By Mehroz Baig
“Syria is a dangerous neglect by the United States,” cautioned Vali Nasr during his talk at the Club on May 1. “It’s a country that will impact the entire region.” Nasr said that the United States has other options in Syria besides a military presence. For example, the United States can also arm the opposition and take the lead in addressing the growing humanitarian crisis in and around Syria.
Syria’s ongoing conflict began more than two years ago in March 2011, and according to the UN, it has now claimed more than 70,000 lives, internally displaced 4.25 million people, and sent 1.3 million people into neighboring countries as refugees. The UNHCR — the UN’s refugee agency — notes that the Middle East and North Africa already face a slew of destabilizing circumstances, including civil conflicts and natural disasters. The escalating violence in Syria has added to the strain in the region.
In a statement to the UN Security Council in April, Valerie Amos, under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs at the UN, expressed concern for Syria’s neighbors, particularly Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Earlier in March, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, noted that Lebanon saw a 10 percent increase in its population due to refugee influx from Syria, which is putting a strain on Lebanon’s resources. He also said that the crisis in Syria is a “threat to international peace and security.”
“I think it would be terrific if the U.S. made an explicit push for China, Russia, Iran and the U.S. to jointly focus on the suffering of the Syrian people,” said Fred Lawson, a professor of government at Mills College and author of Global Security Watch – Syria. However, he cautioned that Syria is currently in a civil war and added, “What we learned in Somalia was that it’s impossible to carry out a humanitarian mission while there is a civil war going on.”
The UN and a host of NGOs have been consistently appealing for more funding to direct toward Syria. In a report published in April, Oxfam called out the international community, saying, “Today, the aid effort is shamefully inadequate.” The UN’s appeal of $1.5 billion has only been met halfway and UNHCR has had to revise its 2012 budget to accommodate the growing need in Syria. In 2012, it spent 18.75 percent of its entire MENA (Middle East North Africa) budget on Syria. The agency anticipates revising its 2013 budget, too.
This is precisely where Nasr thinks the U.S. can contribute. “Everyone’s operating on the assumption that we don’t care,” Nasr said. But he argues that the U.S. can lead a global initiative to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria. And as many agencies including the UN argue, that leadership is not only about donations and funding. Much of the humanitarian work is hampered by lack of authorization to enter Syria’s government-controlled territories, the inability to provide cross-border assistance, and a precarious security situation faced by humanitarian aid workers. On this front, diplomatic negotiations with the Assad government and rebel factions are needed.
Lawson agrees, adding, “It’s starting to look like humanitarian aid is not enough.” He suggested that any diplomatic efforts should be focused on giving Assad’s regime and its supporters an absolute guarantee of their safety; otherwise there is nothing to negotiate.
The United States’ reluctance on Syria might also stem from multiple calculations, which include following Turkey’s lead and considering the fragmentation within the opposition, added Lawson. Overturning the Assad regime would leave a leadership vacuum within Syria, which might be filled by anti-American parties. Additionally, the lack of organization within the opposition suggests that any one of those factions taking charge in Syria may not ultimately lead to a stabilized Syria.
“No one wants that,” Lawson said, citing interests from the U.S., Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iran. “Washington is paralyzed.” The United States must take into its calculus additional factors, such as recent allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, Israeli airstrikes near Damascus and an Internet blackout in Syria.
The political calculation aside, humanitarian aid is still necessary, and Lawson suggests that the United States form an opinion about how to proceed: “I think the United States should first decide whether it will work through the UN or directly.” Direct aid requires forming an infrastructure of delivery, which takes time, Lawson added. However, Lawson cautioned that the “U.S. should not send food directly with U.S. personnel or aircraft,” but rather channel it through other aid entities such as the Arab Red Crescent. Doing so keeps aid workers politically neutral and out of harm’s way, especially from anti-American factions.
In testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski addressed the double-edged sword of labeled aid. While explicit labels allow people on the ground to see where support is coming from — and support carries more weight if coming from the United States — labeling can lead to politicization. Malinowski stressed that aid must be disbursed impartially and for that, “it is better to rely on organizations that have the experience and logistical capacity on both sides of the border and that will ensure that aid is not politicized.” However, hesitancy to send aid through third-party organizations exists because the United States doesn’t come out as a prominent actor in relief efforts.
Ultimately, it may be a combination of factors — increased non-politicized aid, diplomatic unity on the Security Council, increased efforts at negotiations, strengthening and increasing cohesion among the opposition, and a political will to undertake leadership on these fronts — that might result in movement on Syria. Yet with few answers to resolving the long-term factors that will bring stability to Syria, and continued need for more humanitarian aid, it is difficult to determine how Washington will hedge its bets. Nonetheless, the announcement on Tuesday by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to host an international conference on Syria and push the Assad government and the Syrian opposition to attend is a step in intensifying the diplomatic efforts to bring some resolution to this conflict.
Mehroz Baig is a Butler Koshland Fellow at The Commonwealth Club, apprenticing with the Club's CEO in non-profit leadership, and working with the Club's editorial and development teams. Mehroz comes to the Club from CNN's "Fareed Zakaria Global Public Square." She has a special interest in human rights, international affairs, and the experiences of Pakistani-Americans — much of her written work concerns these topics. Previously, Mehroz worked at the County of Sonoma's Economic Development Board and Human Services Department, conducting research and managing programs. Mehroz has a dual master's degree from Columbia University in journalism and international affairs.