As the number of Syrian refugees climbs rapidly beyond 1 million, the need for increased funding to address the crisis is obvious, but the motivation for nations to actually provide those funds is not. The United Nation’s relief plan requests just over a billion dollars to fund its operations from January 2013 to June 2013, and a variety of donors pledged to meet those needs. Yet somehow, the latest report on the inter-agency regional response cites an $800 million shortfall in the promised funds thus far, rendering the United Nations and its partner organizations incapable of meeting the basic needs of the refugees, who are dispersed across Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.
From afar, this lack of funding seems like an obvious choice on the part of the potential donor nations. But the world is still in a global recession, and losing valuable taxpayer dollars to foreign aid is simply impractical. Spending money abroad during an economic slump at home is never a popular decision. Yet the political ramifications of humanitarian aid are impossible to deny, and they must come to the forefront of the world’s consciousness when addressing the issue of the Syrian refugees. By providing aid to refugees who have fled beyond the borders of Syria, donor nations can actually promote the cause of the opposition and hasten the fall of the Assad regime.
This is because the refugees are, in essence, a part of the opposition movement. From its onset, the Syrian opposition has made little distinction between its soldiers and the civilians they are fighting for. Although the organization of the Free Syrian Army is becoming more formalized, the force remains focused on guerilla tactics that rely heavily on the support of local communities. The strength of this continued link between the armed resistance and the Syrian civilians amplifies the political impact of humanitarian aid.
Those who remain in Syria are of course closer to the front lines of the conflict and more directly involved in the opposition efforts, but humanitarian aid can be delivered more efficiently and more effectively in Syria’s neighboring countries than inside the nation itself. Such external aid will be felt inside Syria, serving to delegitimize the Assad regime in a way that the international community currently cannot achieve through aid to internally displaced refugees alone.
This is due in large part to the United Nations’ continued recognition of the Assad regime, maintained almost entirely by Russia’s obstinate support for the dictator. Because the United Nations still officially recognizes the Assad regime, the United Nations and all of its dozens of partner organizations are essentially immobilized within Syria. They are required by international law to administer all internal aid through official channels. The money from foreign donors must pass through Damascus before reaching those for whom it is intended. Accordingly, most humanitarian aid inside Syria goes to regions still controlled by Assad, leaving the opposition-held areas bereft of support.
It is no coincidence that these opposition-held areas are the regions in which the most violence has occurred and the most aid is needed. Though Assad-controlled regions are still experiencing critical food supply challenges and medical issues, the practice of providing humanitarian aid provided to those areas alone deemphasizes the regime’s failure to provide basic services to Syrian citizens. In addition, any perception that such aid stems from the capitol legitimizes the regime and eventually serves to prolong the conflict.
Syrian refugees outside Syria also have a huge impact on the opposition’s ongoing effort to formalize and define its organization and ideology. Though a vast array of groups oppose Assad, history has proven that a strong anti-establishment sentiment is nowhere near enough to guarantee that a stable government emerges from the conflict. The refugee camps have become a fertile recruiting ground for splinters of the opposition movement looking to increase their clout. As humanitarian studies scholar Hugo Slim notes, “insurgents, counter-insurgents and liberal [humanitarian] agencies” all similarly “claim to know what is best for the people and seek to improve their lives accordingly.” Because worse conditions increase dissatisfaction with the current tilt of the opposition, increased humanitarian aid would undermine such splinter groups and facilitate the opposition’s solidification.
For the United States and its allies, any whispers of Islamic extremism in the refugee camps brings the Syrian conflict into the scope of the war on terrorism, making Syria less of a nation struggling for freedom and democracy and more of a breeding ground for terrorists. The counter-insurgency mentality of the Coalition nations that entered Iraq in 2003 is not so different from the liberal values held by the UN organizations and NGOs conducting humanitarian aid. Haunted by the long and costly years in Iraq, the United States is unlikely to take any direct ground action in Syria, and it has instead delivered more funds for humanitarian aid than any other nation to date. Though recent military training and supply initiatives have indicated that the United States is departing from its initial humanitarian focus, it is still expected that the international community will refrain from sending troops to Syria.
This is a stark contrast to the recent revolution in Libya, which was ended by a NATO-led military intervention in support of the opposition movement. The Arab Spring uprising against the Qaddafi regime and the ensuing turmoil caused a refugee crisis that can serve to clarify the need for external aid to Syria. According to the United Nations, the Libyan revolution spurred the movement of over 550,000 internally displaced refugees and around 750,000 externally displaced refugees over the course of 2011. As in Syria, the existing regime was careful to allow humanitarian groups access to only the areas under its control, leading the self-assessment of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of UN actions in Libya to specify that the “lack of access to conflict-affected areas, as well as the need to manage operations remotely from Tunisia, led to some delays in the humanitarian response.” Because the Syrian civil war has already dragged on for years longer than the Libyan revolution, the roots of such “delays” in the humanitarian response in Syrian opposition-held area are far more difficult to overcome.
The assumption that a full-scale military intervention is off the table has fundamentally changed the nature of the international response to Syria. If the situation is interpreted through the United Nations’ doctrine about the “responsibility to protect” the world against mass atrocity crimes, such military intervention should be the international community’s last resort. Yet in Syria, the weapons and allies available to the Assad regime mean that military intervention is not under consideration. With the international community acknowledging that there are binding limits on the extent to which it will aid the Syrian populace, there is less urgency to provide even humanitarian aid. This disregard of the “responsibility to protect” policy once again proves the limits on the United Nations’ power to actually guide the actions of sovereign states.
If potential donor nations direct their efforts to Syria’s neighbors, their funds will have a political impact not just in Syria but also in the rest of the region. Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey stand out as particularly crucial recipients of international aid. With over a million registered refugees flooding refugee camps and urban areas alike, these host nations have long called for the international community to support them. In a region perpetually labeled “unstable” and “volatile,” the rest of the world must recognize that the burden of hosting refugees is especially worrisome.
Jordan feels the strain of hosting about one-third of the Syrian refugees. A recent analysis from Chatham House emphasizes that as “a poor country relying heavily on money from the [United States] and the Gulf [states] to balance its budget, Jordan is worried about the economic impact of the refugee crisis.” Its infrastructure is barely able to keep up with the increased demand for everything from classrooms to waste management. Though Jordan often plays host to refugees from its conflict-ridden neighbors, the plight of the Syrians is more serious and more contentious than that of the Palestinians. Conditions in places such as the Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan are at times so bad that riots have broken out and aid workers have been attacked. Though King Abdullah II of Jordan has remained popular throughout the Arab Spring and looks likely to remain so, Jordan’s status as one of the most steadily developing oil-free Arab nations is at stake.
Lebanon is perhaps the most strained by the burden of hosting refugees. As of March 2013, Lebanon’s population had increased by ten percent due to Syrian refugees alone. The scale of the crisis has lead to ramifications beyond there strain on infrastructure felt in Jordan. With the influx of aid money, however insufficient, the economy has experienced a spike in inflation and a fall in wages. Lebanese citizens have long since begun to resent the Syrian refugees, noting that all aid previously devoted to helping Lebanese citizens is now directed solely towards Syrians. A recent study by Development Management International found that the major concerns for “Lebanese households burdened by Syrian refugees are related to decreased space available to Lebanese, increased household expenditure on food and non-food items and the minimal space left to allow for segregation between sexes.” Last year, this frustration turned into violence in several clashes between groups divided by in large part by their support of Assad, conflicts that were often declared a “spillover” of the Syrian conflict. With such clashes continuing sporadically, the sectarian tension that is always present in Lebanon is likely to worsen as the refugee crises continues.
Turkey, a far wealthier nation than either Jordan or Lebanon, is facing very different stakes than its neighbors. Initially able to fund much of its aid to Syrian refugees without international support, Turkey’s humanitarian efforts were lead by Turkish organizations in a display of national competency. However, a nation that has worked since its inception to shove religion and ethnicity outside the realm of politics cannot long remain aloof of the impact of tens of thousands of highly politicized refugees. For example, the influx of Syrians has meant an influx of members of the militant Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), threatening the Turkish government’s recent attempt at peace talks with the Turkish PKK to end decades of violence. As Turkish citizens become more and more aware frustrated with the refugee crisis and begin to take their opinions on Syria to the voting booths, Turkey’s proud secular tradition will come into conflict with its citizens’ views on Syria.
Because the political impact of humanitarian aid is much less obvious than the impact of armed soldiers, garnering domestic support for humanitarian aid is a different game entirely for the leaders of potential donor nations. The paths by which humanitarian aid will both promote the opposition and stabilize the region can be clarified and emphasized in order to spur greater international support for externally displaced refugees.
Humanitarian aid is never merely humanitarian. Potential donor nations must recognize that the long-term returns to their investment in the fall of the Assad regime far outweigh the dollar value of providing foreign aid. Though there exists a moral imperative to provide aid for all refugees, aid must currently be directed towards the crisis of the masses of refugees outside Syria for greatest impact.