The Syrian civil war began on March 15, 2011, with demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s despotic rule. Five years later, the country’s people remain in a parlous state, ground down between the forces of Assad (aided and abetted by Iran and Russia) and various extremist groups, most notably ISIS. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and millions have left the country.
Current efforts to stop the war are halting, despite a recent cease-fire and Russia’s decision Monday to pull its troops from the country. But many humanitarian groups are trying their best to ameliorate suffering. One of the largest is the International Rescue Committee. Its president, David Miliband, was foreign secretary under Gordon Brown.*
Miliband is surprisingly chatty for a former politician, but also deadly serious about the scale of the catastrophe in Syria. We spoke about the divisive rhetoric surrounding refugees in the Western world, the differences between politics and humanitarian work, and why the greatest threat to the Syrian people is not ISIS. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Five years into the Syrian civil war, where are we, statistically, in terms of refugees?
These five years have been a slow—or in some cases fast—descent into living hell in Syria. The population was 23 million in 2011. Since then, 5 million people have left as refugees, about 2.5 million into Turkey, about 1.5 million into Lebanon, about 650,000 into Jordan, and about 250,000–300,000 into Iraq. Inside the country, you have 7 million people who have been displaced from their homes by the conflict. I think the figure is 85 percent of the lights out in Syria. The current cease-fire is the first breather for a very long time, but obviously everyone is on tenterhooks that it is going to be broken way too soon.
What is your primary focus right now in terms of the refugees?
I would say we have three areas of focus. One: the protection of kids in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Two: We’re now the largest employer on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is where half the refugees are arriving in Europe; we are providing toilets, water, sanitation, and protection for women and kids there, and we are expanding our programs on the Macedonian border. We’re also in discussion elsewhere in Greece and we’re working in Serbia too, and in Europe. Three: In 26 cities across the United States, we are resettling refugees; so far about 2,500 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S. since the war began. You can see the mismatch between the number of total refugees and the numbers that have been admitted to the U.S.
I am curious how much you think you can help refugees without fixing the root cause, which is the civil war in Syria.
I think the truth is that as long as war is raging, we’ll always be playing catch up and there will always be the likelihood that the flow of people overwhelm the capacity to help them. I think we could have done much better in the humanitarian effort and we can do much better, but your point—that you have to tackle the problem at its source as well—is absolutely right.
Do you see any enthusiasm for tackling the problem at its source from any country that you work with?
It’s a bleak international environment when it comes to peacemaking at the moment. The only glimmer of hope is that the cease-fire has lasted, in significant parts of the country, longer than expected. It’s more likely than not that the fighting will restart rather than that there will be a full-blown peace settlement.
It seems like there are a lot of countries that are less interested in solving the problem than in ensuring that their side doesn’t lose.
It’s certainly a very complicated “theater” to be working in. I can say very clearly that for all of the combatants so far, whether Assad, the Iranians, the Russians, and Hezbollah on one side or al-Nusra, ISIS, the Saudis, Qatar: Among none of the players is there much incentive to compromise. We live with that every day because civilians are caught in the crossfire.
One of the critiques of the cease-fire is that it allows for battlefield gains to be entrenched. And a lot of the non–ISIS rebel forces have been beaten back by Assad and the Russians. Is that an issue?
Yes is the answer to that. But since I’m leading a humanitarian organization, a pause in fighting is better than a continuation of the fighting. Obviously the de facto division of the country, the new balance in the country, reflects the latest state of play.
Do you think it’s possible to reach a political solution where Bashar al-Assad remains the leader of Syria?
I think that the scale of the bloodshed makes reconciliation 10 times or 100 times more difficult. That’s the truth, and adding a barrel bomb is an incitement to radicalization and an incitement to terrorism because it’s easy to see this as a sectarian fight when it started out as a political fight.
There’s a way in which Assad and ISIS give each other strength and oxygen.
It’s very powerful, yeah. I think that both sides trumpet who their opponent is.
As you say, if you have an Alawite president dropping barrel bombs on a largely Sunni population, you wonder how easy it’s ever going to be to defeat a Sunni insurgency.
The Russian view is that, per Chechnya, military might can establish security. The Western view is that the use of military might with Assad makes security impossible because it radicalizes people. I think that intellectual difference is a very large divide in this. It’s not simply that one side wants peace and the other doesn’t; they’ve got diametrically different views on how it gets achieved.
Do you feel that an opportunity was missed to do something about Syria at an earlier point in time, or do you think this is a situation that was always going to get out of control?
Unless you’re really pessimistic by nature, you can never say that we were bound to end up in as bad a situation as we are with 500,000 dead, 5 million refugees, 7 million internally displaced. You can’t say that was the inevitable outcome of a boy writing graffiti on a wall in 2011.
How has the rhetoric about the refugees in the United States and also in Europe affected what you are trying to accomplish?
As I said, the European situation and the American situation are very, very different. In the European situation, you’ve got a million people who arrived, and the screening procedures are limited, although they’re being improved. The American situation is that it’s harder to get to America as a refugee than with almost any other status and less than 3,000 Syrians have come here since the war began. I think that it’s really important to say that it’s true that the political rhetoric has been toxic over the last six months and some of the actions to attempt to exclude refugees from states have been very determined.
It’s also the case that we’ve found a lot of Americans exhibiting those qualities of the American character of compassion, generosity, and outreach in a very striking way. I make a point of asking the executive directors of the IRC around the country, “What are the neighbors thinking of the refugees who are coming to stay?” Actually, the neighbors are what you’d hope, which is that they want to treat them as people. Part of our job is to humanize this story and not allow it to be dehumanized. I think that what I’m saying is there’s been a polarization. The rhetoric is toxic but some of the local action and the local volunteering in our offices has been great.
That last part, at least, is good to hear. I think a lot of Americans think, “America is the most generous country on Earth.” But we have taken a pitifully small amount of refugees.
The last figure I saw was 2,550 over the last five years.
How many has Canada taken in?
Canada has agreed to take 25,000 this year. There’s a real story to be told that your neighbors next door, with a much smaller population, are stepping up in a really exemplary way.
One of the problems with the whole debate about refugees is that it often just becomes a debate about ISIS and how terrible ISIS is. And of course ISIS is terrible. But can you talk about the suffering of the Syrian people beyond what ISIS is doing?
The truth is that the biggest killer of people inside Syria is the Assad government.
Is there anything about the lives of the refugees that you think that people don’t know, but should?
These are people like you and me. These are physical trainers and doctors and teachers and accountants and factory workers and mechanics and taxi drivers. I think that’s the point to get across. They’re being dehumanized by the rhetoric, and it’s the human angle really. They’re victims of terror.
*Correction, March 15, 2016: A previous version of this piece misstated that David Miliband was foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s final government. It was in Gordon Brown’s government.