Dems urge improved humanitarian aid to Syrian conflict victims

A group of House Democrats is urging the White House to boost the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria ahead of expected U.S. military operations against the regime of Bashar Assad.

In a letter sent Tuesday to national security adviser Susan Rice, the Democrats argue that the sheer number of people affected by Syria's civil war – combined with the restrictions Assad has imposed on aid groups – has limited the effectiveness of the humanitarian assistance currently being provided on the ground.

The United States, they added, has both a moral duty and a strategic incentive to develop a more efficient system for helping the tens of thousands of victims of the long-running conflict.

"It is clear that millions of Syrians are in need of immediate assistance, and that more must be done to help Syrian IDPs [internally displaced persons]," the Democrats wrote. "Expanding the provision of aid inside Syria can help people remain safely in their communities, but greater coordination and support are needed."

Spearheaded by Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), the letter is signed by 21 other House Democrats, including veteran Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), Jim Moran (Va.), Keith Ellison (Minn.) and Bill Pascrell (N.J.).

The lawmakers want Rice to work with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) "to establish training, capacity building, and aid delivery partnerships with Syrian relief organizations in order to expand their operations."

"They are losing confidence and, importantly, there is a real danger that this waning confidence could hinder our ability to create the types of high-trust partnerships with Syrian humanitarian actors that are necessary to provide aid to those who need it most," the lawmakers warned.

The Democrats also want the Obama administration to grant increased funding to Syrian aid groups and spearhead the coordination of international donations with the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), a nonpartisan wing of the opposition forces.

"The ACU has the potential to become the effective coordinating body that Syrian aid groups and large international NGOs need, but it must take steps to engage them," the lawmakers wrote.

The Syrian conflict, pitting rebel fighters against Assad's military forces, has been raging for more than three years, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing many thousands more.

The Obama administration has long warned Assad about "red lines" surrounding attacks on civilians, and those lines seem to have been crossed after last week's alleged poison gas attack that rebels say killed more than 1,300 people.

Characterizing that attack as a "moral obscenity," Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the regime's use of chemical weapons is "undeniable," and hinted that a response from the U.S. military is imminent.

"Make no mistake, President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people," Kerry said. "Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that U.S. troops are “ready to go.”