A MORE dreadful secret weapon seems to have been unleased from Syria, more dreadful than any of the chemical weapons it has been known to possess. It has wafted through the air, crossing the borders in the Middle East, crossing the Mediterranean, crossing the borders in Europe, crossing the Atlantic, and crossing the eastern and mid-eastern expanse of the United States of America. It has moved quietly, invisible, odorless and impalpable. It has made ruins not of physical structures but, more importantly, of the minds and hearts of people. Bearing the name of populism, it has emptied minds and hearts of reason and human compassion.
How else explain the phenomenon of Brexit and the Electoral College victory of Donald Trump? And now we may have to brace ourselves for yet the biggest surprise of all, for the contagion striking France, the birthplace of logical thinking, Rene Descartes and his axiom “I think therefore I am.” And even if France survives the Le Pens, the contagion threatens to engulf wider reaches. What to make of the huge anti-migration marches in, of all countries, Poland, which has a history of its people being turned immigrants or foreigners in their own country by its annexation by expansionist neighbors and its people seeking refuge abroad from war.
Brexit and President-elect Trump lured voters with an anti-migrants message, striking fear among a conservative population of a horde of barbarians rampaging in their communities. Their campaigns have distorted the humanitarian dilemma that the millions of refugees fleeing the war in Syria pose to receiving countries. Most countries on earth are bound by humanitarian convention to welcome and help refugees from war. The convention rests on universal spiritual values obliging men to help their fellowmen in need. It is also based on common sense: What country is immune from war and what people can be sure never to be in the same shoes as the Syrians fleeing their country today?
Brexit and the Trump campaign promised the voters of their countries they would regain control of migration policies as if the UK and the US had ever been lenient about accepting migrants to their shores. To encourage tourism, the Philippines has unilaterally waived tourist visas for nationals of the UK and the US. If the Philippines were to require visas the same way the US and the UK do of tourists from the Philippines, Americans and Britishers might know the hardships US and UK visa offices inflict on Filipino tourists. As for permanent resident visas, the red tape involved and the long years their approval take are simply incredible.
The Brexit and Trump campaigns not only shamelessly vended lies, they carried racist overtones. They thus appealed, energized, and brought out white supremacists, neo-Nazis and ultra-right groups. Bullying of the children of migrants and minorities has reportedly increased in schools.
The international community will have to find a better way of dealing with huge outflows of refugees from war-torn areas. They are bound to be big and bigger in the future considering the development of modern war and modern warfare. Despite the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court, modern war does not spare civilians and non-combatants, including women, children and the elderly, and may even actually target them. Weapons of mass destruction are so named after all because they are made precisely to kill masses of people. Even so-called conventional weapons are getting more destructive than ever; anyone must fear being hit and perishing as collateral damage. To this nightmare must be added the role that organizations such as the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq bring to the situation with their avowed goal of wiping out all those who do not subscribe to their brand of ideology or religion, and living and hiding among and behind civilian populations.
It is truly, truly a shame that the international community has been more focused on the disruptive effect of the refugee outflow on the normal flow of life than on putting a stop to the war which has fast turned from a domestic quarrel to a full-blown international affair. Each day that the war rages, how many people are added to the casualty lists, how many ancient towns are reduced to ruins, and how many more refugees face the perils of sea to escape? Clearly those who get across are only a fraction of the people trapped in the war. Many of the refugees are unaccompanied minors and children because the parents could afford passage only for them.
With the unbelievable destruction the war has wrought on Syria and its people, one can only wonder at how meaningful victory will be for whichever side triumphs in the end. This guy Assad is clearly something else.
He has refused to go the way of recent dictators like Marcos, Mussharraf and Mubarak, move away rather than see their countries plunged in a bloody civil war. He has chosen to hang on to power even at the price of his country being emptied of people, of losing them to the grave or the refugee camps. And even at the price of emerging from the fray a mere puppet of the foreign powers to whom he will have owed his victory.
There may be a bright side to the Brexit and Trump victories. The immigration policies of both the United Kingdom and the United States are highly selective of the people allowed to enter. The Trump administration’s restricting foreign migration may be doing the Philippines and other developing countries a favor by reducing the brain drain that remittances do not quite compensate for. (Besides, much of the remittances attributed to Filipinos in the US is said to be actually coming from workers in the Middle East using American banks. And how much money does a Filipino-American remit to the Philippines if he has his entire family already with him?)
There may still be a providential design in the victory of Trump. During that long campaign, Trump did present alternative foreign policies that are not without sense. For instance, he questioned the policy that has been fundamental to several US administrations of appointing the US as global policeman and evangelizer of America’s notion of democracy. The pursuit of regime change in the Middle East he has rightfully called catastrophic. The elimination of Gaddafi and Saddam opened a Pandora’s Box in their countries that are fragile unions of various tribal, religious, and ethnic groups. Trump has questioned the US siding with the rebels against Assad without knowing who they are or where they are coming from.
There’s a chummy relationship brewing between Trump and Putin. Is it possible that between them the Syrian conundrum can be solved? Could they arrange a ceasefire and an interim coalition between Assad and the rebels to fight the ISIS and prepare for the holding of UN-supervised elections in Syria?
Trump has challenged himself to bring an end to a very key conflict in international relations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How much success he will have here may depend on how much impartiality he is willing to take to approach it. There is certainly no a sign of this impartiality in his promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is quite a sensitive issue to Muslims. A replica of the Dome seems to have a revered place in many Middle Eastern homes and offices. Is he for the two-state solution or for the idea of a Greater Israel where Jews and Palestinians will live together?
The foreign policy of Trump at this stage is a big question mark with the wide swathe of attacks he made during the campaign against international treaties, military alliances and trade agreements. Observers have detected in these attacks a trend towards isolationism. But his slogan of making America great again carries no suggestion that the US would give up the hegemonism that has been characteristic of US foreign policy. I don’t think he ever breathed a whisper about leaving the management of international relations to a stronger United Nations.
Let us pray that the Trump administration will resolve these uncertainties and contradictions for peace’s sake.
Jaime J. Yambao is a retired ambassador.