with neighbours” to one of “prioritising internal stability and territorial integrity; a perceived threat of regional rivals filling the vacuum left behind by the United States in the Middle East; and energy independence.”

There are a number of points of contention between the incoming president and his Turkish counterpart, the first being the situation with the Kurds.  Biden has demonstrated his support for the Kurds, for over three decades: denouncing President George H W Bush for allowing Saddam Hussein’s forces to recapture liberated Kurdish areas in 1991.  Biden also addressed the KRI parliament in 2002, reinstating the US support for the Kurds.  In 2003 Biden showed support for a federal system for Kurds, Sunni’s and Shia’s following the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, he criticised Trumps policy of permitting Turkey to attack Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in North East Syria.  However, his pressure on the Kurds to follow a line in favour of US interests in Iraq, demonstrate Biden’s US interests will be prioritised above ethical considerations in regard to the Kurds.  Secondly Turkey’s closer ties with President Putin further sidelines President Erdoğan as far as the US is concerned.  Finally the America’s perceived aggressive Turkish policy on Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean will make the decision on sanctions far easier, a means to control some of these policies from across the Atlantic.  Turkey however, has not been shy in refusing to play ball in the past. Turkey’s actions have ranged from declining permission to US troops to cross the Turkish-Iraq border in 2003, to bilateral disagreements over Syria during Biden’s term as vice-President, to its acquisition of Russian air-defence systems.  The short term love affair with the US under Trump was always going to be an exception rather than the norm.

However Turkey’s list of adversaries does not end there.  The United Arab Emirates were allegedly complicit in the 2016 Turkish coup, that was quashed by Turkish civilians coming on to the streets to face the tanks that a section of the Turkish military used to launch the coordinated operation across several major cities.  The UAE allegedly funnelled funds to the coup plotters. 

The failed coup turned the UAE’s attention to Qatar, urging Saudi Arabia and other allies to cut links to their small neighbour, after Doha showed support for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2017.   Turkey intervened and defended Qatar as it became isolated, ratifying a military agreement with Doha after which Turkish troops were deployed to Qatar soil.

The relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia remain hostile, despite Turkey being UAE’s largest trading partner.  This partnership was put in jeopardy again in August this year, when the UAE followed Jordan and Egypt’s decision and announced they would normalise relations with Israel, a point of contention amongst Arab countries who see this could undermine any chance of Palestinian peace.  Turkey threatened to suspend UAE ties over a deal with Israel.  These relations are under continued pressure as the UAE and Saudi-Arabia align with Turkey’s rival Russia, on Libyan soil.  UAE and Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Libyan quagmire lean towards both acquiring billion dollar reconstruction contracts, as well as hampering the advance of democracy in the region, indeed only slightly different from the interests of these two agents in the Yemen proxy war. President Erdoğan may forgive, but is unlikely to forget the UAE’s alleged involvement in the coup that was to oust him. President Erdoğan has shown in Azerbaijan, that he can get involved in a war that lies near the borders of his adversaries, and he has close ties to Yemen.  However entering another war may stretch Turkey, and getting involved in the complex web of actors, could see her on the wrong side of the Houthis, a state that has shared interests with Ankara. 

As Turkey’s President Erdoğan continues to juggle these balls, what would make it more difficult would be internal instability caused by economic sanctions, which are in arms reach of the US.  However, with the president-elect Biden’s inauguration not until 20th January, and domestic issues of Covid-19 waiting in the in-tray to deal with, President Erdoğan may have a little more time for planning.

Saeb Erekat – Lifelong Commitment striving for Peace for Palestine

The Next Century Foundation is sorry to hear news of the death of Dr Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian who perhaps did more than any other to help shape the Middle East peace process. May God rest his soul. Sadly he died before his time as a consequence of coronavirus.

On Tuesday 10th of November, hundreds of Palestinians attended the funeral of Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.  Dr Erekat was a key negotiator in Palestinian peace talks with Israel, and helped negotiate the Oslo Accords in 1993, that lead to Yassar Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzakh Rabin jointly receiving the Noble Peace Prize.

History shows that peace can only be built if one party takes the first step to enter into discussions honestly and moralistically.  This is what Erekat did, he took the unprecedented steps to start a dialogue of peace with Israel, to achieve what he wholeheartedly believed in, a two-state solution.  This was a cause he gave earnest devotion to throughout his life, and a cause he believed in with sincerity to his final days.

Saeb Erekat received his doctorate in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Bradford, UK, having completed his tertiary education in the United States in International Relations and attaining an MA in Political Science.  This solid grounding lead him to first teach Political Science at the An-Najah National University, when he returned to the West Bank, and later become the key negotiator for the PLO delegation. 

Dr Erekat advocated a diplomatic solution to the Israel- Palestine conflict, asserting there was no military solution to the situation.  Breaking the long-held taboo on both sides to enter discussions with their respective counterparts, Erekat took the first steps by negotiating at the 1991 Madrid Conference, albeit under guise of the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, as his counterparts were not willing to attend a conference with the PLO.  These landmark discussions at the Madrid Conference were the first of many that lead to the Oslo Accords.

Erekat was involved in most of the peace negotiations with Israel, being an advocate for the two-state solution.  He was remembered as a friend by both the Palestinians and the left-wing of Israel’s politicians.  Described as “the brother and the friend, the great fighter” by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his senior negotiating counterpart, Israel’s Gilad Sher, tweeted “Erekat has contributed much more than most living Palestinians to advance the resolution of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict via a negotiated 2 state Peace agreement” and was a “man he considered a friend throughout the 25 tumultuous years in the Israeli Palestinian arena.”

The death of Saeb Erekat comes a day after Remembrance day, commemorating the end of World War I that saw the signing of The Treaty of Versailles.  However, scholars like the British historian, AJP Taylor acknowledge in his book, ‘The Origins of the Second World War’, “the peace of Versailles [treaty] lacked moral validity from the start”, and was a war-making rather than peace-making treaty, consequently leading to the Second World War.  In the same respect, some dismiss the Oslo Accords that were negotiated by Saeb Erekat as conceding Palestinian territory without finalising the status of the fundamental issues of borders, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem, and claimed it contributed to the second intifada of 2000.  Without reaching a settlement on these key issues, retrospectively the Oslo Peace accord has veered off the path for Palestinian self-determination, and arguably diminished Palestinian power. 

Despite this, Dr Erekat used his position as chief Palestinian negotiator on numerous occasions in the Camp David summit in 2000, the Taba negotiations in 2001, and in 2007 working with Mahmoud Abbas at the Annapolis conference, to bring talks back on track and strike an agreement for the two-state solution, but without success.

The 65 year old past away following complications after contracting COVID-19 and was buried in his hometown of Jericho, 25 miles North East of his birth place in East Jerusalem.  The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres described Dr Erekat as being “dedicated to the peaceful pursuit of justice, dignity and legitimate rights of Palestinians to self-determination, sovereignty and statehood.”  Until his last few days he remained hopeful and steadfast in his belief that a peaceful two-state solution was achievable, messaging the Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni during his illness, “I’m not finished with what I was born to do”.

The Next Century Foundation extends our heartfelt condolences to his wife Niemeh and his four children Salam, Dalal, Ali and Muhammed.

Empathy not Fear

The political discourse around immigration and immigrants has taken a negative and hostile turn over the last ten years.  This discourse has instilled unfounded fear, effectively appropriating this emotion from refugees whose perilous journeys in search for security are nothing but replete with fear.

David Cameron in 2015, the then Prime Minister, described immigrants as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain.”  Similarly migration was projected as “an invasion of our country”, by Donald Trump in 2019.  This language by prominent and influential political personalities is divisive, as it not only creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, but dehumanizes immigrants.  This language is increasingly used by populist politicians.  A political stance used in popularist politics is the demarcation of in-groups from out-groups, where politicians use language that identifies Britishness for the in-group, such as British jobs, British people as opposed to the out-group of foreigners, immigrants and Muslims. 

This rhetoric is not exclusive to politicians but is rampant within mainstream media.  These outlets describe immigrants threatening British values and British culture by using terms such as ‘invaders’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘illegal’.  Such language criminalises a complete cohort, rather than describing individual situations or relaying their true legal stature.  A study in 2013 that examined language used in all twenty main national daily newspapers between 2010 and 2012 found metaphors such as “flood”, “influx” and “wave” were used.  This terminology resorts to describing humans in terms normally reserved for pests or insects.  This hostile language degrades immigrants depriving them of human attributes, and was exemplified by President Trump when he described immigrants as “thugs” and “animals”.  Whether it is media that shapes the narrative or politicians, what is clear is that both groups share a narrative that instigates fear. 

The framing of discourse that instils fear, is used to deliberately divert attention from unpopular domestic political policies.  Academic Noam Chomsky recognised the strategy to “keep the adult public attention diverted away from the real social issues, and captivated by matters of no real importance”.   This strategy was used by David Cameron in 2010 when his austerity measures lead to deteriorating public services, stagnant wages and lost job opportunities.  To mitigate against the public anger that would ensue, he deflected the blame on migrants and encouraged anti-migrant feeling by pledging he would cut net immigration.  This was reinforced through the use of bill board vans labelled “In the UK illegally? GO HOME or face arrest”.  The fervour against immigration that was created amongst the British public was key for UKIP to lead and win the campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.

It is this self-serving use of fear of “them” over “us”, that sees this emotion having been exclusively reserved for “us” over “them”.  This perceived fear is a far cry from the actual fear refugees experience at every step of their perilous journey, the fear of not knowing what to expect, the fear of the smugglers they encounter, the fear of the sea they cross in small overloaded boats.

This is the fear nine year old Anita, and six year old Armin must have experienced in the last few moments of their lives.  The two young children lost their lives with their parents, when their small fishing boat capsized off the coast of France as they attempted to cross the Channel two weeks ago.  Like the 7,400 refugee and asylum seekers that have arrived on the shores of the UK in small boats this year, this young Iranian Kurdish family were in search for security.  The Nezhad family come from the minority Kurdish population in Iran, and according to the human rights monitors of the UN special rapporteur 2017, this group faces discrimination and political repression, their situation made worse by the US sanctions on Iran.

The plight of Iranian Kurds is similar to that of other refugees who desperately flee their country.  There are 79.5 million people who have been forced to flee their homes in the world today, nearly 26 million have crossed borders (attaining refugee status) half of whom are under the age of 18, based on UN figures.  Many of these people experience persecution, conflict and natural disaster.  Furthermore earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and floods are more prevalent globally, because of climate change.    However, 80% of these refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries, with Turkey accounting for hosting 3.7million refugees, Pakistan for 1.4 million and Uganda and Sudan taking on 1.2 and 1.1 million respectively.  Whilst Britain takes on only a small proportion of the world’s refugees, and in the year ending March 2020, 35,099 asylum applications were made in the UK, down by 58% in the peak of 2001. 

By adopting this fear of refugees and immigrants, we fail to recognize the contributions, economic and cultural that they have made to Britain. The Home Office’s own 2018 Migration Advisor Committee concluded EEA migrants contribute more to the health workforce than they consume in health care.  Unfortunately, it is only during the current pandemic that we come to realise we should not fear “foreigners” but have empathy for their experiences and losses.

Refugees escape persecution in an attempt to survive, rather than being lured towards European shores with the prospect of social benefits and jobs, as we are lead to believe.  Our knowledge and experience of immigrants is left open to prejudice and bias through leaders who attempt to redirect the political agenda.