Originally published under the title "Death by Water in the Mediterranean."
Alan Kurdi, 3, drowned in a failed attempt to sail from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.
The photo of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, drowned on a Turkish beach, elicited declarations of concern from media around the world. Aylan's brother Galip, 5, and their mother Rehanna died in the same incident. After four years of civil war in Syria, we were told, the horrific photograph would awaken the world's powers to the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and Iraq.
Don't bet on it. Four million Syrians have been forced by war to flee into neighboring countries, out of a total pre-war population of some 22 million, with 10 million more displaced internally. Atrocities have proliferated, from the gasoline-loaded barrel bombs dropped on civilian neighborhoods by the minions of dictator Bashar al-Assad to the ghastly public mass executions committed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). The campaign by the ultra-Wahhabis of ISIS to destroy pre-Islamic cultural monuments of which they disapprove has also continued.
Why did the world have to wait until the appearance of so terrible a photograph to notice that Syria was being destroyed? And who is responsible for the crisis?
Iran must be held to answer for its support of Assad's tyranny.
First, Iran must be held to answer for its support of Assad's tyranny, which is also backed by Vladimir Putin's Russia. At the same time, Barack Obama's diplomatic courting of Iran has never addressed Iranian interference in Syria or Iraq. Treating Iran as a responsible and respectable power while Iranian military regulars and Hezbollah personnel have inflicted terror in Syria and Iraq contributed directly to the Syrian refugee horrors. Failing to connect Russian aggression in Ukraine with Moscow's backing for Assad falls in a similar, if less obvious, pattern.
The Obama administration appears bent on treating every world problem as separate and distinct, and all of them as containable by rhetoric.
A Syrian Kurdish fighter stands guard atop the rubble of a liberated Kobani early this year.
In the specific case of the unfortunate Kurdi family, now reduced to the father, Abdullah, Turkey also bears some culpability. As a Syrian Kurd from the embattled Turkish-Syrian border town of Kobani, attacked by ISIS in 2014 and successfully liberated by Syrian Kurdish militia at the beginning of this year, Abdullah Kurdi must understandably have wished to get his family out of harm's way. Turkey is no friend of the Kurds; during the fight for Kobani the Turkish army lined its tanks up at the border, pointed against the Kurdish peshmerga fighters rather than against ISIS.
Turkey has recently carried out air strikes that, we are told, are aimed against ISIS. It has also struck Iraqi Kurdistan, reflecting the insistent resentment of Kurdish nationalism on the part of the Turkish state. The air campaign, conducted from the Turkish airbase at Diyarbakır in Turkish Kurdistan, was advertised as another outstanding achievement of the Obama administration. Since the battle of Kobani, President Erdoğan has pursued a clear policy of using his forces as a hammer against the Kurds, with ISIS as an anvil. The outcome? The Kurds, long allied with the United States, now wonder if they, too, will be abandoned by President Obama.
The Washington Post and other media have declared that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states should aid the Syrian refugees. According to the Post, Amnesty International recently pointed out, the "six Gulf countries—Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain—have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees."
Some Kurdish refugees are unwelcome in lands where strict Sunni Islamic doctrines are enforced.
That may be relevant for Syrian Sunni Muslims fleeing the war. Still, none of these countries has a significant Kurdish population or would be likely to attract Kurdish refugees or treat them fairly. A great many Kurds are known for their heterodox religious beliefs—Yezidis, Mandaeans, and others—that would make them unwelcome in lands where doctrines claiming the mantle of strict Sunni Islam are enforced. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both Wahhabi. Oman alone adheres to Ibadhism, an isolated Islamic interpretation, neither Sunni nor Shia. Bahrain is ruled by Sunnis but has been upturned by a Shia protest movement.
Blame for the Syrian-Iraqi crisis and its extension into the waters of the Mediterranean devolves insistently upon the Obama White House. Obama's policies in the Middle East seem describable only as vain and light-minded. His 2009 Cairo speech, at the beginning of his first term, had the effect of encouraging democratic rebellion in countries lacking the development of civil society that must precede a political transformation if it is to succeed. He proclaimed "a new beginning" in U.S. relations with Muslim lands, but failed to introduce anything original in American policy.
In what was surely the most cynical action by Obama, the president declared in 2012 that use of chemical weapons by Assad would breach a "red line." Crossing it, he said, would bring American action against the Damascus despot. The next year, Assad used chemical weapons against his own subjects. Obama called for air strikes against Assad, then allowed himself to be diverted from such action by a masquerade of disarmament with the support of Russia.
Iraq has, it seems, been written off by Obama, with nothing more promised to that country than political manipulations and limited training assistance. Afghanistan will soon be abandoned by Washington, and may be expected to sink back into terrorism.
The attitude of the Obama administration, from Kabul to the Mediterranean, has been one of fecklessness. The deaths of Aylan Kurdi, his brother, and his mother, are one tiny part of the reckoning.
The solution to the Mediterranean refugee crisis consists of removing the Syrian regime and defeating ISIS, not in quibbling over resettlement. The Syrians must have something to which they wish to return and to rebuild. Alas, the best time for action in Syria passed four years ago. Aylan Kurdi was buried with his brother and mother in Kobani. The Kurds, at least, will fight on, and will not forget Aylan Kurdi.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.