The Case of Syria

International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband delivered a commencement speech to the graduating students of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government on May 27, 2015.  Some of his remarks focused on the ongoing crisis in Syria and the consequences of an inadequate international response to the conflict. Please read an excerpt of his remarks below.

The most vivid, distressing and dangerous example of what I mean is in Syria. Syria is where all the problems, and the absence of solutions, of modern foreign policy come together – so much so that the human consequences are losing their capacity to shock.

No, the truly shocking aspect of what is happening in Syria is the extraordinary absence of a political process to seek to solve the problem. Or even any impetus towards a political process. Instead Syria is declining amid a desperate and dangerous silence; and its problems are being exported to its neighbors.

Let’s just recap the scale of the disaster I am referring to.

Since March 2011, when anti-government protests first erupted in Daraa, a small town in the south west of Syria, Syria has descended into hell. The conflict has claimed at least 260,000 lives – some estimates are double that – and left every second Syrian in need of humanitarian help.

Since 2011, 4 million people have fled Syria. This is the largest refugee population on earth after the Palestinians. There are 3 million Syrian children who have been robbed of their future because there is no school for them to go to.

The humanitarian disaster inside the country is not an unfortunate by-product of conflict; it is in the intended result of the strategy being pursued by the government of Syria, whose bombs killed seven of the people being served by IRC programs in Idlib last week.

Warring parties willfully disrupted the water and electrical supplies of more than 2 million people in the governorates of Aleppo and Daraa in February. More than half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed or seriously damaged and belligerents continue to murder medical personnel and seize surgical supplies.

The aid on offer is not keeping pace with the scale of the problem. Food, water, shelter, healthcare, safe sanitation and hygiene services are all desperately needed. But they are not arriving in the quantities required. Almost half way through 2015, this year’s UN appeal for Syria is only 19 percent funded.

The burden on Syria’s neighbors is too great for them to bear. Turkey has become the biggest refugee-hosting country in the world. One in four of the population of Lebanon is now a Syrian and the number of school-age refugees outstrips the entire intake of the country’s public school system. In Jordan, tens of thousands of families live below the absolutely poverty line: rent accounts for more than half of refugees’ monthly outlay, forcing parents to send their children out to work long hours for meager pay.

Some things are complicated and you can understand why they are not done, but others are relatively simple, and when they are not done, it is closer to a crime than a tragedy.

  • We know over 300,000 Syrian kids in Lebanon are getting no education.
  • We know over 2,000,000 Syrian women in neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq are struggling to make ends meet.
  • And we know that western countries have been extraordinarily reluctant to admit the most vulnerable Syrians as refugees. The US figure, traditionally the most generous country as measured by refugee admission, is 842. Germany, to be fair, has committed to resettle 30,000.

If I had stood here four years ago and said that in the face of two countries wracked by war, 12 million in humanitarian need, 4 million refugees and over 260,000 dead, we should have an international peace effort consisting of one envoy seeking a temporary cease fire, would you have accepted that? I don’t think so.

This is just the Syria story. Iraq deserves a lecture of its own. The two countries share the challenge of [the Islamic State] ISIS, which rejects the ideas of a border between them.

We have proved the risks of doing little. We have shown, in the terrible unfolding, that not to act is an action with consequences every bit as grave as intervention itself. In fact, many of the real dangers of intervention – triggering a refugee crisis, inciting extremism, prompting the use of chemical weapons – have happened anyway.

The reasons for this are sadly clear. The diplomatic determination, imagination, energy required to end the war has ebbed and all but disappeared.

Deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and rifts between the backers of Syria’s fragmented opposition have sapped hope that a meaningful political process can take place. And of course the high price of the mistakes of the West in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped confidence that Western powers will do anything other than make things worse, and drained support for anything other than hand-wringing. That is the explanation for the United Kingdom’s almost complete absence from the political as well as military battlefield.

Syria’s descent into hell therefore raises very hard questions for the humanitarian sector as well as for foreign policy.

David Miliband is the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and has served in the UK government, including as UK Foreign Secretary. He also serves as a Senior Adviser for the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST) which seeks to advance the public policy discussion toward a new global consensus on how to address larger, longer-term issues confronting the region.

Image: Syrian refugee children, mostly from Idlib now live in Jordan after fleeing the violence in Syria with their families, play in an informal tented settlement in Madaba city, near Amman March 13, 2015. (Reuters)