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Pay attention to Syria or pay a price

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‘Tis the season to think about our soldiers hunkered down in hard places, like Syria, which many of us have placed in our global rear-view mirror.

The Pentagon has confirmed and condemned a rocket attack that targeted an American base in northeast Syria last week. Although there were no casualties, this is likely not the end of a cycle of violence in a country torn apart by civil war.

The civil war in Syria, once a place Americans cared about, has killed nearly half a million people and fragmented the country, leaving 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

While we have been focused on NATO in Europe, Turkey, a neighbor of Syria, has bombed the north of that country under the guise of protecting Syrians from Kurdish terrorism. It is a poor rationale for a power grab by the Turks in a region that is home to oil installations and coalition forces.

The recent Turkish strike occurred close to a coalition base where U.S. Special Operations forces train. (The U.S. has roughly 900 soldiers in Syria supporting the local Syrian Democratic Forces.) Near the site of the strike is a prison for ISIS fighters, and scores of refugee camps with families and children dot the country.

Why should we pay attention to Syria now? Because military strikes often lead to full scale conflict, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already threatening a land offensive in Syria to secure a “security corridor” against Kurdish militants. Conflict is costly.

Beyond the region’s geopolitics, generous Americans should think in this holiday season about ordinary citizens in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

The United Nations estimates that 6 million Syrians are at risk this winter. Aid to Syria is vital but just one of many steps the international community must take immediately.

The United Nations Security Council must renew the cross-border resolution that allows organizations to deliver aid from Turkey into opposition-controlled northwest Syria.

The resolution is an essential lifeline to get aid into the most critical parts of the country. But Russia has been demanding “proof of progress” from the aid being delivered. And China has at times also made cross-border aid difficult to carry out by threatening to close crossings.

While stakeholders are hoping for a “technical rollover” to extend the resolution, that is not certain, and even with that rollover there is an anticipated gap of a few weeks early next year when the border will be sealed off, and all aid will be closed. 

Russia continues to dog America. Many believe Moscow is preparing to torpedo the UN resolution by refusing to pass it as a way of pointing out to other nations the risks of supporting Ukraine. We could be looking at the cessation of any cross-border aid in the next several months to a year or so, which would have catastrophic implications for this besieged population. 

Planning is also critical. Developing countries must look ahead to the impact of conflicts before they escalate. In Syria, priority should be given to stabilizing the water systems, scaling up food distribution centers and finding homes for displaced Syrians.

What we are learning from Ukraine is not to wait until full-scale war begins before addressing migration and the challenges of hosting refugees in the short and long term. In the case of Syria, there needs to be a quality asylum space in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, which has its own economic and political difficulties.

The United Nations World Food Program is boosting its food programs in Lebanon, which not only hosts Palestinian and Syrian refugees but is struggling to feed one-third of its own population.

The Syrian nightmare is happening against the backdrop of an unprecedented two-year drought in the Middle East and economic failure that could trigger famine, outbreaks of cholera and other diseases that travel around the globe. 

Funding for overseas conflicts is getting harder to sustain with a divided American Congress already talking about cuts for overseas assistance and increased scrutiny over spending in Ukraine. 

Lastly, we need good public messaging strategies to rebuild American support for Syria, and for extending our democratic values even when we continue to debate our own. By now we should all know that wars are rarely limited to the regions in which they occur.

We live in a global community — for better or for worse. We may be tired of Ukraine, in its ninth month of war against Russia, but 2023 is full of potential flashpoints in the Middle East and elsewhere. We need to plan ahead.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags NATO Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Russia Russia-Ukraine war Syria Syrian Civil War Syrian civil war Syrian refugees Ukraine United Nations United Nations Security Council United States

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