October 29, 2015 | Standpoint Magazine

Flirting With Disaster

The Syrian refugee crisis has so far elicited both solidarity and anxiety in Europe. Neither response offers a policy solution. Understandably upset by the graphic horrors perpetrated by Islamic State and justifiably concerned that its jihadi fighters may be making their way into Europe, policymakers in many European capitals think that working with Iran can facilitate a political solution to Syria’s civil war. Now that the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme seems resolved, they view Shia Iran as a partner in the fight against Sunni radicalism. 

Yet this strategy is doomed to fail. The road to Damascus does not go through Tehran. By and large, the refugees are fleeing Syria’s besieged dictator, Bashar al-Assad. He, and not Islamic State, is presiding over the emptying of his own country. And it is Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who are advising their Syrian client on the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Levant’s Sunni heartland.

There is no other reason why Syrian refugees are flocking to Europe. Those still living in regime-controlled areas are preyed on by a paranoid regime whose documented atrocities are ghastly even by the Middle East’s standards, while civilians in contested areas are the targets of barrel-bombing.

Paradoxically, some Sunni refugees appear to prefer living in areas under the control of IS to living under the threat of torture or indiscriminate bombing because, by some accounts, they feel safer. Western coalition bombing of IS, unlike that carried out by the Syrian regime, does not aim indiscriminately.

Life for Syria’s civilians will become even more difficult as winter approaches. The  ever-present risk of violent death is now accompanied by shortages of medicine and food. The collapse of infrastructure and basic public services across the country heightens the threats of famine and epidemics. It is little wonder that millions of internally displaced Syrians will seek to make their way to Europe. Condemned as they are to make part of their journey by sea on leaky and overcrowded boats, the flow may dwindle at the onset of winter.

But Assad and his Iranian-advised death squads will not relent. The terrorising and expulsion of Sunnis to consolidate the regime’s control over Syria’s coast and a critical land corridor linking it to Damascus will continue unabated. 

Europe, understandably, has few realistic military options even if it were ready to embark on a military operation. With American leadership eclipsed and Assad’s war machine enjoying Russian air cover and even boots on the ground, Europe cannot now envisage military action that until a few months ago remained politically and operationally feasible. But flirting with Tehran over the Syria crisis, no doubt buttressed by the lucrative prospect of Iran’s economy being freed from sanctions, is to confuse the arsonist with the fire brigade.

Europe’s willingness to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees while seeking cooperation with Tehran plays into Iran’s hands and its goal of preserving a friendly, pro-Shia regime in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is an act of complicity in the systematic rape of Syria. And it will only work if Europe resigns itself to absorbing millions more migrants.

Instead, Europe should recognise the effectiveness of its sanctions policy against Iran’s nuclear programme. Instead of dismantling sanctions, it should replicate these measures now because of Iranian involvement in Syria. Iran’s air supply to Syria’s military machine is, after all, the Assad regime’s lifeline. Consignments of weapons and military personnel are frequently carried on Iranian commercial aircraft. Yet, incredibly, the European Union has never banned Mahan Air, the Iranian carrier that the US Treasury Department accuses of routinely conducting  weapons deliveries. Mahan flies to numerous European destinations and procures its commercial fleet and spare parts through European suppliers. 

Much of the financial and military aid that Assad receives from Tehran comes from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Yet Europe has imposed sanctions on only a handful of its senior officers and companies, and almost none of its business executives. The Guard, despite its leading role in war crimes and atrocities, and its active role in training and sponsoring terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah’s military wing, which are on Europe’s terrorist list, is itself not designated as a terrorist organisation or the chief financier of terror groups. It should be.

Sanctions will neither stem the flow of refugees nor bring Syria’s civil war to a halt. But they can force Iran to rethink its support for Assad, the main cause of his people’s misery. That is something Europe can do, as long as it stops deluding itself that working with Iran is the answer to the Syrian tragedy.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi 

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