Since the initial protests in 2011, the Syrian civil conflict with deep rooted ties to the Euphrates river basin drought and resulting famine has been the scene of a pseudo-proxy war with several players reaching their fingers into the civil war taking place.
The resulting humanitarian crisis and widespread violence the region has seen has created a mass exodus of Syrian citizens, many of whom would be too afraid to return in fear of persecution from the victorious Assad regime and their Russian backed loyalist military. The civil conflict and lack of unity allowed the Islamic State to temporarily flourish unchecked in the region further increasing how desperate Syrian citizens were to flee conflict. This mass emigration from Syria into Turkey, Italy, and Greece, and from there into the rest of Europe has been one of the most controversial policy and security debates of the past decade and questions have been raised about security in these more western countries as Syrian nationals seek asylum, work, and to be accepted by the societies of their new homes, be they temporary or permanent.
Europe sits at the forefront of most media covering the refugee crisis rather than the conflict itself as millions of Syrian nationals find themselves entering the EU through both legal and illegal means. The latter of these creates the greatest security problem involved in this situation given that any radicals could move undetected into western Europe or even the United States with significantly more ease than if they went through the customs system used to intake refugees legally. Most of the four million or so refugees arrive by land through Turkey and the Balkan states, many of whom settling there, while several hundred thousand or more (usually the more educated) move through these states for a better life and occupation that fits their skills and education, arriving in Germany and France in particular. Others not arriving by land and therefore often skipping conventional legal means of entry take boats from the Syrian mainland, Egypt or even as far as Libya to the Italian and Greek peninsulas (Beauchamp 2015). Many of these boats don’t make it to land either due to rough weather or after being intercepted by the coast guards of Mediterranean countries or NGOs seeking to promote exclusively legal means of entry into Europe and Turkey.
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The main security issue with this immigration that Europe faces is an inability to put aside ethnic tensions between the western world and the Middle East. While virtually every traveler coming out of Syria or any other conflict zone is not radicalized or any sort of threat to the average European or American citizen, the west still holds prejudice against them and their cultural norms and for better or for worse, forcing them to repress their culture and adopt the culture of their new home in its stead (Shinkman 2015). While it is important to adapt to a new culture and home to avoid offending the host people, for example accepting the vastly more expanded rights of women in the secular west compared to much of the fundamentalist Middle East, it is not entirely necessary to throw away one’s culture entirely. Similarly, to how most immigrants and refugees have no qualms with the west, many westerners accepted the refugees with little problem and helped them adapt as much as they could. However, all it takes is a few malcontents to start creating an ethnic strain that oscillates back and forth between the two cultures. Discrimination against immigrants (Muslims make up 60% of France’s prison population despite making up less than 10% of its national population) has led to a legitimate issue of radicalizing rather than rehabilitating prisoners and leading to acts of vengeance upon being released (Brandon 2009). This gives rise to nationalistic and xenophobic uproar from more and more Europeans against the immigrants that have done no wrong, leading to their own radicalization in return and the cultural clashes continue to spiral out of control.
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Radicalization within the established “far enemy” countries of Europe and the United States could lead to a breeding ground of supporters of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or any other international terrorist organization, and without even needing to insert them into the “far enemy” since they already live there can give these organizations hundreds of sleeper agents capable of carrying out attacks that are nearly untraceable by most intelligence agencies since they are either immigrants that have lived there for years or potentially the second or third generation of an immigrant family. Small numbers of terrorist plots from homegrown and remotely trained agents have already been discovered and foiled even as far as the United States not just in Europe, hinting at the extent that these organizations have penetrated intelligence homeland security already (Levitt 2019). Thus the security issue Europe and (as a result of their open travel) the United States faces has less to do with the Islamic terrorism from the immediate Syrian immigrants and refugees, but more to do with their own citizens treatment of already settled Muslims, resulting in their radicalization or overall cultural disputes within the countries as immigrants begin adapting to a new culture so different from the one they were born and raised in.
This leads to a United States security threat because of the ease of travel between Europe and North America for any of these sleeper agents who may have been radicalized and recruited by international terror organizations or hold grievances against the western world for the way they’ve been treated. Since the US in particular was always seen as the “far enemy” it is perfectly reasonable for a large organization to recruit or plant someone in Europe, train them there and then move them and others into the United States for a large scale attack with more ease than if they were to move them directly out of the Middle East. The surge of refugees moving not just legally but illegally into Europe also provides cover for anyone to move into the western world solely to perform a terrorist act with a lesser chance of being discovered beforehand.
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Turkey finds itself in a very special position in terms or European and United States security from the influx of refugees in Syria as it serves as the land border gatehouse between the two cultural groups. Erdogan and the Turkish state can completely lock down its borders and not let anyone through (though not allowing any refugees seeking asylum would reflect poorly on them in the international community) or absolutely flood the European continent with millions skilled and unskilled immigrants and refugees, along with their families that may or may not adapt to European cultural norms and cause mass civil discourse as a result. With relations between the United States (and other NATO powers) and Turkey straining over Erdogan’s domestic policies, his interactions with Putin, and even the denial of the Armenian genocide some hundred years ago. At this point there is even debate starting about Turkey’s place in NATO, given that its founding purpose is to balance power against Russia with Turkey buying Russian air missile systems, being expelled from the United States’ F35 deal and now looking to buy Russian SU35s and T50s instead (Mehta 2019).
If Turkey is expelled from NATO, the organization loses its second largest standing army, a valuable southern flank against Russia in a conventional war, and the United States most important forward airbase, Incirlik where it has run operations in the Middle East for years. Not only would Turkey flipping to a Russian position weaken the United States’ position on operations in this region of the world, it also means that Europe’s aforementioned cultural clash caused by the influx of refugees would essentially be in the hands of the man who shut off 90% of Europe’s natural gas for a week to make a political statement. Leaving Russia, who is engaged in hybrid war with the United States and its European allies in charge of one of the greatest means of civil unrest in the region could potentially completely unbalance the deadlock of this new pseudo-cold war the people of the world find themselves in today. Thus, Turkey has the potential to destabilize the already politically divided west even further by ramping up the issues covered previously to a whole new level.
The other geopolitical issue Turkey and the United States find themselves interconnected in regard to Syria is the more recent Turkish invasion of the not recognized Kurdistan region. Despite being the most effective force in fighting the Islamic State in the region and arguably serving as a buffer between them and Turkey, because of the long standing prejudice against the Kurdish people and their association with the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization, Turkish forces have been deployed over their Syrian border to attempt to eradicate the Kurdish people. Following the US withdrawal from Syria (again leaving Putin and Assad the sole victors of the conflict giving Russia control of Syria and its oil lines once it is eventually rebuilt) Erdogan called Trump’s bluff of protecting the Kurds and immediately invaded, using aircraft, artillery, and armor to sweep west to east across the Kurdish controlled lands in northern Syria roughly ten miles deep all along the border. This is supposedly being done to provide land for Syrian refugees to return to Syria and live in the newly reclaimed north of the country, no longer Turkeys responsibility, even if it means Assad will go on to commit atrocities against them for leaving Syria rather than throwing in with the other loyalists and military that stood by him during the conflict. In an ironic turn of events once they lost their western backing, the Kurds have united with the Russian-backed Assad regime who formerly loosely fought against them in the previous conflict to fight off Turkey’s invading forces. With the Kurds now siding with a government essentially controlled by Russia this removes yet another local ally of the United States in the Middle East and puts them in the pocket of its long term rival, potentially even radicalizing them against the west to a smaller extent due to Kurdish frustrations with the US and its allies constantly abandoning their people first in Iraq and again in Syria. This invasion has also started calling the overall security of the region into question despite decades of stability at the hands of the Kurds who controlled it all this time. Now the Islamic State which was almost completely neutralized has the potential to get back on its feet in Syria despite currently not controlling land due to its number of supporters in the north and the lack of government control (either by Syria, Turkey, or the Kurds). That being said, Russia has been successful at waging war against extremist groups in Syria over the past years, but its disregard to civilian lives, marking them off as collateral damage or acceptable losses is troubling to say the least. On top of that many Islamic State leaders that may still be in hiding in the area can use this chaos as an opportunity to escape into North Africa or Southeast Asia where militant Islam is not only rather potent but continuing to rise and joining up with an Islamic State franchise in one of these regions or even worse provide leadership to a smaller cell in Europe or the United States and undertake a larger attack.
The Syrian refugee crisis itself has not been a true security risk on its own, rather the destabilization of the region as a whole and the resulting inability to keep track of actual wrongdoers looking to fly under the radar. The lack of western acceptance has also held a key role in radicalizing immigrants, their families, or resident fundamentalists seeing their culture come under attack time and time again. The back and forth motion of cultural clashes and frustrations is the greatest threat to a divided United States’ security and Russia’s influence in Turkey and Syria are only adding gasoline to a very hot fire with long term political implications, and it will take decades of analyzing to see just what the resulting political landscape of the region becomes and the implications that has for further American security.