There aren't any easy answers to the Syrian refugee crisis, but its human costs and potential geopolitical fallout argue for both Europe and the U.S. to show more leadership on it than they have to date, a panel of Duke University and UNC scholars said Monday.
Syria's immediate neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan, are shouldering more of the load than they can sustain, coping with refugees in the millions, while various Western countries debate their ability to absorb anywhere from a few thousand to several hundred thousand, Duke staffer and Amnesty International activist Geoffrey Mock said.
"If you think it's bad now ... wait until those countries collapse on themselves because of the cold reality of the burdens those countries are taking on," Mock said.
Panelists and audience members appeared to agree that while the best answer would be an end to Syria's civil war, the country's president, Bashar al-Assad, is dug in and doesn't seem likely to give way any time soon.
The U.S. has shied away from military intervention because it already has several wars on its plate, and because it's unclear whether some of the suggested options would actually help, said panelist Robin Kirk, who co-chairs the executive committee of the Duke Human Rights Center.
Other countries are acting, but it's likewise uncertain whether that's actually a good thing.
"We need to be prepared to reap the cost of an action," said audience member Abdul Sattar Jawad, a Duke professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies. "Russia stepped in. The conflict will be prolonged, the situation will be more complicated and the jihadists will be unified because Russia is there."
But U.S. military doctrine implies it might take about 400,000 troops and another million in support personnel to protect a population the size of Syria's, said audience member Eric Christopherson, a former Fuqua business-school student who's about to join the Marine Corps.
As constituted these days, "the U.S. military is not even capable of doing that," and the public would be unlikely to support a major intervention for more than three years, he said.
Co-sponsored by Duke's Middle East Studies Center, Monday's forum was timed to coincide with a European Union ministers' meeting on the refugee crisis.
The EU meeting didn't yield an immediate agreement between the ministers on how many refugees each country would take.
That wasn't much of a surprise to panelist Niklaus Steiner, director of UNC's Center for Global Initiatives. He urged people to try to work through non-governmental organizations, both to help refugees directly and to put pressure on governments.
"I'm discouraged by European refugee policies," he said. "I can't see that changing any time soon in a way that would truly address this problem."
Kirk termed "a joke" U.S. President Barack Obama's offer for this country to take 10,000 refugees, given the magnitude of the problem. She by contrast praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for offering to take in 800,000, despite Germany's move over the weekend to tighten border checks.
Merkel has at once conceded that Germany's history and wealth create a moral obligation for it to help, while also insisting to other European leaders that there are limits to what her country can do, Kirk said.
The refugees themselves are "big business" to human smugglers, many of them based in Greece, and need about $10,000 to make it to Europe, said panelist Dilshad al-Gaaf, a physician and research adviser to UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Audience member Azeddine Chergui, who's affiliated with Duke's Islamic Studies Center, said refugees prefer Germany as a destination to Gulf Arab states that are unlikely ever to offer them citizenship.
But among Iraqis who've resettled in this country, there's sometimes "disillusionment" and a nostalgia for what they knew before war came to their homeland, he said, adding the mental-health trauma many of them experienced "still hasn't been addressed."
"Some of them have told me frankly Saddam's days were much better," Chergui said. "They wish they could go back to a dictatorial regime because they had more stability and dignity."