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US should focus aid on Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees rested after crossing into Jordanian territory with their families on Feb. 18.
Syrian refugees rested after crossing into Jordanian territory with their families on Feb. 18.REUTERS

There is no longer one Syria. There are two: The war-torn lands within Syria’s physical borders, and a second one represented by its refugees scattered throughout the Middle East. The exclusive focus on the how much and what kind of aid the United States gives to the Syrian rebels — and on whether they will win their war against President Bashar Assad — is a dangerous fixation. Even a victory by rebels would be followed by years of turmoil.

But the United States can help the other Syria now. The numbers of people who have fled to neighboring countries can no longer be sustained, and keeping them safe will pay dividends long after the war in Syria is over.

During his first international trip as secretary of state last week, John Kerry promised to increase aid to the Syrian opposition. While it is the first public acknowledgment of tangible assistance, it is far short of what the rebels wanted. The aid — in the form of medical aid, body armor, and ready meals — will not satisfy the administration's critics who seek greater American involvement in the war.


Meanwhile, all those refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon present as great a threat to long-term peace in the region as the current war itself.

During my visits to the Middle East and North Africa over the last two years, it seemed countries in those regions could continue to absorb Syrian refugees for some time. But we may now be at a tipping point, when crises overcome the hosts' capacity to manage. The massive migration from Syria, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is now happening at such a rate that nearly 40,000 Syrians a week are leaving the country. And the war for Damascus has not even begun.

The UN's worst-case scenario envisions a million people out of Syria by June. Many in the international community now believe that number is too low. The camps are deluged, promised aid is slow to come, and aid workers are already too overburdened even to arrange proper water and hygiene.

These nations do not have to let Syrians in. Lebanon's interior minister raised fears Thursday that his country will just close its doors when he argued that many of the refugees may in fact be rebel fighters. This is a cry for help: Lebanon is trying to manage over 300,000 refugees who arrived just in the last three months.


Lebanon didn't want to be in this position to begin with. Its desire to placate Syria and Iran, who support Hezbollah there, made it first want to ignore what was occurring at its border. Plus, memories of a 15-year civil war triggered by the Palestinian exodus from Israel made the Lebanese wary of even setting up camps this time. Now, the refugees, streaming into once-quiet towns, are taxing resources and goodwill in a country without much margin for error. Hundreds of millions in promised aid has barely trickled in.

It's easy to say the status quo in Syria is awful and requires more American intervention. But after two wars and a Middle East still in search of a balance, we have reason to stick to fighting proxy wars and keeping any real support covert. Assad will fight till the end, and the rebels may or may not coalesce after the war ends.

But everyone will be better off in the interim if the United States can help keep Syrian refugees from destabilizing the region. That means steering our humanitarian assistance towards temporary relief, providing public safety and emergency resources to the host nations, and enforcing promises made by Arab neighbors and the international community to provide financial support for the refugees. These steps provide a way for today's two Syrias to become one in the future.


For now, Assad is not moving. Russia and Iran, his allies, are not moving. Given these facts, United States policy is not likely to move much either. But the Syrian people are. We have spent far too much time debating the war. It is time to prioritize the other Syria.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.