Syria has given us a humanitarian crisis in the form of a flood of refugees fleeing the country's all-against-all civil war and risking their lives -- and sometimes losing them -- to reach Europe. It has given us a cultural crisis of a sort in the ongoing obliteration of the ruins of ancient Palmyra by the iconoclastic thugs of the self-styled Islamic State. It has been an ongoing diplomatic crisis as the regional and global powers take sides, Iran and Russia backing the incumbent dictator, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States demanding his ouster but praying for alternatives to the Daesh. In the U.S. we debate whether it's our responsibility to end the Syrian crisis by defeating the Assad regime and/or his Islamic State enemies. In Europe they debate whether the developed countries have a moral responsibility to accept refugees, and in the U.S. as well it's suggested that we should welcome more here. Some say the refugee crisis is Obama's fault, either because he failed to act decisively to speed Assad's exit or because he helped start the trouble by demanding Assad's ouster during the "Arab Spring." The debate over Obama's responsibility is parochial and partisan, but it does raise broader questions. If the rest of the world cannot or will not resolve the Syrian conflict -- on the assumption that Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia could impose a settlement if they could agree on one -- does the world then bear a responsibility to help the people whose only option is escape from Syria? If the rest of us effectively condemn them to a hell of conflict in Syria, oughtn't we at least facilitate their escape?
To the humanitarian it sounds like an easy call, but as a devil's advocate let me take up a different line of argument. The humanitarian impulse assumes that refugees from Syria are innocent victims of the multisided conflict or trying understandably to avoid becoming victims. But are they innocent? In asking this I don't mean to suggest that these people had taken one side or another in the conflict, since the opposite is more likely true, but I want to raise the issue of their responsibility for their country's plight. By assuming them innocent and presuming them helpless we absolve them of any responsibility, and common sense seems to suggest the justice of doing so. What can they do against the men with guns, after all? At the very least, I'd suggest, they could pick a side. Admittedly there don't seem to be many or any good choices, but if these people haven't simply given up on their country and want the conflict to end they have to help somebody win, and unless Syria is so broken along sectarian and tribal lines that consensus is no longer possible the masses ought to be able to get behind one group or another if only to end the war more quickly. As helpless civilians they may not be able to form their own side, but I'm sure the able-bodied would be welcomed by any side. This may not be a realistic notion but it helps make the point that while the rest of the world is accused of abandoning Syria -- or, worse, meddling with it -- millions of the nation's own people are more obviously abandoning it. It's their prerogative to do so, and if we could rest assured that anyone who wants to get out of Syria can do so, at whatever risk, the rest of us might feel more comfortable abandoning the remaining Syrians to their fratricidal fate -- so long as the IS doesn't end up on top, I suppose. On the other hand, it might be that if people couldn't get out so easily -- leaving aside how hard it's proving to actually reach some other country -- a critical mass of frustration might bear fruit in a new force that could change the course of the conflict. Such an event wouldn't be the first time a new force arose amid the chaos of multipolar war. Not so long ago another country's people got sick and tired of warlords fighting each other and bulldozing civilians in the process, and some of those people did something about it and actually beat down all the warlords. Since the country was Afghanistan and the new force was the Taliban, that may not be the most inspiring example, but it does suggest that an aroused, indignant people could call a plague on all the houses oppressing them and sweep all of them off the board if sufficiently motivated.
A refugee crisis, by comparison, may really mean that people are giving up on their country too easily. Again, it's their prerogative to do so, as we've acknowledged for the last few centuries as people leave their homes even in peacetime in search of better opportunities. The real question for the rest of the world remains whether the refugees' prerogative presumes an international obligation to welcome them. The assumption behind arguments for such an obligation is that not welcoming refugees condemns them to a hellish existence back home for which we would become doubly responsible, first by not ending the conflict as we (meaning the world, not any particular country) presumably can, and then by not allowing them to escape. The fundamental question is whether the whole world shares responsibility for the agony of one country and thus has a right to resolve that country's civil wars to the world's satisfaction. If such responsibility is an inherent fact, that's an argument for establishing an effective world government whose legitimacy will depend less on what it might do about Syria than on whether it behaves consistently during the next humanitarian crisis, not to mention its behavior toward those many countries besides Syria where ordinary people's lives are pretty miserable right now. Syria commands our attention not so much because there are so many militias fighting and so many refugees fleeing, but because several major powers are determined to prop up a widely unpopular ruler at all costs, and several other powers are determined to remove that ruler at all costs, even with no popular alternative available. While we theorize that Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. could settle the Syrian conflict themselves, presumably by reaching an arrangement that satisfies all their geopolitical interests and making their proxies respect it, a real world-government intervention ideally would leave all four of these meddlers out of the settlement. These countries combined to prevent either theoretical quick resolution of the conflict: the quick exit of Assad during the early uprisings or the quick victory of Assad once he started to crack down. So if we assume "innocent" Syrians are owed new homes by an international community assumed responsible for their plight and flight, they are the countries that ought to take them on, or else subsidize them wherever they end up. But any such assumption in the absence of effective world government is merely a preference with moral pretensions. The really responsible thing to do is work for effective world government and let it decide what should be done the next time, since it's probably too late to save Syria that way. It may be that the best Syria can be now is an object lesson in how the international community should not work.