The human cost of the Syrian civil war could soon engulf the entire region.
On the first day of Ramadan, Ziad, 31, had a lot to be thankful for. Despite being in a Za’atri refugee camp, where he worked as a door guard, the father of three was grateful to celebrate with his family. Last year, he couldn’t; he was in prison. As retold by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Ziad would grow emotional realizing he couldn’t buy his kids gifts and having to tell them, “I can’t, the door is locked” every time his kids would ask when he was coming home.
“It’s like death” Ziad told an interviewer as the television behind him showed images of his home village being bombed. “My parents and all my brothers and sisters are still in Syria. “Every day my son Tarek prays with me.” Driven by fears for his growing family, Ziad stays in the crowded, uncomfortable refugee camp and denies every impulse to go home and fight.
In Lebanon, more than a fifth of the nation’s population are Syrians, more than 600,000 of which are officially recognized as refugees. More than 10,000 Syrians enter the small nation every day. The UNHCR recognizes that nearly 500,000 refugees have fled to Turkey, almost 200,000 to Iraq, more than 500,000 to Jordan and more than 100,000 to Egypt. It is now estimated that more than two million Syrians — nearly one-tenth of the nation’s estimated 2013 population — have fled the nation, more than half being under the age of 11.
“If one looks at the recent escalation of the conflict, what is appalling is that the first million fled Syria during two years,” said Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “The second million fled Syria in six months. We have now about one-third of the Syrian population that is displaced either inside or outside the country. And, almost half of the Syrian population that is in need of assistance again either outside or inside the country.”
The UNHCR’s numbers must be taken alongside the estimated several hundred thousand that have left Syria through unofficial channels and therefore are uncounted on official tallies — as well as the more than four million currently displaced inside Syria.
In total, this represents a situation in which one in every three Syrians are directly in distress due to the ongoing civil war. Should the United States’ allegations that the Assad regime has indeed used chemical weapons on civilians prove true, the numbers could be much worse.
A recent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report claims that 110,371 people have died in the Syrian civil war since it began in March 2011 — including at least 40,146 civilians, nearly 4,000 women, more than 5,800 children, more than 50 professional journalists and more than 45 citizen journalists.
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” continued Guterres.
On August 7, the President Obama announced an additional $195 million in refugee aid, putting the total aid the United States is providing at more than a billion dollars. This assistance, however, seems diametrically opposed to the president’s call for military intervention in Syria, which many argue will only add to the Syrian people’s misery.
Many observers fear that the White House has placed itself in a no-win situation in regard to Syria. On one hand, intervening in Syria could trigger regional war. Hezbollah has already indicated that it will attack Israel if Syria is attacked. Russia — a staunch backer of the Syrian government — has place their missile defense system on high alert in response to an Israeli-U.S. test launch in the Mediterranean pointed in the direction of the Russian border. Some of Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors — namely Turkey, Jordan and Israel — have indicated they are ready to have the Assad regime removed. The situation in the region is highly volatile, and a spark — say, the U.S. conducting a strike against Syria — could be all it take for the situation to explode.
On the other hand, should it be confirmed that the Assad government used chemical weapons on large scale and the United States fails to adequately respond, this may weaken the United States’ policy of posturing against Iran. One of the key strategies the U.S. administration employs to prevent Iran from escalating what it alleges to be a nuclear weapons program is the notion that the crossing of a “red line” will trigger an immediate response from the United States. If it is proven that the United States’ threat in Syria is nothing more than rhetoric, its similar rhetoric on other fronts will appear empty.
This is compounded by the fact that the United States has an integrity problem. The last time America alleged that a Middle Eastern nation had weapons of mass destruction, not only did the allegation turn out to be false, but a government was toppled, its leadership was executed, the country was catastrophically destabilized through the present day and the United States nearly went bankrupt and momentarily defaulted on its debt as a result. The American people, the international community and perhaps a plurality in U.S. congress appear unified in its opposition to the White House’s military intervention plan, with the confirmed large-scale use of chemical weapons being the only factor that may allow for some agreement with the president’s plan.
A leaderless team
But in this lies the dilemma. To stop the Syrian people’s continuing suffering, Syria must be stabilized. To stabilize Syria, a new, responsive government must be installed, and to do that, the old government must first be dislodged. Without the United States leading the international community on this issue, the community is rudderless and adrift. In determining how to deal with this situation, the international community appears to have no workable ideas.
“Our problem is not being unable to discuss these things in the international community — it is being unable to agree how we bring about a transitional government in Syria, formed from government and opposition by mutual consent,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “There is no shortage of venues for discussing those things, platforms for discussing those things — we have had two and a half years of discussion on this. It is agreement that is elusive, not a forum for discussion.”
As the international community weighs its options, the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate. Even with the U.S. being the largest source of aid, and with England promising to match or exceed U.S. efforts, much of the international community — including Russia and China — have offered little in the way of support to refugees. Without some form of major relief, the human cost of the Syrian civil war may engulf the entire region.
“1 year ago: 230,000 Syrian refugees,” tweeted Hague. “Today: 2,000,000. 1/2 children. If we don’t end the conflict, think what the figure could be next year.”