Our unwillingness to intervene effectively in Syria is a casualty of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For understandable (if not necessarily persuasive) reasons the Obama administration has refused to again get directly involved in a terrible conflict or even to supply arms to the opposition to hasten Assad’s departure. Regrettably, for the first time in dealing with a truly major humanitarian disaster, the U.S. is not doing much. It is not even leading from behind.
The Syrian humanitarian situation worsens daily. It is also gradually destabilizing the region. The total displaced Syrian population, internally and externally, now exceeds the numbers in Darfur, where the displaced two million or so were at least in much warmer weather and more easily managed by the foreign humanitarian community.
While making such a comparison is painful, the more than two million displaced within Syria are all over the country, often in terrible circumstances, particularly with the present cold weather. They eke out survival with limited help from foreign humanitarian agencies. Their future looks abysmal.
Another group of more than one million has been successful in getting out, mostly to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, as well as to Egypt, Iraq and places that are even more distant. The refugees are not only Syrians of all stripes, but also thousands of Iraqis, whose lot seems to be constant displacement. Displaced for even longer are many thousands of Palestinians who had lived in Syria for decades.
The vast Syrian humanitarian debacle has spread its tentacles across the region. Turkey has handled Syrian refugees very well indeed. It is very costly—an estimated six hundred million dollars so far—but the Turkish government has the resources and manpower to manage the increasing flow. (But much greater numbers will be both politically and economically costly for the Erdogan government.) The refugee situation is more difficult in the other major receiving countries (Jordan and Lebanon) and they need far more funds to manage the continuing exodus. The stability of these two countries is now under even greater strain, although other factors also contribute.
The most immediate problem is money—lots more to care for the increasing flow of internally displaced and refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees told me he needs another $300 million to take care of the expected problem through June. But other UN humanitarian agencies dealing with the Syrian problem also need significant amounts of money to continue their activities. At a rather underreported international pledging conference in Kuwait in January, with few very high-level participants from any country, the promises were prominent—over one billion dollars—but the follow-through, not surprisingly, has been very limited. The rich Gulf states, with the exception of Kuwait, are more interested in supplying arms to the rebels than fulfilling their pledges—although it seems that most have the capability to do both. The United States ponied up $155 million.
Finding money for all the displaced is now an increasingly difficult structural problem. The most recent U.S. contribution to the UN and the two hundred million dollars President Obama announced in Jordan are of course helpful, but hardly sufficient to meet the growing magnitude of the problem. Indeed the failure to move decisively on Assad has cost the world perhaps two billion dollars in ever-growing needs for humanitarian assistance.
In previous massive human disasters, the United States has always aggressively taken the lead—for Indochinese refugees, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians, Kosovars, Iraqis displaced from our second Gulf War and many others. We made things happen very impressively, preserving first asylum, resettling millions of refugees in this country, or providing the oomph and money to get nations to do some of the same. The voice of the United States now seems muted. Even many American humanitarian agencies are unduly quiet, perhaps afraid to bite the hands that feed them.
You would think that given our decision not to arm the rebels, we would be at least be aggressive in getting humanitarian help for a dying country and the humanitarian agencies would be out there urging the same. I can attest to the dedication and perseverance of those actually managing our humanitarian-emergency programs, but the voices of our high-level officials, public and private, are more quiet than usual. None even saw fit to attend the worldwide Kuwait pledging conference.
I am aware that the United States is now poor and finds it hard to do much more. Congressional interest seems to be focused less on providing money for Syrian humanitarian purposes and more on food aid to the opposition. Yet it is more than appropriate for the President to ask the Congress for special funds, not only to keep his Jordan promise but also for more help to the growing numbers of Syrian refugees. Washington might also be more active in pushing our Gulf friends and other allies for more humanitarian aid—perhaps even, perish the thought, taking some funds destined for our rich ally Israel.
If we are not going to save Syria, we can do much better to save a dying people.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member of The National Interest's advisory council.