DENVER – The scenes of desperate refugees making their way through a gauntlet of impediments – including hastily unfurled barbed-wire fences, ill-tempered border guards, and angry residents – have been horrific, reminiscent of Europe’s darkest decades. They are a stark reminder that Europe can never be “whole, free, and at peace” if its neighbors in the Middle East are not. Nonetheless, the widespread condemnation of European countries that have refused to accept refugees is not entirely fair.
Refugees are a natural consequence of war; indeed, there has seldom been a war without civilians trying to flee from its carnage. But what causes the wars? In some cases, demands for regime change. After all, the regimes being overthrown are often brutal, and unlikely to back down without a fight.
Nowhere has this inexorable sequence been more evident than in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad, with his narrow Alawite base, has overseen a brutal dictatorship for years – one that has never given an inch to those demanding democratic reform, nor made any room in the country’s polity for those motivated by a less sectarian conception of government.
In fact, Assad’s regime is a continuation of that instituted by his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, when he took over the presidency in 1971. The elder Assad’s approach was, if anything, more brutal than his son’s, as the survivors of his 1982 siege of the town of Hama, aimed at quelling an uprising by Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, can attest.