The Syrian refugee disaster is a result of the Middle East’s failure to grapple with modernity and Europe’s failure to defend its ideals.

Published: 2018/01/09 Number of words: 2229

This paper debates the extent to which the Syrian refugee disaster can be linked to the Middle East’s inability to subscribe to modernist ideals as well as to an ideological failure from a European perspective. The paper argues against modernist propositions which perceive the perpetuation of a patriarchal and traditional society in the Middle East to be an overarching cause of the refugee disaster. The paper also suggests that the over-zealous defence of European liberal ideals threatens to excaerbate the disaster.


Six years following the eruption of protests in the Syrian town of Dara’a in 2011, dissention pertaining to the rule and economic policies of the Assad regime has degenerated into a full-blown conflict (de Châtel 2012). A corollary of this conflict is the widespread displacement of Syrian nationals in the country and across the region; it is estimated that by the end of 2014, approximately 7.6 million Syrians were classified as internally displaced (UNHCR 2016, see Figure 1.). It has further been estimated that an additional 3.7 million persons have fled the country following the eruption of the conflict (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2016). Between April 2011 and April 2016, according to the UNHCR (2016), approximately 1,037,760 Syrian nationals applied for asylum in Europe alone.

Figure 1. Displaced Syrian Nationals

Source: Mead (2015)

The topic of serious refugee situation emerging from the Syrian conflict has gained much traction in the literature and in policy circles (cf. Gause 2011; Fargues 2014; De Châtel 2012; Fargues and Fandrich 2012; Akgündüs et al. 2015; Zetter et al. 2014; Ostrand 2015). Central to discussions in the literature are questions pertaining to the underlying causes of the refugee disaster particularly given the magnitude of the migration crisis that has engulfed many European countries. In his much-cited article in the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead (2015, para.1) postulates that “the Syrian refugee disaster is a result of the Middle East’s failure to grapple with modernity and Europe’s failure to defend its ideals.” The aim of this paper is to present a critical analysis of the causes underpinning the Syrian refugee crisis and to debate the extent to which the disaster emanates from the Middle East’s failure to grapple with modernity and/or Europe’s inability to defend its ideals, as Mead (2015) postulates.

The paper is structured as follows: section one pertains to a discussion typically put forward via modernist propositions; that it is the Middle East’s inability to subscribe to modernist ideals that underpins the Syrian crisis and by extension, the refugee disaster. Following an analysis of this view, on the second section I consider how Europe’s ideological failures further impinge on the crisis. In the third section, I present my concluding remarks.

A Failure to Grapple with Modernity?

A dominant argument in the literature, media and policy developers pertains to the idea that the Syrian refugee disaster is rooted in a deep failure “to grapple with modernity” (Mead 2015; Gause 2011; Châtel 2012). The tenor of such modernist propositions is that it was the Middle East’s inability to establish modern institutions and laws, as well as its perpetuation of a traditional patriarchal culture, which is antithetical to democracy (Gause 2011), that provoked the eruption of the Arab Spring. While Middle Eastern governments have been successful in maintaining an authoritarian status quo, it is suggested that this status quo eventually atrophied as a result of an existential crisis due to tensions between modernity and fundamentalism. I suggest that such modernist explanations are problematic, if not simplistic, given that the root causes of the conflict and by extension, the refugee crisis, emanate from a complex interplay of cultural, economic and political factors, some of which are rooted in externalities.

As has occurred in other Arab contexts, the Syrian uprising was triggered by a multitude of social, economic, political and geographic factors. Ironically, the adoption of western neo-liberal economic reforms played a central role in triggering the uprising that preceded the refugee crisis. Scholars such as Gause (2011) have delineated how neo-liberal economic reforms exacerbated inequalities between the rich and poor, with upper classes leveraging liberalised trade regimes to gain access to greater consumer choice amidst the increased poverty of the masses. These economic problems have been widely perceived as failures that were concomitant with a myriad of political problems for Arab governments.

In Syria, growing poverty as a result of rapid economic liberalisation, the withdrawal of state subsidies, rising income-inequality, widespread corruption, high unemployment levels, a lack of political freedom and the aftermath of a severe drought between 2006 and 2010 (Châtel 2012) were contributing factors to the emergence of the crisis. Further, while it may be argued that focusing on Western intervention in the Syrian uprising is counterproductive as it undermines the fundamental economic and political factors that framed public dissention and fails to acknowledge the responsibility of the Syrian government, it is still a factor that is worth noting.

While an amalgamation of the factors delineated can be conceptualised as triggers of the uprising, there has been a tendency in the literature to focus primarily on the lack of political freedoms and modern institutions as key drivers of the conflict, thus presenting somewhat of a reductionist argument. For example, Mead (2015, para.4) explicitly states that “the crisis in the Middle East has to do with much more than the breakdown of order”. He posits that “…we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization’s failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity.” However, I question the basis of his argument based on the complex interplay of several contributory factors as delineated above. For example, based on fieldwork conducted between 2006 and 2010 in Syria (including the Jezira region), Gause’s (2011) study reveals that the Syrian government’s apathetic response to the drought; its attempt to downplay it and its tendency to blame external factors and completely deny the humanitarian crisis that ensued, were important contributory factors to the conflict that erupted. 

The Refugee Crisis and Europe’s Failure to Defend its Ideals

A number of scholars  (Noucheva 2015; Tocci and Cassarino 2011; Grant 2011; Anani et al. 2011) have established links between chaos in the Middle East and EU policies for the region, which have been perceived as antithetical to or devoid of European ideals. Much cited in the literature are the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP). The tenor of these arguments, which converges with the central argument of this paper, is that while EU initiatives to instigating reform in Arab countries have been traditionally been by promoting its core values (i.e. democracy, human rights and the rule of law), the EU has gradually departed from these normative principles due to its focus on prioritising European security interests (Hollis 2012; Teti 2012).

As a caveat, it is imperative to highlight that the EU’s ‘actorness’ has been significantly undermined by divergent interests amongst EU member states in areas where EU institutions do not have complete agency to implement decisions on behalf of the Union (Noutcheva 2015). Nevertheless, Noutcheva (2015, p.9) posits that “overall, the EU has asserted itself as neither a strategic actor nor a normative power, but rather as a bystander, trapped in its internal institutional process and passively reacting to crisis events by proposing long-term solutions with little short-term impact.” In countries such as Morocco, the EU has been conceptualised as perpetuating the status quo by failing to export its normative principles due to its focus on issues such as migration and security.

The EU’s normative foreign policy in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and the South Caucasus has further been limited in a number of ways due to its limited involvement in addressing protracted conflicts in these regions, thus creating the perception of a reluctant partner and concurrently undermining its normative credentials (Simão 2012). While I concur with Hollis’s (2012) argument that the EU’s emphasis on security rather than the promotion of democracy in the Mediterranean has engendered “a set of structured, institutionalised and securitized relationships which will be difficult to reconfigure and will not help Arab reformers attain their goals,” this statement is not necessarily applicable to Syria.

Ever since the institution of Council Regulation No. 442/2011 of 9 May 2011 pertaining to restrictive measures in light of the conflict and violations in Syria, the EU has gradually but increasingly amplified its sanctions against the Assad regime. I suggest that it is the European Union’s stipulations pertaining to migration in particular that appear to have impinged on the refugee disaster and it is in this regard that I disagree with Mead’s (2015) propositions. I suggest that it is rather an over-zealous approach to defending European liberal ideals that underpins the escalation of the refugee disaster based on the supposition that “European bureaucrats tend to see asylum as a legal question, not a political one, and they expect political authorities to implement the legal mandate, not quibble with it or constrain it” (Mead 2015, para.6). The imposition of migrant quotas by the EU, for example, buttressed by an over-zealous rights-based and legalistic outlook is fuelling the increased flow of desperate and vulnerable refugees who are in search of a new home and in a number of countries has encouraged the ascendancy of right-wing European parties which are leveraging the “fear of the other” to gain traction in the political arena. Needless to say, it is the defence of liberal Western ideals that threatens to escalate the crisis.


The aim of this paper was to debate the extent to which the Syrian refugee disaster is a function of the Middle East’s inability to subscribe to modernist ideals, as well as an ideological failure from a European perspective. The paper argued against modernist propositions which perceive the perpetuation of a patriarchal and traditional society in the Middle East to be an overarching cause of the refugee disaster. The paper further suggested that the over-zealous defence of European liberal ideals threatens to perpetuate the disaster even further.


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