An estimated one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015, but the brief open-door sentiment captained by a German government newly-alert to the severity of the refugee crisis at its doorstep is already beginning to fade to a more exclusivist policy. Danes, Swedes, and Swiss—famously-friendly populations, all—are taking an increasingly anti-immigrant stance. The reaction ramped up in the aftermath of a spate of attacks targeting women in Cologne, Germany that erupted beneath a sky white with fireworks as the last sobering hours of 2015 gave way to a new year. Accounts differ, but accusations were hurled at groups of migrant men, according to local reports.
In the fifth January since the opening protests of the Arab Spring—the flurry of demonstrations against old school, oft-dictatorial regimes in six countries in the Middle East and North Africa—the Syrian death toll hovers around 260,000. Half of the Syrian population is now displaced. The country is divided between regime-controlled territory and growing cadasters under the rule of opposition forces, Kurds and the Islamic State.
Portending yet another year worse than the one before, 2016 only took three days for the most important regional Islamic powers—Saudi Arabia and Iran—to sever all diplomatic ties. Bahrain and Sudan followed Saudi suit. The ramping up of this already icy cold war comes in the immediate aftermath of the Kingdom’s execution of a Shia cleric and the Iranian storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and the still-raw emotion from hundreds of Iranian deaths during last year’s hajj stampede, also fueled the ominous fire.
That fire spread also into fatigued Lebanon when on January 8 a fiasco at the Beirut airport stranded 400 Syrian refugees on their way to Turkey. The travelers were part of a larger group of about 1,000 Syrians scheduled for legal transport to Turkey, but flight delays forced the contingent to miss the deadline for their exit. After an extended stay stranded past customs in Rafic Hariri International, they were flown not westward, but back to Damascus.
In brighter news, aid convoys were finally allowed into Madaya, a city outside the Syrian capital where 42,000 residents suffered from severe malnutrition and an estimated 30 deaths due to starvation caused by a six-month siege by government forces. While initial reports were suspect, the aid convoys confirmed the worst. Inside Madaya, 1 kg of beans was going for $256 USD, 900 grams of baby milk for $282 and wheat flour was completely unavailable. People were literally eating grass.
On the other side of Syria, on the weekend of the 16th, Islamic State fighters kidnapped 400 and killed hundreds more in the storming of the eastern Syria stronghold of Deir al-Zor. In Assad-controlled areas, it is reported that men under 40 are being stopped at checkpoints and forcibly conscripted into the military in a 1940s Soviet-style draft project, a sign of regime desperation despite advances supported by Russian intervention from the skies, epitomized in the pro-government recapture of opposition fortress Sheikh Miskeen on the 26th.
International powers were set to convene for a third attempt at negotiation in Geneva, beginning January 29. (Failed talks were held there in 2012 and again in 2014.) Invitations, however, were late in coming, as the chief hosts, the United States and Russia, couldn’t agree on who should receive a seat at the table. US ally Saudi Arabia proved reluctant to allow its opposition pawns to participate without concessions from the Assad regime (which it sees as conducting a reign of terror); Russia calls the entire opposition “terrorists,” too; and Turkey forbid the participation of Kurdish representatives because, again, “terrorists.”
The name-calling is of course nothing compared to the gun-slinging, but it will take a ceasefire of the former to ever discuss an end to the later. On the eve of the sixth year of the war in Syria, it seems the whole world is invested in how this brutal conflict ends. Most Syrians, however, care less at this point how it ends and more that it ends at all.