The twin conflicts raging in Iraq and Syria have unleashed an unsettling dynamic that is transforming both the Middle East and the world beyond this deeply troubled region. What is clear is that there is no end in sight to either of these conflicts and that the consequences of the continuing fighting are so profound that is no simple solution that will, any time soon, restore normalcy to either country or to the broader region. As difficult as it may be to ingest, it is imperative to recognize that a "new normal" has been created which policy makers must recognize and to which they must respond accordingly.
Even before the advent of ISIS, Iraq had already experienced massive population transfers that occurred during the civil war that followed America's foolish invasion and occupation of the country. A Shia-led sectarian government had been ushered in by the US, giving Iran new influence over Iraqi affairs. Sunni and Shia neighborhoods had been largely "ethnically cleansed". Minority communities had been removed from ancestral homes. And the Kurdish controlled region had been given all but formal independence over its internal and external affairs. Meanwhile the disenfranchised Sunni Arab population had become so marginalized and embittered by the behavior of the Shia-led government that many fell prey to the lure of the extremist militias.
At the peak of the conflict, one-fifth of Iraq's population had become either refugees or internally displaced persons (IPD). Since then, some Iraqis have returned to their country though not to their homes, but recent fighting has created a new wave of both refugees and IDP's. At present, about one half million Iraqis are registered as refugees, while almost four million are IDP's.
It was a massive and prolonged drought that first displaced large segments of Syria's population. It was this displacement and the mishandling of it by the corrupt and brutal regime in Damascus that precipitated that country's now four-year long war. Like Iraq, Syria's war has become a sectarian conflict.
At last count, one-half of Syria's population have become refugees or IDP's, with over four million having left the country and nearly eight million displaced within Syria. More than two million have fled to Turkey, more than one million are in Lebanon, and about three-quarters of a million are in Jordan.
While most of these Syrians are housed in camps in Turkey and Jordan, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have settled in Turkey's larger cities where they have opened businesses and are attempting to create a new life for their families. In addition, the fighting in Syria has unsettled the Kurdish regions of both Syria and Turkey. Kurdish victories against ISIS in Syria have provoked the Turkish government which has long opposed any moves toward Kurdish independence. This has spawned increased repression against Turkey's Kurds. This conflict has created new refugees and IDP's.
The situation in Lebanon is quite different. Because that country did not authorize the creation of formal camps, the Syrians who flooded across Lebanon's borders have spread out across the country renting apartments or setting up informal structures. They have found work and are sending their children to school. The pressures on tiny Lebanon have become enormous—straining the country's capacity and its infrastructure to its limit. Schools are overcrowded, medical services and social services are in short supply, as are water and electricity. In addition, Lebanon's population, at first receptive to the influx of their neighbors fleeing war, have become resentful as they have witnessed increases in prices for basic commodities, housing shortages, and dramatic increases in Lebanese unemployment and poverty.
So unbearable has the situation become for Syrians and Iraqis fleeing their countries' conflicts that many have sought to make their way to Europe. They have joined Afghanis, Palestinians, and Libyans and other Africans who have risked all attempting to reach Europe, by land or sea, in order to start a new life. This flow of humanity has grown into a massive wave with best estimates putting the number of refugees in Europe at one million and growing each month.
In addition to this migration of refugees northward has been a steady southward flow of thousands of alienated and radicalized Europeans seeking to join the extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Nativists have sought to conflate the two population flows in an effort to buttress their anti-immigrant/Muslim campaign resulting in the growth of right-wing xenophobic movements across the continent.
All too often, when refugee crises occur, they are seen as short-term problems requiring temporary solutions. However, all signs point to the fact that this will not be the case with regard to Syria and Iraq. These crises will not end any time soon and the new realities that have been created are not easily reversible and will only grow as the conflicts continue.
Syria and Iraq will not return to the status quo ante. If peace is restored in either country, they will, at best, be imperfect and tentative arrangements. ISIS must be defeated, but there are dozens of other armed sectarian gangs that are currently the dominant forces on the ground in several parts of both countries that will not be inclined to support the emergence of a tolerant, welcoming pluralistic social and political order. In the best case scenario, Iraq and Syria will remain divided countries. It will take decades to reconstruct their infrastructures and economies and even longer to build inter-communal trust and social cohesion.
As difficult as it will be for the neighboring countries to accept, the bulk of refugees currently in their midst will remain. Tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis are being born each year in these countries and hundreds of thousands of children are growing up knowing no home but those they have found in exile. Lebanon and Jordan, for example, will need to accommodate themselves to the long-term, and even permanent presence of Syrian communities within their nations. And Turkey is going to have to come to grips with long-repressed Kurdish aspirations for self-determination.
Europe, too, must deal with the reality of this "new normal". The refugees who are within their borders are not going to disappear and despite the ranting of European nativists it will neither be possible to stop the flow of new refugees coming across their borders or to "put them on trains and send them back".
Europe will also need to recognize that it is not migration that breeds extremism, it is the failure of many countries to fully incorporate immigrants as productive equal citizens in their societies. Persistent discrimination and unemployment are the drivers that breed the alienation that makes young European, immigrants susceptible to the lure of radical ideologies. This problem will only be exacerbated by the rightward drift of some European governments.
It is important that international coalitions have formed to defeat ISIS and to find political solutions to Iraq and Syria. But as President Obama has proposed, the United Nations should also convene an emergency summit to address the challenges that have been created by the refugee crisis. In addition to addressing the material needs of the refugees, attention must be paid to the material and political needs of the host countries to assist them in adapting to the pressures resulting from the "new normal". With or without peace, the refugee flows have created new realities that are changing the demographic maps of the Middle East and Europe. The sooner we recognize and address the requirements of accommodating ourselves to these new realities the better it will be for the refugees and for their host countries.