- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
— The Middle East Channel Editor’s Blog —
There are plenty of strong reasons for the United States and the international community to remain deeply cautious about taking a deeper role in Syria’s internal war. Concerns about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the unintended effects of arming them, fears of a slippery slope from limited to direct military involvement, and questions about international legitimacy remain as urgent as ever. But what could possibly justify the failure to adequately address the humanitarian needs of the expanding Syrian refugee population?
Nobody can seriously question the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are now more than 465,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. By past experience, this likely dramatically undercounts the real number as many refugees shy away from registering with official organizations. That does not count the internally displaced, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. Most of the refugees are living in harsh conditions, inside or outside of camps.
But, as with the Iraqi refugee crisis of the mid-2000s, the international community is once again failing to respond to this urgent humanitarian problem. The United States has given almost $200 million to help Syrian refugees, and Britain some $85 million. But it clearly is not enough. As a harsh winter approaches, international relief agencies report significant shortfalls in their funding appeals and failures to deliver on promised contributions. UNHCR reports that donors have met only 35 percent of its $500 million appeal. Save the Children claims a $200 million shortfall and only 50 percent funding of its refugee relief needs. On Tuesday, the United Nations World Food Programme expressed deepening concerns over rapidly deteriorating food security inside Syria, compounded by inhibited distribution with the escalating and expanding conflict. Meanwhile, host governments complain of the economic and social burden, and many fear their destabilizing impact.
The international community should have learned more from its poor performance in dealing with Iraqi refugees over the last decade, of the deep human cost and the long-term destabilizing effects of such refugee flows. Dedicating serious resources to assisting Syrian refugees seems like an obvious and core part of any effort to contain and mitigate the regional fallout of the crisis — whether or not Assad quickly falls, and regardless of the questions surrounding military intervention.
The shortcomings of the international response to the Syrian refugee crisis across the region is difficult to fathom given its obvious humanitarian and strategic importance. It is even more difficult to justify given that helping refugees offers such an obvious way to "do something" without committing to military options deemed unwise. Humanitarian aid to the Syrian refugees should be a high priority that does not get lost in the ongoing debates over arming the opposition, the course of the internal war, and possible military interventions. The problem here is not really the United States, which has provided the largest share of official relief, but rather the Gulf states which have not matched their words of support with money, other states which typically step up in such situations, and the broader donor community.
POMEPS and The Middle East Channel recently spoke with Northwestern University Assistant Professor Wendy Pearlman, who has just returned from over a month in Jordan interviewing Syrian refugees. Watch the video here:
For more from the Middle East Channel on Syrian refugees, see:
– David Kenner, "Winter is Coming" (Nov 1)
– Justin Vela, "Turkey’s Men in Syria" (Sep 18)
– Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, "Syrian Spillover" (Aug 10)
– Stephen Kalin, "Little Solace for Syrian Refugees in Egypt" ( Aug 10)
– Justin Vela, "No Refuge" (Mar 7)
– Nicholas Seeley, "Jordan’s open door for Syrian refugees" (March 1)