Hundreds of thousands of migrants are leaving the Middle East, heading to what they see as the promised lands of Europe and, if possible, America. Notice where they are not going.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has 57 members. Though Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are serving as way stations, no OIC states are offering to permanently resettle their co-religionists. The Arab League has 22 members. They, too, apparently regard this as not their problem.
In fact, I’m finding not a word about the exodus on the Arab League’s website. On the OIC home page, if you look carefully, there’s a brief item about an “emergency meeting to mobilize efforts to address the Syrian refugee crisis.” I’m sure it will be productive.
The Western media are reporting on the migration as a humanitarian issue, which it is. Western political leaders are responding to it on that basis as they should. But to ignore or even give short shrift to the long-range geostrategic ramifications of this population transfer from the blood-soaked Middle East would be a mistake of historic proportions.
The deep roots of the crisis trace back to the defeat, in the early 20th century, of the Ottoman Empire and the dissolution of the caliphate. World War II collapsed the European colonial experiment that followed. Attempts to establish a viable nation-state system in the region since then have been less than successful.
As for the proximate causes: In 2011, ordinary Syrians began to peacefully protest the dictatorship of Bashar Assad, a puppet — or to use the Persian-derived word, a satrap — of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Assad regime ruthlessly suppressed that dissent. Civil war ensued. European nations did nothing. President Obama thought it sufficient to prophesize that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Iran’s rulers saw the situation differently, backing Mr. Assad to the hilt — sending in Hezbollah, their Lebanese proxy military forces, as well as elite units of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Before long, Islamic warriors claiming to defend Syria’s Sunnis from Mr. Assad and his Shia patrons emerged on the battlefields as well.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, decimated during the American “surge,” revived soon after Mr. Obama withdrew all American troops from Iraq. It morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS and ISIL — the latter signifying its intent to conquer all the countries of the Levant. It then became the Islamic State, declaring itself the new caliphate, heir to the great and powerful Islamic empires of the past.
Fighting among these groups has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions from their homes. Christians and other minorities are being threatened with annihilation. These humanitarian crises have not been seen as a high priority by the “international community.” (We’ll leave for another day why that is.)
Right now, migrants are streaming to the West not only from Syria and Iran but also from the failed states of Somalia and Libya, from war-torn Afghanistan and, as word spreads that Europeans are opening their doors and wallets, a growing number are leaving such bleak lands as Eritrea, Nigeria and Pakistan.
The crisis will get worse before it gets better — if it gets better. What is now a wave could become a tide or a tsunami. The new immigrants will strain Europe’s already-overstretched welfare systems. They will not be easily assimilated in part because Europeans have embraced multiculturalism — not to be confused with tolerance and pluralism, and the polar opposite of the old American ideal of E pluribus Unum.
The vast majority of new immigrants are not Islamic supremacists. Some will undoubtedly become outstanding citizens of their adopted homelands. But, as we should have learned by now, if even a small percentage turns out to be militants, the impact will be significant. Think Charlie Hebdo. Now multiply. Already there are reports in the European press of Islamists in Germany recruiting Syrian refugees in the shelters where they are being housed and the mosques where they are going to pray. The Saudis have pledged to help — by building more mosques.
Among the new arrivals, the birthrate is likely to be high for at least a generation. European birthrates, by contrast, will remain low. Children of the immigrants who grow up alienated and aggrieved — expect a large number — will attempt to fundamentally transform European culture.
So far, at least, no evidence suggests that the leaders of the Islamic State, al Qaeda or Iran engineered this crisis. But their ability to think strategically should not be underestimated. The Islamic State, we now know, was never a JV team. Reports of al Qaeda’s death were at best premature. Perhaps, as Mr. Obama appears to believe, Iran’s revolutionary clerics will soon become moderates, but I’m betting that judgment is dead wrong as well. And these Islamist leaders, Sunni and Shia alike, are smart enough to recognize the opportunities the migration crisis offers them.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is doubtless viewing the distress of the NATO allies with something akin to glee. He is sharply increasing Russia’s military presence in Syria. He intends to reset relations — though not in the way Mr. Obama had hoped.
European and American leaders face a formidable challenge. Are they up it? Do they understand that the migrants are a symptom of pathologies that will spread — including in Western countries — if not more accurately diagnosed and more effectively treated? Do they have the diplomatic skill to persuade Arab and Muslim leaders to become productively engaged? Will they devise creative solutions before substantial damage is done? I’m afraid these questions answer themselves.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.