5 policy options for the Syrian refugee crisis

The seemingly interminable Syrian civil war has generated millions of refugees, but in the United States and Europe, politics and fear have overwhelmed the policy debate on the refugee crisis. Some leaders—most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel—have faced pushback against their willingness to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees. For the United States, the refugee crisis has become an issue in the ongoing presidential campaign, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump presenting very different policies.

In this summer’s edition of The Washington Quarterly, Daniel Byman, a senior fellow in Brookings’s Center for Middle East Policy, and Sloane Speakman, a Syria analyst, outline the full range of options available to the United States. Unfortunately, as they write, there is no simple solution. Instead, Byman and Speakman have soberly drawn out the costs and benefits of the various potential strategies.

The bad and worse options

The authors examine five approaches, though they note that the options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. No matter what course the United States takes, they stress, outflows of refugees from Syria will pose serious challenges for many years to come.

  1. “Open arms.” This is a straightforward proposal, Byman and Speakman write, but in the current political climate, an open door policy seems politically unlikely, if not impossible. Even the administration’s modest pledge of 10,000 has elicited significant political and popular resistance. Nevertheless, Byman and Speakman note the extensive and positive historical record of the United States welcoming refugees, from Cuba to Vietnam. While there are certainly short-term costs in conducting prudent (and politically necessary) processing and resettlement, such a policy, according to the authors, could drive economic growth and urban revitalization. However, they acknowledge that even in the improbable event that the United States were to accept hundreds of thousands, this policy would not resolve the cause of the crisis.
  2. “Help from afar.” The second option, which is already partially U.S. policy, is providing aid and assistance to the neighboring countries that host the vast majority of refugees, namely Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, as well as European countries struggling to cope with more than a million more. Like the first option, they acknowledge, this policy also fails to address the source of the refugee crisis. However, it is critical to containing potential spillover of violence and instability, particularly for the regional states that may already struggle with weak institutions and sectarian divisions. This option allows the United States to demonstrate international and moral leadership “without directly accepting any risk or role itself,” Byman and Speakman write. Since most of the affected states are close U.S. allies and partners, this policy also supports other U.S. national interests in security cooperation, economic liberalization (e.g. by recommending refugees be allowed to participate in the economy), and good governance.
  3. “Safe zones.” The establishment of sanctuaries or safe zones guaranteed by U.S. military power could stem the flow of refugees and thus minimize the need for the first two options, according to Byman and Speakman. Simply put, safe zones would ideally allow refugees to be hosted and protected within Syria proper. This option presents tremendous challenges, starting with the practical difficulties of creating and protecting the actual zones. Safe zones require some combination of U.S. airpower and ground forces from either the United States, a partner, or indigenous groups. There would also be significant diplomatic difficulties, the authors write, in dealing with the Russian (and less seriously, Iranian) support for the regime. Finally, safe zones would require a major U.S. political and material commitment to credibly deter and, if need be, repulse any Assad regime or Islamic State challenges. Ultimately, Byman and Speakman remain skeptical of this option considering the serious difficulties and the mixed historical record of similar endeavors.
  4. “Fix the problem at its source.” This option offers the only serious solution to the actual cause of the refugee crisis, the civil war. The authors differentiate two courses for this policy: negotiated settlement or military victory. Negotiations have been ongoing for years, but the numerous and divided involved parties, both internally and internationally, has created a seemingly irreconcilable field of competing interests. Military victory is equally problematic, they argue, because the most likely victors are all either implicit or explicit adversaries of the United States: Assad’s regime, the Islamic State, or the Nusra Front and fellow jihadi rebel groups. The authors acknowledge the option of creating a more acceptable, moderate opposition force, but past failed U.S. training efforts leave little reason to be optimistic.
  5. “Shut the gates.” The final option is deceptively simple: to seal off the Syrian borders and halt all further refugee outflows. This policy would allow the United States and the world to focus on the refugees that already escaped and potentially limit further spillover of violence in the region, the authors write; however, it would come at considerable moral and material costs. In practical terms, closing down the Syrian borders would require substantial commitment of military assets and result in major diplomatic repercussions. There could also likely be increased radicalization amongst Muslim communities worldwide and thus potentially increased terrorism as the United States would be perceived as morally culpable for the continued suffering of the Syrian people.

Doing nothing is not an option

The global impact of the Syrian refugee crisis—through the risk of terrorism, political polarization, or outright violent spillover—demands greater American leadership, in the opinion of Byman and Speakman. They conclude that while none of the options they examine are silver bullets, and indeed all have costs and legitimate shortcomings, to continue to do next to nothing is morally and strategically unacceptable.