Ignoring Refugees at the Riyadh Summit

F
or someone who has made no secret of his enmity towards Islam, it was surprising enough that the first international event to tempt President Donald Trump to leave US soil ended up being the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia.

The first event of its kind to take place, Saudi leadership has been selling it as an opportunity to renew a “mutual commitment” to global security and to “strengthen already deep business, cultural and political ties.” King Salman invited nearly all the Arab and Muslim leaders from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia to the summit, from King Abdullah II of Jordan to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. All of them jockeyed to advance their own agendas, but there was one area glaringly absent from their discussions with Trump (and each other): the regional and global response to the refugee crisis and to solving the Syrian civil war.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise. Short-sighted regional divisions and internal politics have made the collective Arab response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the resulting outpouring of refugees underwhelming, with a few notable exceptions. According to the CMEC, a British think tank, the greatest effort has unexpectedly come from one of the smallest countries in the region: tiny Kuwait, which has hosted and co-hosted multiple aid conferences to help raise funds for Syrian refugees. Most recently, UNHCR and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) signed a landmark agreement for $10 million to improve the living conditions of some 97,000 Syrian refugees in northern Iraq. The commitment came ahead of the latest donors’ conference in Brussels from 4-5 April, where the Amir of Kuwait and the government pledged $100 million for this year and another $100 million next year to assist refugees.

States like Jordan and Lebanon have also done far more than their fair share, with Jordan hosting roughly 1.3 million refugees and with displaced people making up roughly 20% of Lebanon’s population. Despite these bright spots, there has yet to be any concerted regional effort to address the refugee crisis – let alone its root cause, the grinding civil war in Syria. Nearly every regional summit that had potential to be a springboard for change turned out to be a dead end. For instance, at the Arab League’s latest Head of State Summit in March, chief Ahmed Abul Gheit called on his member states to take more concerted action to solve the conflict in Syria, saying, “In my view it's not right that Arab governments stay out of the biggest crisis in the region's modern history.” But his words fell on deaf ears.

Rather than producing a united front against Bashar al-Assad, different Arab nations have used the unfolding conflict as an excuse to pursue their own interests with little regard to the impact on the civilians who have been sucked in. Even countries that once vehemently opposed the Syrian regime, like Egypt and Turkey, have since backed down. Egypt, formerly one of the most powerful countries in the Arab world, has been seeing its influence decline and now seeks allies wherever it can – even if that means putting aside its suspicion of Iran. It has also been wary of the armed groups that intersperse the Syrian rebels’ ranks. This has caused Cairo to switch gears, now increasingly supporting a political solution that could keep the current government in power.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been deepening relations with Russia and cutting its longstanding support for some Syrian rebel groups in exchange for more influence along its border. Most recently, tensions between Turkey and the US have increased since Trump started to arm troops from the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) to fight against Islamic State in Syria, rather than backing Ankara and its Syrian proxies. Turkey has insisted that the Kurdish militia is tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group it deems a terrorist organization.

But this kind of infighting among the players involved in Syria misses the forest for the trees – allowing Assad’s regime to further dig in its heels and continue to wreak murderous havoc, with civilians as the main target. This is no way to bring the conflict or the refugee crisis to an end. Sadly, it’s now come to a point where even Assad’s most implacable foes have given up on hopes of removing him. Unless the regional and international community solves the political crisis in Syria, the refugee crisis will keep spiralling out of control.

Some might think that Trump’s decision to arm Syrian Kurds signals increased US engagement in the crisis. In fact, his presidency has only made things worse. The one-off air strike he launched in April did nothing to intimidate the Syrian regime, only causing disappointment among Syrians who had hoped for more concerted action. Additionally, Trump’s anti-refugee, Islamophobic rhetoric from the campaign trail to the present day, peaking with his attempt to ban travel by Muslims to the United States, has hardened attitudes against refugees even further.

Given the White House’s history of ineffective action in Syria and surge in hostility against Muslims, it was already the ultimate absurdity that Trump delivered a speech about Islam at the upcoming summit. Regional leaders, for their part, did little to challenge his misconceptions about Muslims and press him for the US to take more coherent action on the most significant challenge facing the region.

For the people of Syria, the summit promised little and delivered less. Countries that were formerly engaged in Syria have since pulled back, weary of the grinding crisis and more interested in pursuing their own goals. Meanwhile, most Gulf Arab states place too much importance on their security and economic ties with Washington to offend the Americans over an issue like Syria. Millions of refugees displaced in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq are waiting for their national nightmare to end, and they will likely still be waiting for years to come.

Samantha Maloof

Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa

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