Issue 1 Editorial: Syrian Migration

Syrian migration is perhaps the most pressing displacement phenomenon of our time. Yet few political progressives in Europe have understood its complex causes and consequences. This issue of Crisis Magazine brings together a range of expert perspectives that reveal the deeper dynamics behind Syrian migration. With this issue, we aim to encourage a more coherent political narrative from the Left that replaces the limiting frame of “the migrant crisis.”


Donya Alinejad and Saskia Baas

The inaugural issue of Crisis Magazine is dedicated to Syrian migration. This recent forced displacement phenomenon was the primary contributor to the 2015-2016 peak in arrivals to Europe; the migration peak that was indelibly dubbed, “the European migrant crisis.” The term implies that a crisis began when these migrants reached European shores. This “crisis” then either refers to threats to European security and identity, or to the dire conditions of helpless recipients of humanitarian support. In either case, the crisis frame places primacy either on the numbers of migrants and their religious and ethnic identities, or on their vulnerability. Such a frame not only limits our understanding of migrants’ diversity and agency, but it also de-historicizes and de-politicizes their reasons for fleeing. 

Qualifying this so-called migration crisis as “European” further obscures the fact that its causes and most severe consequences are located in Syria. There, more than half of the country’s pre-war population has been forced to flee their homes. In the course of numerous years of mass slaughter following the 2011 violent state crackdown on peaceful, pro-democracy protests, a total 13 million Syrians were displaced. Of those displaced, 6.5 million moved to neighboring countries, where they have since been pushed to the margins of their host societies. Only around 10% of displaced Syrians have reached European shores. This first issue of Crisis revisits and re-problematizes the “European migration crisis” through the lens of Syrian migration. It takes a close look at the root causes of displacement and the nature of the Syrian conflict that has pushed so many millions to flee. 

We argue that only a deep understanding of the international interconnectedness of such struggles can be the basis for true internationalist solidarity.

Importantly, left-wing progressives in Europe have defended freedom of movement and the right to asylum, while organizing practical refugee solidarity. The latter includes initiatives such as the rescue of migrants at sea and the voluntary provision of relief in areas of reception. Such initiatives take root within key European political struggles, including those against austerity, racism, and Islamophobia. As such, solidarity with migrants starts from their moment of arrival to Europe; it omits an understanding of how political repression, economic precarity, and ethno-nationalist identity politics are at the root of Syrian migration. We argue that only a deep understanding of the international interconnectedness of such struggles can be the basis for true internationalist solidarity.

Leftist intellectuals and leaders who have attempted to engage with the crisis inside Syria itself, have often limited their attention to opposing the role of Western military actors. For example, Jeremy Corbyn and Labor party associates have downplayed both the cruelty of the violence used by the Assad regime and Russian military involvement in the conflict. Similarly, Yannis Varoufakis and DiEM25 have vocally opposed US and EU military intervention while remaining silent about the role of Russia and the Assad regime. In Germany, Sarah Wagenknecht of Die Linke has similarly reserved her outrage exclusively for the victims of US-led military coalition attacks. These positions appear out of touch with the reality in Syria, where the vast majority of the conflict’s estimated half-million civilian deaths has been caused by the Assad regime. Given the sustained failure of diplomacy via the UN Security Council due to Russia’s paralyzing veto, European non-intervention, however well-meaning, translates into acquiescence to Assad’s violence. 

Our objective here is not to give a comprehensive explanation of why such stances are misguided or limited, but to reckon with and go beyond these limitations, demonstrating the urgent need for producing a new narrative grounded in grassroots solidarity, internationalism, and human dignity. This founding issue of Crisis aims to urgently trace various interconnected struggles and to introduce entry points for more substantive public engagement with migration to Europe. This involves bringing together relevant knowledge from across geographical borders and academic disciplines. The purpose is to propose coherent alternatives to the dominant “crisis” frame with its severe limitations. 

Our in-depth exploration necessarily takes us beyond Europe as we trace the roots of the continued violence Syrians face. Examining the role of Assadism, prolific Syrian author and thinker, Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, examines the increasingly sectarian nature of the Assad regime over the course of its decades of rule. Drawing on his current research and building on past experiences of Left wing political writing and activism in Syria, Al-Haj Saleh’s piece reveals how the mass violence we have been witnessing is rooted in the regime’s long-standing tendency to essentialize ethnic social categories under the cynical guise of a secular, modernized state protecting its minorities. Al-Haj Saleh introduces the concept of “genocracy” to understand the particularities of the Syrian regime, its parallels with other “genocratic” regimes of varying degrees, and the current stakes for those subject to its rule. He urges us to face the bleak future likely for Syrians under Assad, but also articulates what is necessary for making alternative futures possible. 

Next, author and Middle East political economy expert, Samer Abboud, sheds light on the economic policies of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad during the decades that preceded the 2011 uprising. He examines how policies of economic liberalization and marketization – and the social transformations they informed – were important for the rising disenfranchisement that sparked mass protests demanding rights and dignity. The international image of the Assad regime as “anti-imperialist” blinded many observers to the turn of domestic economic policy away from wealth redistribution and towards marketization. He presents a detailed account of how a domestic technocratic class of planners adopted their own version of the neoliberalism imposed on countries of the Global South. The convergences Abboud traces between neoliberal and authoritarian governance will likely have important implications for how Syrian reconstruction takes shape. 

Together, the pieces in this issue of Crisis form a starting point for a deeper understanding of the Syrian migration phenomenon that dares to thoroughly revisit and fundamentally challenge the story of the “European migrant crisis.”

In a contribution that delves deeper, still, into understanding Assadism’s modes of authoritarian oppression, Sune Haugbolle paints a clear picture of incarceration and torture as integral tools of repressing political life in Syria since the 1960s. His piece traces the continuities from the prison memoirs and narrative accounts of torture that circulated in Syrian cultural and literary life before the conflict, to the revolutionary movement that further exposed the conditions inside Syrian prisons, and finally to the current work of activists who conduct pioneering documentation work alongside NGOs. Based on his extensive research following these counter-cultural initiatives of documenting prison life, Haugbolle historically situates activists’ current efforts within a wider political project of truth-telling under violent, authoritarian rule. This historicization reframes  the fraught and dangerous project of documenting prison torture in Syria as revolutionary. This serves as a counterframe for a project that is often de-politicized by the universalizing, liberal language of human rights. 

Political scientist and Middle East scholar, Thomas Pierret, directly takes on the “anti-imperialism” debate that is central to many Left wing discussions in Europe and the West on Syria. The apparent anti-imperialist track record of the Assad regime has been a source of reluctance for significant parts of the international Left to side with the popular uprising against the Assadist state. In response, Pierret chooses not to challenge the anti-imperialist credentials of the regime, but instead to ask whether the discussion of anti-imperialism might altogether impede understanding of Assadism. For him, the discussion of anti-imperialism – defined (as it often is) as obstruction of US and allied powers’ interests in the region – is secondary to the problem of Assad’s project of extermination. 

Echoing the perspective of other authors in this thematic issue, Pierret sees Assad’s Syria not as just another dictatorship, but characterizes the Assadist state as one in which a zero-tolerance approach to power-sharing will be maintained for generations to come. From this perspective, the sectarian regime’s total war against its people eclipses any possibility for parallel political concerns by a progressive Left. Continuing the discussion of entry points for international solidarity, Leila Al-Shami’s piece calls for solidarity around an increasingly urgent issue, namely the current international pushes for refugees to return to Syria. As an activist and author whose work is focused on Syria and the region, she points out that refugee solidarity must not be limited to Europe and its borders, but must engage with the causes of the violence and oppression that people flee. For Syrians, Al-Shami explains, the danger of return is not only the immediate violence of war but the insidious violence of continued state repression. 

Gerasimos Tsourapas’ and Doğuş Şimşek’s respective pieces further develop the discussion of the current conditions for Syrian refugees in the region, analyzing how refugees’ rights and humanity are undermined by neoliberal policies oriented towards extracting the most out of their precarious condition. International Relations scholar, Tsouprisas, warns of the various problems with the emerging phenomenon of Syrian refugees being treated as a source of financial gain by Global South host countries, a phenomenon that is increasingly apparent, worldwide. Social scientist, Şimşek, focuses on the conditions for Syrian refugees in the Turkish context, a country that hosts half of the global Syrian refugee caseload. She shows that while Syrians have been able to access welfare state benefits, access to fundamental citizenship rights in Turkey are extended on the basis of economic utility. The conditions for the new Syrian precariat in Turkey reflect an overall neoliberal policy approach that affects Syrians, while also revealing the structural lack of labor protections in Turkey’s expansive informal economy.

The final two contributions address specific effects of migration to Europe. Ilse van Liempt and her co-authors focus on the everyday experiences of Netherlands-based Syrian migrant women in love and divorce, investigating the apparent rise in Syrian divorce rates since the war. The picture they sketch of women’s intimate choices, social concerns, and emotional triumphs complicates simplistic stereotypes about cultural differences and gender norms.

Finally, Nitzan Shoshan’s piece discusses how the migration peak of 2015 paved the way for Germany’s newest national far right party, Alternative für Deutchland (AfD). On the basis of long-term ethnographic research conducted while embedded among right wing groups, Shoshan compellingly argues that the right managed to become the vessel that effectively contained and carried the anxieties unleashed by the 2008 economic crisis. In 2015, the new party decisively flooded the political scene by successfully revitalizing these emotional tensions by cultivating a mix of anti-elitism and xenophobia. His piece reveals how netiher economic conditions in isolation, nor racist tendencies, alone, can explain the processual rise of the right. 

Together, the pieces in this issue of Crisis form a starting point for a deeper understanding of the Syrian migration phenomenon that dares to thoroughly revisit and fundamentally challenge the story of the “European migrant crisis.”