November 16, 2015

Why Closing Borders to Syrian Refugees Won't Stem Terrorist Threats

By Richard Fontaine

Reactions to the Middle East refugee crisis have been transformed by news that at least one of the Paris attackers traveled to Europe among a group of Syrian asylum-seekers. Several U.S. governors have publicly rejected the notion of Syrians resettling in their states. Opposition to accepting refugees appears likely to grow here and in Europe, where public debate was already fraught. But closing borders to Syria’s refugees could ultimately produce more terrorism, not less.

Syrians represent the world’s largest refugee population. In addition to the more than 4 million who have fled Syria, approximately 6.5 million civilians are internally displaced, according to United Nations estimates. The United States has admitted only about 1,600 refugees since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. Barely two months ago did the Obama administration announce that 10,000 refugees would be allowed in next year.

In the fifth year of this conflict, with millions languishing in camps and other temporary quarters, it is not so much that a generation of Syrians is being lost as destroyed. Parents are out of work. Families are a strain on the communities where some have managed to find shelter. Children are chronically out of school, missing education and socialization. These are the conditions in which violent extremism takes root. By accepting asylum-seekers, the United States and other countries would help to minimize that vulnerable population as well as acting in accordance with their deepest humanitarian traditions.

Concern with protecting the homeland from terrorist attack is natural and appropriate. No one is seriously arguing that refugees should be admitted without thorough vetting backed by real resources and international cooperation to keep out violent extremists. But while the door to refugees should remain open, the crisis should also prompt meaningful planning for safe zones in Syria, along the Turkish border in the northeast and along the border with Jordan in the southeast. No country will take on this duty alone, and a combination of coalition air power and regional ground forces would be required to establish and patrol such areas. Creating safe zones could help reduce Syria’s refugee outflow and help mitigate the untold suffering of civilians.

It could also aid the diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s civil war, which is the only way to ultimately stem the refugee crisis. By moving population segments out of the reach of Bashar al-Assad’s depredations, providing an area where moderate opposition can quietly regroup and strengthen, such an effort could strengthen the groups the U.S. would like to see prevail–and perhaps help persuade the regime and its foreign backers that they will not win through brutality alone.

Civilized nations should see the violence in Paris not as a moment to question our long-held ideals but as a chance to reaffirm them and embrace the most vulnerable among us. It is not just the ethically correct thing to do. This embrace of humanity’s deepest values is itself a rejection of the tortured ISIS worldview.  

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