For years, aid groups have been trying to draw international attention to the dire humanitarian crisis in Syria. Now, the Trump administration is using the crisis in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta to justify potential military action. This approach is deeply problematic because it challenges the very foundation of the international humanitarian system.
Politicizing humanitarian aid to justify a strike on Syria would forever undermine the perception of humanitarian organizations as neutral, risking the lives of aid workers and limiting the future access of aid organizations to conflicts around the world.
When that resolution was predictably ignored, an aid convoy heroically endured continued shelling, finally reaching the besieged suburb of Damascus on March 5. However, the Assad regime’s attacks continued so intensely that the convoy was forced to turn around and leave Eastern Ghouta nine hours later without delivering all of its aid.
Understandably frustrated by this abysmal outcome, U.S. Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyUS rejoins UN Human Rights Council, reversing Trump exit Smarkets betting site makes Trump favorite in 2024 Nikki Haley gets lifetime post on Clemson Board of Trustees MORE this week blamed the convoy’s failure on the cruelty of the Syrian and Russian governments. Invoking U.S. airstrikes ordered by President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE last April following one of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks on civilians, Haley’s message was clear: “The United States remains prepared to act if we must.”
But Haley and the rest of the Trump administration should think very carefully about how they are setting up potential military strikes on the Assad regime. The only reason that any aid organizations are currently able to operate in Syria is because Bashar Assad does not see them as a threat to his power.
Organizations like the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders were founded around a core set of values, often referred to as “dunantist” after Henry Dunant, who played a key role in the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Neutrality, impartiality and independence were seen as essential to the alleviation of human suffering.
Organizations that hold these values do not take sides in a conflict, treating both civilians and belligerents regardless of their political allegiance. They operate impartially, offering aid to those who need it the most, not just those who share their skin color or religion. As a result, they are seen by both governments and aid recipients as independent of the broader political processes associated with a conflict.
If the Trump administration appropriates the actions of these groups to justify military intervention, it will no doubt give other dictators and human rights abusers pause when considering whether to allow humanitarian aid to come into conflict zones. The resulting contraction of humanitarian space would cost countless lives.
This shift in justification would also have serious implications for the U.S. position on Yemen, a country faced with what the United Nations has declared the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Saudi Arabia repeatedly restricted humanitarian access in Yemen through its control of the country’s ports, before offering a $1.5 billion pledge of humanitarian assistance in January. The United States is clearly not prepared to act militarily to protect humanitarian assistance in Yemen, nor in the many other conflicts around the world where innocent civilians are suffering.
The Trump administration should not use humanitarianism to justify military action in Syria, and it does not have to. The Syrian regime has already provided more than enough reasons to act, including the continuing use of chemical weapons against the civilian population. Until Haley’s statement this week, the administration remained focused on Assad’s chemical weapons use. That message is compelling enough without jeopardizing the future of humanitarian aid.
Jessica Trisko Darden, Ph.D., is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an assistant professor of international affairs at American University. You can follow her on Twitter @TriskoDarden.