June 5, 2019

What Jordan’s Syrian Refugee Crisis Can Teach the Rest of the World

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON — In the summer of 1949, three years after I traded my United States Army uniform for civilian clothes, and three months after I sold my half of a successful war surplus business I had started to my partner, I hopped aboard the Queen Elizabeth at the dock in New York City to move to Paris. Arriving in France two weeks later, the damaged road I took into the City of Light was the first visible sign that Europe was still recovering from the war that had taken more than 40 million European lives from 1939 to 1945. But it wasn’t until I tried to start a business exporting food to Germany that I came to understand that for millions of people, the horrors of that war continued to live on, but in different ways.

One in five German homes had been destroyed during the war, leaving 20 million Germans homeless, the vast majority of which were women, children, and the elderly. Another eight to ten million former prisoners of war, slave laborers, and death camp survivors had set out by foot to find food and shelter at war’s end, only to settle in refugee camps on German soil for as many as five more years, as most nations — including the U.S. — refused to grant visas or extend quotas to let in victims of the war. What I remember today as mass misery, history remembers as the largest mass migration in human history.

In the seven decades that have passed since, I never imagined that I would see a day when the total number of refugees, and the scale of human misery, would surpass what I saw in 1949. But I was wrong. Today, there are more than 25 million refugees, a fraction of nearly 70 million innocent people who have been driven from their homes by armed conflict in recent decades. Twenty percent of them are fleeing the murderous eight-year conflict in Syria.

Now, as then, the wealthy countries of the world have largely shut their doors to most refugees. Instead, battles over immigration in the U.S. and Europe have sparked a global populist revolt, with far-right nationalists winning office in elections from the EU Parliament to the Oval Office. But unlike World War II, when the U.S. and Britain oversaw the fate of displaced people, the front line of the refugee crisis today is being handled by a small, landlocked country in the Middle East that is about the size of the state of Illinois and has nowhere near the reach or resources of the West: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

With Israel to its west, Iraq to its east, and Syria to its north, Jordan is an island of stability in an ocean of violence. Refugees from all three states have been crossing Jordan’s borders since 1948, along with refugees from Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, and Bosnia. As of 2015, every third person in Jordan was a refugee.

One thing we’ve learned about refugees over the past seven decades is that if a person is displaced for five years, they are more likely to remain displaced for at least twenty years, and Jordan is a prime example. Of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who flooded into Jordan after the founding of Israel in 1948, many stayed. Today, around 70 percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, almost two million of whom still live in refugee camps of one kind or another.

Where other nations might have crumbled under the weight of the influx, Jordan has held firm, thanks in large part to the leadership of His Majesty King Abdullah II and his estimable wife, Her Majesty Queen Rania, who is also Palestinian. I first heard of Abdullah shortly after he was a young military officer who had come to the US to train. Wayne Downing, a West Point graduate and four-star general who commanded America’s elite counter-terrorism teams and is known as the father of the modern Rangers, trained foreign soldiers who traveled to Fort Bragg to learn about democracy. Of all the soldiers he trained, he told me, Abdullah was one of the best.

Downing didn’t consider how the leadership skills he saw would be called upon to lead a refugee crisis, but Jordan’s embrace of refugees under Abdullah’s leadership — like its embrace under Abdullah’s late father, Hussein, before him — has been crucial to ensuring the refugee crisis does not spread to the rest of the world. As the U.S. faces increasing refugee challenges of its own — and as the credibility of U.S. leadership rests on our ability to deliver on the values we claim to stand for — it could stand to learn a few lessons in leadership from Jordan.

The first lesson: refugee crises are never contained — and solutions must quickly shift from short-term to long-term.

Jordan dealt with this issue in real time as it worked to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis. Despite Jordan’s long history of hosting refugees, the Syrian crisis has broken every record. Today, almost 1 in 7 people in Jordan is a Syrian refugee. They are mostly impoverished, and more than half are children.

At first, Jordan adopted an open-door border policy, assuming that the conflict would soon be over and that refugees would eventually return home. What Jordan didn’t anticipate was just how massive the wave of Syrian refugees would be, and the economic burden that would put on Jordan’s government. By 2016, 650,000 refugees had registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and these registered refugees had the right to public services like education, healthcare, and housing in camps.

But in truth, the actual number of Syrian refugees was almost double the number of registered Syrian refugees, meaning estimates of Jordan’s need for international help fell far below UN estimates. And because Syrians were not permitted to fully access the labor market, pay taxes, start businesses, or spend, they could never help relieve Jordan’s economic strain.

Realizing the futility of assuming the Syrian refugees would simply return home, Jordan worked instead with the international community to find longer-term solutions. The result was called the Jordan Compact. In return for billions in pledged grants and loans and relaxed trade regulations with the European Union, Jordan agreed to issue 200,000 new work permits for Syrian refugees in agriculture, construction, and production of goods. It expandededucation to include all Syrian refugees, and it reduced fees for work permits.

The initiative was well-intentioned. But the Compact was designed without any input from Syrian refugees themselves, which leads to the second lesson: for policy changes to be successful, there must be trust between refugees and hosts.

In the early days after World War II, the U.S. had trust issues of its own, when the displaced in Germany — camp survivors and camp guards alike — were initially housed by nationality (Poles with Poles, etc.) without regard to roles. It meant, as historian David Nasaw has written, that “inmates and torturers” were housed “side by side” in “inhumane forced gatherings of victim and victimizer.”

Jordan has dealt with a trust issue of a different kind. Because of negative public opinion towards refugees as well as the lack of Syrian representation in the Compact’s creation, Syrian refugees doubt the Jordanian government’s motives, and many have not signed up for permits even with the new policies in place.

Jordan has tried to build goodwill by tweaking its policies to better accommodate the challenges Syrian refugees face. Just last year, the government began the process of regularizing the status of unregistered Syrians living outside of camps. This “amnesty policy” protected them from arrest and increased their access to employment, education, and financial assistance.

Unfortunately, the amnesty policy led to the third lesson: that host countries on the front lines of conflict need more money than is currently available, and that this funding must come from the international community.

Currently, Jordan fills gaps in funding by raising taxes. Since the beginning of the crisis, Jordanians have seen a tax hike of more than 42 percent, particularly on consumer goods like clothes and cigarettes. But almost a fifth of the population remains unemployed. A third of Jordanians fall below the poverty line at least once a year. And Jordan’s public debt now tops $40 billion, more than 95% of the nation’s GDP.

Jordanians cannot afford to pay higher taxes, and their protests have prompted resignations of Jordanian officials. But Jordan is also being forced to cut essential services for refugees. Just a few short months before the amnesty policy was announced, the Ministry of Health slashed healthcare subsidies for Jordan that were reportedly costing upwards of $2.2 billion a year.

The international community is supposed to ease Jordan’s financial strain by providing foreign aid and funding the UN and other international aid organizations. Yet, although the World Bank estimated that the 2016 cost of hosting Syrian refugees would top $2.5 billion, donors at the London conference pledged just $700 million in annual grants, and even limited funding promises too often go unmet.

Which is insanely short-sighted. Jordan needs international help, led by the U.S., to ensure not only that refugees receive the support they need, but also that the government remains stable. Political unrest in Amman could plunge the rest of the region into chaos, resulting in more volatility and more refugees in ways that will further challenge U.S. interests.

If we’re not willing to welcome refugees here, we need to be committed to supporting them there. Because if we can’t help them, as we learned in Europe seventy years ago, it’s not a failure of their morality — it’s a failure of ours.

March 3, 2016

Where Have You Gone, Harry Truman?

by Stanley A. Weiss

Seventy years ago this week, in a quiet corner of Iran, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began in earnest over a missed deadline. For four years, American, British, and Soviet troops had been stationed in Iran, invited by the government there to help protect Persian oil fields from Hitler’s army. But there was an important caveat, agreed to in a 1942 treaty: all troops had to be gone within six months of the end of World War II. As the war wound down, Washington and London successfully pressed Tehran for oil concessions, and withdrew troops on time. But Moscow, denied the oil it believed it was due, found an excuse to stay – coming to the aid of Iranian Kurdish rebels in the northern regions of Iran. That’s where Soviet troops still sat when deadline day came and went on March 2, 1946, to the great displeasure of the person who mattered most – U.S. President Harry S Truman.

Continue Reading

February 18, 2016

Three New Realities in the Middle East for the Next American President

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–There was a telling moment in last Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate that says a lot about America’s misadventures in the Middle East over the past 15 years. Donald Trump, the real estate developer and current front-runner who has done everything from calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants to ridiculing the war record of Senator and former prisoner of war John McCain, finally did something to cause the Republican establishment to turn on him. Questioned about the presidency of George W. Bush, Trump said that the Bush Administration “lied” its way into the Iraq war by hyping weapons of mass destruction; called the invasion itself a “disaster;” and reminded the audience that “the World Trade Center came down” on Bush’s watch. It was too much for the South Carolina audience, which booed him, and the other candidates, who unloaded on him. The irony is that the breaking point for Republicans was hearing Trump say something that was true.

Continue Reading

October 23, 2015

It’s Time to Talk About Saudi Arabia

by Stanley A. Weiss

In the House of Commons this past Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made two announcements pertaining to Saudi Arabia that sounded like they came straight out of the ninth century. The first was that thanks to British diplomacy, Hammond did “not expect” that a young political activist named Ali Mohammed al-Nimr – who had been sentenced by a Saudi court to “beheading and crucifixion” for the crime of attending a pro-democracy rally when he was 17 years old – would be put to death after all. The second was that a 74 year-old British grandfather named Karl Andee – an asthmatic, three-time cancer survivor living in Saudi Arabia who has spent the past year in jail for the crime of possessing homemade wine – would likely be spared the 350 lashes to which he had also been sentenced and which his children feared would surely kill him.

For those not up on their medieval execution methods, one story helpfully explained that had the sentence against Al-Nimr been carried out, the Saudi way dictates that his head would have been cut off with a sword, and then his headless body would have been publicly displayed as a lesson to others who would dare challenge the Saudi monarchy. Meanwhile, an Arab News columnist reflected on the grandfather’s case without a trace of irony, noting that while it is well-known that “alcohol is hazardous to health,” 360 lashes with a long, hard cane is “not a matter of inflicting pain but more of a moral punishment” – because, according to the Saudi way, “lashing is done through a careful procedure,” with the “elbow planted firmly to the side,” and with “only the quick movement of the hand from the wrist. It is not the pain,” he clarified, clearly never having felt 350 lashes. “It is the shame.”

Continue Reading

September 28, 2015

What Putin Should Say at the United Nations

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the first time since 2005. He is expected to talk about Russia’s increased military activity in Syria and the role that Russia hopes to play in battling the Islamic State–while possibly offering a new “grand bargain” to the West over Syria. Here is what Mr. Putin should say:

My fellow delegates: For the past year, from this podium and others, we have heard variations on the same message: that the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are a regional threat in the Middle East; that while their methods are brutal, ISIL is simply a “jayvee team” that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq; that the real danger in the region is the government in Damascus; and that by training so-called “moderate” Syrian fighters while supporting a campaign of air strikes led by the United States and a coalition of willing partners, it will be possible to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State while bringing stability to Syria.

I have come here today because I think it’s time that we stop lying to ourselves.

Continue Reading

August 10, 2015

Turkey and the Kurds Need An Antwerp Agreement

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–Exactly 95 years ago, the Ottoman Empire came to an end. On August 10, 1920, the Ottomans and the Allied powers signed the Treaty of Sѐvres, partitioning the Middle East between European nations. Palestine and Iraq went to the British, who also maintained influence in the kingdom that would become Saudi Arabia. The French were granted Lebanon and Syria. Italy claimed large swaths of Turkey. In a nod to President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, the Kurds–largely Sunni Muslims but an ethnically distinct minority–were set to receive their long dreamed-of homeland, an independent Kurdistan.

Ironically, as many historians have noted, the treaty was signed in Sѐvres’ famed porcelain factory–a remarkably poor symbol for an unbreakable agreement. Indeed, the ink on the treaty was barely dry before an ambitious young Turkish soldier named Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) launched a war of independence and built the modern state of Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, swallowing up the Kurds’ promised land in the process.

Continue Reading

March 18, 2015

Don’t Let the Crisis in Ukraine Damage Decades of Progress on Nuclear Cooperation

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON AND GSTAAD–This December, the world will witness the 70th anniversary of a publication best known for tracking the end of the world. Founded in 1945 by veterans of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was launched in the wake of the devastating nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the goal of informing the public about nuclear policy. But since 1947, it has been known largely for a metaphorical device it introduced in June of that year: the Doomsday Clock, which measures how close humanity is to extinction.

Launched at seven minutes to midnight, the clock hit two minutes after the first hydrogen bomb was tested in 1953; jumped back to 12 after the United States and the Soviet Union backed away from nuclear confrontation over Cuba in 1962; moved to three minutes at the height of Ronald Reagan-era U.S.-Soviet tensions in 1984; and widened to 17 minutes in 1991, after the Berlin Wall fell and both sides began cutting their nuclear arsenals. While it has moved up and down ever since–based on new threats like climate change and other weapons of mass destruction–it never crossed five again.

Continue Reading

February 24, 2015

Now Is Not the Time to Give Up on Russia

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–For a self-professed Christian who has long used the dangling cross he wears around his neck as a tool to define his public persona, it comes as little surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin would make such a public showing out of his belief in original sin. But, it turns out that the version of original sin that Putin likes best isn’t the religious version, but a political one.

In the Russian strongman’s favorite telling, Western nations promised a teetering Soviet Union on the verge of collapse in 1990 that if Moscow agreed to remove Soviet troops from East Germany, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would vow to never expand further east than Berlin. But then, as the story goes, the West broke its word almost immediately and sought to humiliate Russia, going so far as to attempt the expansion of NATO and the European Union to Russian borders. So naturally, in the heroic Putin narrative, Russian troops were forced to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to protect its homeland against the aggressive actions of the United States and its European allies.

Continue Reading

February 6, 2015

Moving From Axis to Access of Evil

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON — In the fall of 2012, aboard a retired aircraft carrier permanently docked on the west side of Manhattan, I listened as then-United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered one of the most chilling speeches I have ever heard. To a roomful of leading CEOs and military leaders, Panetta spoke about the new cyber threats faced by civilized society and the many ways in which America’s adversaries could use computer networks to spread panic, paralyze the country and inflict mass casualties.

“Let me explain how this could unfold,” he said. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could, for example, derail passenger trains or, even more dangerous, trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.

“The most destructive scenarios,” he continued, “involve cyber actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack on our country. … The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber-Pearl Harbor, an attack that would cause physical destruction and loss of life. In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”

Continue Reading

November 12, 2014

The Ethnic Apartheid in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

Given the five decades it spent as one of the most repressive countries in recent history, it’s hard to imagine that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was once considered an empire. But 190 years ago this past March, after the Burmese Empire conquered two large Bengali territories across its western border and undertook a series of raids into British-held lands, the British Empire had had enough. British India launched a counter-insurgency that would drag on for two years and take thousands of lives. With some of the heaviest fighting concentrated in Islamic border communities, thousands of Muslims were forced to flee, eventually settling along frontier areas in India and Myanmar.

The Muslim families driven into Burma as a result of Burmese aggression — known as Rohingya Muslims — never left, despite being persecuted ever since. A grisly modern chapter began in 2012, when the alleged rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in western Rakhine State led to mob violence that took the lives of hundreds of Rohingya over the next two years and saw 135,000 Rohingya held in squalid camps for their own “safety.” Seemingly oblivious to global concerns sparked by the persecution of this Muslim ethnic minority, the Myanmar government last week announced a repulsive new policy: All Rohingya must prove that their families have lived in Myanmar for at least six decades. For those we cannot, the penalty is either a refugee camp or deportation. For those we can, the prize is second-class citizenship, but with a catch: They must first renounce the term “Rohingya” and agree to be classified as a “Bengali.” It’s little wonder that more than 100,000 Rohingya have reportedly escaped Myanmar the past two years.

Continue Reading