For much of Europe, and a sizable portion of the world’s media, the story of the last few weeks has been the sea of refugees fleeing the Middle East and washing through southern Europe, trying to escape the ravages of the Syrian civil war and decades of conflict in the wider region. The media, of course, have been focusing on the plight of pitiable families, women and children who have made harrowing, dangerous journeys across dangerous seas, in search of a safe haven, and ultimately a better life. Conscious that disaster porn captures viewers, the same media has inundated us with pictures of overcrowded boats on the verge of collapse, makeshift refugee camps and bodies washed up on beaches. The images are heartrending. These are people who have risked everything and carry with them little more than hope and the idea that even an overcrowded refugee camp and an uncertain future in Europe, is better than what they have faced in Syria.
The media, again, will focus their lens on the photogenic child with the unblinking eyes, held tightly by her mother or the young women in headscarves, pretty faces creased with anxiety. They will focus on crowded stations, hopeful people fleeing West to what they imagine will be a safer if not better life. They show pictures of stragglers on the side of European highways heading ever North and West.
But look again at those same photos.
Look again at the crowd shots. Most of the figures in the crowds, in the boats, in the makeshift camps, are men. And mostly young men at that. Some, I’m sure, are fathers with their families, or boys sent off by their people back in Syria to escape conscription in ISIS or in Assad’s army. In this they are no different than thousands of men across hundreds of years, forced from their country by war and oppression. I certainly wouldn’t question their motivation and the sense that all they want is a chance to breathe free air; to settle down and work; to live and take care of their families. But I’m reminded of other waves of exiles — I’m thinking of the thousands of men and women who fled to Britain when their countries were overrun by the Nazis, to form governments-in-exile and military contingents to fight alongside the British and Americans. Or go further back, to the great 17th- and 18th-century migrations of Irish and Scots who formed regiments in continental European armies to continue the fight against the ancient Sassenach enemy. Surely some of these young men must harbor a similar wish, to continue a fight against the myriad forces that have ripped their country apart and to take their country back.
As of now, I’m sure have the security services of Europe are infiltrating the crowds, looking for information and candidates to recruit. They will be alive to the possibilities of recruiting spies and informers, conduits into Muslim communities in Europe. The BND, MI-6, DGSE and all the other secret service acronyms we’ve heard of and some we have not, will be hard at work. But maybe there is a bigger opportunity here. The intelligence services will certainly gauge the depth of feeling and the levels of enthusiasm among the refugees for a continuation of the struggle back in their homeland. And it may be that most refugees are just focused on anything but the war they have just left. that would be perfectly understandable. But is there also an opportunity for a wider, more bold scheme here?
Certainly the people of Western democracies and, heaven knows, the people fleeing violence in the Middle East have every reason to be suspicious of Western plans for meddling in the affairs of that region. After all, when has that ever gone well? But I can’t help but think there may be an opportunity here to raise a Syrian, even a pan-Arab force, an Emigre Legion if you will; a unit that could be trained and equipped by the Western powers and landed back in Syria, with the support of Western air and sea forces. A unit whose object could be as limited as setting up a safe zone for their fellow citizens or as ambitious as establishing a beachhead to launch a concerted effort to drive Assad from power and ISIS into the grave. They could in fact set up a Free Republic of the Levant and jumpstart the stalled Arab Spring revolutions. Their massive advantage over American and British troops who purported to bring democracy to the region with the Iraq invasion and patently did not, is that they are native Arab, indigenous to the region, and their boots on the ground would be seen, not as invading Crusaders, but as liberators. They are intimately knowledgeable about conditions in country. They know all the competing factions; they understand the myriad levels of conflict; they know the nuances and politics of a tribalized, balkanized society. They would see color where the West sees only black and white. In the best possible scenario, a legion of exiles may be the basis for a future free democratic government of Syria. At the very least it might give a higher purpose to a group of young men and women whose only purpose now is mere survival.