Much to do about Syria

On the third anniversary of the civil war in Syria, while polarized politicians drone on about drones, embargoes and boots on the ground, the suffering of ordinary Syrians continues to deepen. The conflict in Syria is the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Cold War. In the coming year three quarters of Syria’s population will be in need of humanitarian aid. As always, the children are the hardest hit.

Millions of Syrian children are traumatized. Some have witnessed family members killed, tortured or raped in front of them. More than two million refugees have now fled into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Syrians are now the largest refugee population in the world. And more families continue to flee every day.

ADVERTISEMENT
Those fleeing Syria may escape immediate death at the hands of government or rebel forces, but they face a continuing challenge of survival. Threats still loom large in the form of measles, malnutrition and deadly diarrheal diseases from the lack of safe water. Polio has made a comeback. Some girls are being forced into prostitution or married off very young just to survive. Illegal child labor is common, with boys bearing the brunt of hard labor for abysmal pay. For millions of children, there is no education or a place they can feel safe. The trauma of displacement remains an open wound.

In such a dismal situation, can any foreign policy make a difference for these children and their families? The answer is yes. There are legitimate debates about the right mix of diplomatic and military pressure. But all can agree that humanitarian aid must be a vital part of our response. Our aid is meeting immediate human needs, and it is also helping to stabilize the fragile countries in the region as they share their limited resources with their neighbors. 

Jordan, where over half a million refugees have fled, and already facing one of the worst water scarcity situations in the world, is poised on the edge of a catastrophe with groundwater extraction three times the rate of recharge. As detailed in a new Mercy Corps report, Jordan faces a water crisis compounded by the influx of refugees who are settling in Jordan’s cities and towns. Conflicts over water can quickly lead to violence.

In response, relief groups are providing loans so families can purchase simple water-harvesting cisterns. It’s helping ease host-refugee tensions and changing water-usage habits. The project provides grants to schools and other public buildings, so they also benefit from water collection and conservation. USAID funding of ongoing water security work is critical to Jordan’s stability as well as meeting the needs of refugees flooding the country.

At $6.5 billion, the worldwide UN appeal for the Syrian crisis (both inside and outside Syria) is the largest in its history. The United States has been generous, providing $1.7 billion in humanitarian aid to help refugees and people internally displaced inside Syria. Private donors have provided millions more. As the Fiscal Year 2015 budget debate gets underway in Washington, there is rising concern among humanitarian aid experts that the President’s proposed 25 percent decrease for humanitarian aid in FY15 could put hard won progress in jeopardy.

Effective U.S. foreign policy has always been a balance between defense, diplomacy and development. Now is not the time to pull back. The United States needs to use its influence to help resolve the crisis. And in the meantime we need to do all we can through both public and private aid, to save lives and alleviate the horrific human suffering that rightly shocks us all.  President Obama should use his bully pulpit and our good example to encourage other nations to do more, as well.

The faces of children victimized by war are something Americans and the world can never neglect nor forget, for the sake of those victimized and for our own sake. Children are resilient, but without the right care at this critical time in their short lives, many children will know only violence as a means of survival. Given the very large scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, the world could wind up with an emotionally unstable and uneducated population prone to aggression as a means of coping.

The United States is a country blessed with stability and peace, innovation and compassion. Access to trauma care, education and a safe glass of water is foreign policy that works. Let’s all give generously, and encourage our government to do its part.

Carey is vice president of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. Before joining the NAE, he was a 26-year veteran of World Relief, the humanitarian aid and development arm of the NAE.

More in Foreign Policy

Giving Iran too much to lose

Read more »