What happened at the UN yesterday?
President Obama came to the General Assembly to talk about the national security challenges we face today and in particular the role of the United States in the conflict in Syria. In his speech, he highlighted what the media has often overlooked in the debate over military force – the humanitarian crisis on Syria’s borders and what the United States is already doing to help with the more than two million refugees that have fled into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. He announced the United States would commit an additional $340 million in humanitarian aid to deal with the refugee crisis.
We need to make sure that people understand the nature of the humanitarian and development side of this challenge, because when the conflict is resolved, people who’ve been displaced from their homes will need to be reintegrated, and their economies will need to be rebuilt. That’s the endgame for any real solution.
What’s happening and what has the United States done so far?
Over the past two years, millions of people in Syria have fled their homes and villages to escape the violence and fighting between the regime and opposition. Many have arrived into bordering countries with just the clothes on their backs and little resources to take care of themselves.
They’ve formed tent villages, which in many cases lack basic infrastructure like water and food supplies. And the numbers have grown steadily as the fighting continues. Did you know that the largest refugee camp in Jordan, Za’atari, now has as many people as the population of Hartford, Connecticut (where I was born)?
The United States has provided over $1 billion in assistance in the last year through USAID and the State Department, which are also partnering with humanitarian organizations to help feed people, provide medical assistance, and provide shelter for the millions of displaced people along the borders. The partners include some of our longest-standing and most respected NGOs, such as Save the Children, CARE, World Vision, Mercy Corps, The International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, and Catholic Relief Services, among others.
Why is the United States partnering with NGOs?
NGOs, many of whom receive donations from millions of Americans, bring expertise in dealing with these kinds of crisis situations and have people on the ground who are can be independent voices, calling attention to the true tragedy happening along these borders.
Save the Children, for example, recently released profiles of the untold atrocities happening to the children of Syria. These are the stories that get lost in the numbers and scale of the tragedy, and they remind people that we’re talking about the lives of children and families going through the most difficult of circumstances.
This sounds terrible, but aren’t we facing enough problems at home?
The question of whether we should help Americans at home or the needy abroad strikes me as a false choice. We can do both; we have to do both. Helping the neediest after disasters and the innocent in conflicts is one of the most basic expressions of America’s core values. There is always bipartisan support for American leadership in responding to disasters, whether we’re responding to an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in Japan, or a refugee crisis in Syria.
And we help those abroad not only out of charity or compassion, but also because it’s in our interest to do so. As the number of Syrian refugees has swollen, there are concerns that these camps are becoming havens for radicalism, with fighters going back and forth across the borders. This is creating a taxing drain on the countries along Syria’s borders and creating the risk of political instability in the region.
Can you imagine if some of the weak and fragile states along Syria’s borders collapsed? It would make an already terrible situation even worse. Lebanon is a fragile state. Iraq only recently has begun to emerge out of chaos and is still quite fragile. If Jordan, one of our closest allies, were to be overwhelmed by refugees, it would come at great cost to the region, and to our support for Israel as well.
How does this relate to “smart power”?
We live in a messy world with global threats that don’t respect national borders. It’s not the Cold War anymore where we worried about conflict between strong states, but a world in which weak and fragile states hold much of the danger. What Syria has shown is that we need to use all the tools of national security when engaging in a complex crisis.
This refugee situation is not the fault of those who are suffering, and it will surely create additional instability and additional risks for the United States if we simply stand by. Our engagement on the humanitarian side speaks to the character of the United States, and given the situation we face, it’s also clearly in our interests.