President Barack Obama’s Syria policy is in the doldrums. Adrift in a sea of sectarian conflict and buffeted by savvier global and regional players, US policy has never seemed more rudderless. With a second round of peace talks in Geneva ending without “even agreement on how to negotiate,” President Obama has asked his top aides to reconsider his options. The United States desperately needs to chart a new course in Syria, but Washington is poring over the same old maps.
There is one neglected dimension of the Syria crisis, however, where the United States could have an immediate and positive impact: refugees. After three years of relentless conflict and over 6 million displaced, the moral case for aiding what is soon to become the world’s largest refugee population has never been more compelling. President Obama and Congress should be equally concerned about the long-term strategic implications of this humanitarian tragedy.Washington fails to realize that developing a comprehensive plan to aid Syria’s refugees would do more to advance US interests in the region than any of the other policy options under consideration.
Let’s examine the alternatives. More negotiations? The prospects for peace in Syria are worse than ever. After two failed summits in Geneva, diplomacy has only strengthened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hand. Bolstered by Russian and Iranian support, Assad is beating the rebels on the ground and committing war crimes with impunity. Well-documented evidence of chemical weapons attacks on civilians and industrial scale killing reminiscent of Nazi Germany have been met with little more than harsh words from the international community. After Geneva II, the regime resumed its ethnic cleansing, dropping “barrel bombs” on schools, hospitals, mosques, and bakeries. With so much blood on his hands, Assad has little incentive to make peace.
What about military aid to the rebels, or airstrikes? With the rise of brutal al-Qaeda affiliates within the opposition, direct military aid, particularly of the kind that would make an impact on the battlefield, now seems fraught with the risk of blowback. Force can sometimes achieve humanitarian ends—and arguably could have been used effectively at the beginning of the Syria conflict, as it was against Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia. A no-fly zone in Syria might still save many lives. Still, it would require a massive, US-led air campaign to knock out Syria’s sophisticated air defenses, and the Obama administration has time and again shied away from using force to prevent Assad’s forces from attacking civilians. At this point Assad and his patrons would likely see punitive airstrikes as a public relations stunt.
While Washington tries to stitch together a coherent policy from these threadbare options, Syrians continue to stream across the border. As the country disintegrates, Assad’s attacks on civilians intensify, and as vicious rebel groups such as ISIS gain sway, more and more Syrians will be forced to flee. In the coming year, the United Nations predicts that another 2 million Syrians will become refugees and 2.25 million more will be internally displaced; in the past few weeks hundreds of thousands have fled Aleppo alone. Beyond every statistic lies a life disrupted: the toddler found wandering alone in the Jordanian desert; the young wife forced into prostitution for her family’s survival.
These stories are heart-wrenching. But why does the suffering of Syria’s refugees implicate US strategic interests? Start with what has been the US foreign policy fixation for the past decade: terrorism. Extreme poverty and terrorism are inextricably linked. The logic is common sense and compelling; as a former US marine in special operations who founded an organization focused on eliminating extreme poverty put it: “A lack of choice leads to desperation. Desperate situations cause people to commit desperate acts.” Populations that lack the basic necessities of life, have had their social structures shattered, and—most significantly—have lost hope in the future, are vulnerable to extremist ideologies and coercion. Right now, it is difficult to imagine a more desperate place than a Syrian refugee camp.
The behavior of terrorists themselves provides compelling evidence for this connection. The Taliban fills its ranks from madrasas, schools that shelter orphans but indoctrinate them with an extremist interpretation of Islam. Hamas and Hezbollah, both US-designated foreign terrorist organizations, devote the majority of their resources to providing social, educational, and medical care to the communities that support them. Hamas, for example, focuses 90 percentof its organizational capacity on schools, soup kitchens, and medical clinics. This phenomenon is now occurring in Syria; in Aleppo, Jabatal-Nusra, a Syrian al-Qaeda offshoot that recently executed a fourteen year-old boy for blasphemy, held a family fair that combined ice cream eating contests and a tug-of-war with propaganda advocating jihad. How long before Syrian refugees, more than half of whomare under the age of eighteen, become a target for radicalization?
Washington should also be concerned about the destabilizing effect of refugeeson the world’s most volatile region. Even before the conflict in Syria erupted, the Middle East was already experiencing seismic political changes as a result of the Arab Spring.Neighboring countries are struggling to cope with Syria’s deluge of humanity. In Jordan, the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp is now the country’s fifth largest city by population. In Lebanon, which still bears the scars of a fifteen-year civil war, Syrian refugees have increased the country’s population by 25 percent. Without massive international assistance, the influx of Syrian refugees could upset Lebanon’s delicate political balance. The prospect of another failed state in the Middle East—and on Israel’s borders—should worry even the most cynical policymakers.
As long as the United States focuses on Syria’s stillborn peace process, it will remain an ineffectual bystander. Instead of another Geneva, the United States should take the lead in convening an international summit to develop a comprehensive solution to Syria’s refugee crisis. The recent Security Council resolution requiring both sides to permit humanitarian access to Syrian civilians demonstrates that these issues can provide a rare point of agreement among world powers. Regional allies such as Turkey, Israel, and Jordan should be engaged to strategize on health care, education, job training, and resettlement. In particular, the fate of Syria’s child refugees should be an international priority.
America’s greatest strength has always been its values, and the hope—for dignity, for freedom, for a better life—that they inspire. In focusing its diplomatic efforts on the fate of Syria’s refugees, the United States would be placing these values at the forefront of its Middle East policy. Such a policy shift has the potential to produce a much more positive outcome than fruitless peace negotiations or half-hearted military intervention. It could prevent the ideological seeds of terrorism from taking root in Syria’s vulnerable refugee communities and help neighboring states deal with the social and political impact of this tide of humanity. For the world’s indispensable nation, solving what the United Nations has called “the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times” is not only a moral imperative, but a strategic one as well.
J. Trevor Ulbrick is an attorney and consultant focusing on issues at the intersection of international law, foreign policy, and human rights. He has advised governments, tribunals, and civil society organizations throughout the MENA region.