As the United States weighs missile strikes against Syria, nearly 5,000 people are fleeing that country each day. Indeed, as of this week, more than 2 million Syrians have abandoned their homeland, and another 4 million are displaced internally by the civil war, now in its third year, according to the United Nations. It’s a mounting crisis for the Middle East, to be sure, but it’s also an opportunity for the United States to save the lives of Syrian civilians regardless of whether Congress authorizes military action.
To date, American non-military aid in the Syrian conflict has been slow to arrive. Top officials from neighboring nations harboring refugees — more than half of whom are children — say they badly need outside help to care for those fleeing the violence. “Syria is hemorrhaging women, children, and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs,” the UN report, released on Sept. 3, said.
Consider that the Zaatari Refugee Camp, in the Jordanian desert near the Syrian border, didn’t exist a year ago. Today, it alone houses more than 120,000 people living in tents, making it one of Jordan’s largest cities. In Lebanon and northern Iraq, refugees are flooding into tiny rural villages. Everywhere, conditions are brutal for the displaced, and amid this suffering, these settlements are quickly becoming recruitment grounds for armed groups.
The United States has been sending hundreds of millions of dollars annually in relief; the United Nations says it needs billions to provide basic services and protection. The Obama administration should step up its humanitarian aid and encourage other Western allies to do the same.
Inside Syria, in consideration of possible future use of chemical weapons, the United States needs to distribute gas masks and medical antidotes to help treat the wounded, both now in short supply in opposition-held areas. In the aftermath of the attack that left more than 1,300 dead and more than 3,000 injured in East Ghouta and other Damascus suburbs, rebel leaders expressed frustration that more than a year of requests to the US government for such chemical-weapons protection gear had gone unanswered out of fear the equipment could get into the wrong hands. But the Assad regime has gas masks, reportedly supplied by North Korea, and last week also saw Israelis scrambling for government-issued kits. Now it’s Syrian civilians alone who don’t have this protection, and US resistance is no longer tenable.
Once the fighting ends, the United States can help build a more stable Syria through a pledge to investigate and prosecute any criminal acts being committed today. Until then, however, the chance to relieve immediate suffering without military intervention shouldn’t be neglected.