By Annika Lichtenbaum
Recent political tumult in Syria, resolving in the withdrawal of U.S. and British aid to the armed opposition, continues to display a preference, in both US policy and media coverage, to deal with political actors rather than addressing humanitarian needs. To recap the relevant context: recent weeks have not been good for the formal elements of the Syrian opposition. As the result of increasing fragmentation amongst rebel groups, the moderate opposition’s power relative to more extremist factions has sharply declined. Most recently, this power struggle enabled the Islamic Front to take over several offices of the Supreme Military Council, which coordinates Western aid to the Syrian opposition. Faced with the loss of his headquarters, as well as the seizure of several warehouses storing U.S. military equipment intended for use by moderate rebels, General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has reportedly fled to Turkey (Idris denies this characterization of events). This rise in the Islamists’ fortunes shocked the opposition’s Western supporters in the U.S., the U.K., and other nations, leading them to cut off non-lethal military assistance to the Syrian opposition.
The withdrawal of American and British assistance to the armed opposition has made the prospects of the upcoming (Jan. 22) Geneva II conference even more uncertain from the opposition’s perspective. The opposition groups are in a weaker position relative to government forces, which will make the Assad regime less likely to entertain the possibility of a political transition. However, as much as the aid cutoff could damage the opposition’s chances at the negotiating table, the issue of the opposition’s legitimacy is not the most pressing one. It is clear that an already wayward and inconsistent policy in Syria will continue to change. But a much more immediate concern is the state of the living conditions in Syria and the surrounding countries.
As winter arrives in the Middle East and an unprecedented snowfall hits Syria and neighboring countries, the U.S. and the international community need to focus their attention on the plight of the Syrian people. First, the cutoff in aid from the armed opposition will not only have ramifications for the Syrian opposition as a formal political group, but for the members of opposition themselves. The nonlethal military aid provided by the U.S. includes food and medical kits for FSA fighters, and the halt of these supplies will have disastrous consequences for the moderate rebels’ living conditions during the harsh winter months.
Furthermore, though the White House has claimed that humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people will not be affected by the suspension of aid (because it is distributed through international and non-governmental organizations), the fact remains that the Syrian people are still facing the worst living conditions of the conflict so far. The question is not whether this type of aid will be suspended, but rather, if military aid has been cut off, why are more resources not being allocated towards alleviating the humanitarian crisis?
It is not enough that there has been an outbreak of polio in Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, and Damascus, the result of the Syrian government’s withholding polio vaccination from rebel-held areas. As the weather grows colder, material goods like medical supplies, bread, blankets, and other types of fuel are in very short supply. Children have already died of the cold in several areas in Syria, where people have resorted to the dangerous practice of burning crude oil to keep warm. And these conditions do not even touch those of refugee camps, where icicles cover the makeshift tents that house whole families of Syrians. In the informal settlements in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, a recent blizzard has made life even harder than usual for Syrians, especially when international aid packages arrive irregularly. All in all, the conditions during this very cold winter are unacceptable, and the worsening conditions have not yet been met by a sense of urgency from the international community.
This is not to say that international organizations are completely disregarding the plight of the Syrians. After all, the U.N. recently sent a humanitarian aid shipment into Syria from Iraq, and plans to send more in the coming days. However, weather conditions, as well as infighting between factions on the ground in Syria, have delayed the delivery of such shipments. Furthermore, the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission places has remained discouragingly low, though efforts of this kind are the most significant way in which foreign countries can show support for suffering refugees.
It all comes down to the distressing fact that the international community is not doing its part on behalf of Syria’s beleaguered non-combatants. The U.N. recently announced an appeal for $6.5 billion in humanitarian aid for the Syrian people for the coming year, with about a third intended to benefit the population within Syria and two-thirds for refugees outside the country. However, given that the same U.N. appeal for 2013 went only 64% funded, the chances that the Syrian population will receive the necessary aid are slim. Additionally, in the wake of the Syrian regime’s decision to relinquish its chemical weapons, many international donors have cut back on their aid to the Syrian people. In fact, the countries that had been pushing for increased military action in Syria (for example, France and the U.K.) are now some of the least willing to provide humanitarian aid.
International actors must resolve to develop both short- and long-term solutions to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the surrounding countries. In the coming weeks, it is imperative that the international community step up its aid provision to Syrians in need, whether by funding the transport and allocation of material goods, or by offering asylum for displaced Syrians. These steps are necessary in order to prevent the suffering and deaths of countless Syrian people, especially children, through the long winter ahead. In the long term, donor countries need to focus their efforts on the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, in which the pressures of hosting refugees have caused economic and social problems that, in turn, adversely affect those they are trying to accommodate. There are many proposals already on the table for such structural chances in assistance. In the end, the rise of Islamic extremists has boxed in U.S. policy-makers, who are wringing their hands balancing fear of terror against the well-known brutal proclivities of the Assad regime. However, regardless of U.S. policy, political outcomes must not obscure a totally incomprehensible lack of commitment to solely humanitarian ends. Americans of all political stripes must agree that we owe Syria’s civilians more than this.