WASHINGTON — The Syrian humanitarian crisis will “continue for years to come,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), setting the tone for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’s latest hearing on the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war.
The hearing took place on Feb. 12, 2015 and was a collaboration between the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.
In attendance were Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Rep. Ted Deutch, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL).
To apprise itself of the progress of humanitarian efforts in Syria, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs invited Kelly Clements from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and Thomas Staal from the U.S. Agency of International Development’s, or USAID’s, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.
As Rep. Deutch’s comment indicated, everyone in that hearing was fully aware the crisis would not end at any point in the near future. Consequently, the hearing was meant to discuss ways that America and its allies can in the long term provide meaningful humanitarian aid to and promote stability in the Middle East.
Though Clements argued that foreign aid would promote stability and thereby advance America’s national security interests, Clements stressed that humanitarian endeavors should be strictly “focused on life-saving” measures. The focus of America’s aid should be on helping the 12 million Syrians displaced by the war and the neighboring countries assisting them, not primarily on advancing America’s geopolitical goals.
Both Clements and Staal testified that America so far had been playing a significant role in aiding Syrian refugees and allies. Clements reported that America had given 30 percent of the aid going to the Syrian humanitarian effort, the largest contribution from a single nation. Staal added that America was also the largest food donor and that, as of the hearing, America had given 2.8 billion dollars in aid. One billion dollars of that sum went to the local economies of Syria’s neighbors, helping stimulate economic growth in those countries.
America’s aid funded measures to build up infrastructure for Syrians in the warzone and in neighboring countries. At the State Department, Clements helped coordinate efforts between countries, international organizations and local non-governmental organizations to deliver aid through secure channels. Upon receiving that aid, Staal helped collaborate with international and local organizations to secure clean water supplies, provide adequate sanitation and set up functioning medical centers and schools.
Clements and Staal’s efforts have yielded results. Staal helped successfully combat an outbreak of polio by helping provide two million Syrians with emergency care and vaccinations. Clement’s work helped triple the number of Syrian child refugees attending school. Sanitation quality for 1.3 million Syrians increased. In total, Clements estimated that foreign aid had helped approximately two million Syrians.
Despite the successes Clements and Staal reported, Clements did not want the progress made to be used as a “feel-good story” that would discourage attempts to step up humanitarian efforts. To put the progress into perspective, the Committee announced the following numbers: approximately 200,000 Syrians dead, 12 million people in Syrian in need of assistance, 9.8 million people without a stable source of nourishment and 5.6 million children in need of medical treatment and quality education.
Though progress had been made, the situation was still dire and could grow worse due to the strain the Syrian humanitarian crisis had put on the international community. In 2013, the World Food Programme had to request 352 million dollars because it had “completely run out of money.” In 2014, the U.N. appeals for assistance were “just over half-funded,” according to Clements’ written testimony. Subsequently, the World Food Programm, or WFP, had to make 20-30 percent cuts in food aid to refugees in Lebanon. Refugees in Turkey saw a complete cut.
Skyrocketing demand and crippling budget cuts have placed an especially great burden on countries neighboring Syria. Clements testified that the influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan had driven up Jordanian housing prices. Also, in Jordan, officials had resorted to tightening border security to stem the flow of potential terrorists. Though they had become less frequent, Staal noted that there had been several clashes between citizens from neighboring countries and Syrian refugees.
Comprehending the complexity of the situation, the Committee had to temper its optimism. Passionate as it was about resolving the crisis, the Committee still had to be pragmatic. No matter how good the intentions behind it are, humanitarian aid—especially for the Syrian crisis—has pros and cons that must all be weighed.
A primary concern for Rep. Ros-Lehtinen was how to track the delivery of humanitarian aid. In light of news that terrorists would steal U.N. food aid bags and pretend the aid was from ISIL, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen wanted to know if a significant amount of the aid actually reached its destinations. She was particularly worried about aid going through unreliable middlemen, who would take the aid for themselves, sell it to terrorists or be attacked by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or by ISIL.
The last possibility was especially alarming because the many instances of violence done against medical professionals in the warzone demonstrated that no one—not even neutral parties—were safe from any of the combatants in the civil war, whether the combatants be from Assad’s forces, or ISIL or the Free Syrian Army.
Both Clements and Staal assured Rep. Ros-Lehtinen that the middlemen were experienced and reliable. The middlemen were from local organizations who were used to providing aid in wartime conditions. To monitor them, Staal and USAID required the middlemen to submit weekly reports and worked to inspect every truck delivering aid.
Nonetheless, the fear of violence done to humanitarian aid workers exacerbated the Committee’s concern that refugees did not always know America was supplying the aid. Anonymity was to protect aid workers from hostile combatants. The Committee understood that the mere mention of America would be provocative. At the same time, the Committee feared that anonymity could complicate later attempts to aid Syrian refugees because refugees would not know that America had helped them and thus would be distrustful of American aid.
In addition, though the Committee was pleased that America was the largest contributor of foreign aid, some congressmen were frustrated by the apparent lack of contributions from other countries in the U.N. Although Clements informed the Committee that the European Union had pledged $1 billion for Syria and that the State Department had been organizing international fundraising efforts, the frustration remained.
The frustration remained because the Committee had to demonstrate the relevance of Syrian humanitarian aid to Americans living thousands of miles away from the conflict zone. As Rep. Smith noted, Americans have been “critical of foreign aid.” American skepticism would surely be greater in light of a prolonged crisis.
Although Clements and Staal appealed to national security concerns, the fact still remained that the Syrian civil war was primarily a regional conflict. While this did not necessarily mean the conflict would be contained within the region, the present scale of the civil war meant that aid would primarily address concerns unique to the Middle East. The most apparent benefits America would receive from addressing the crisis would be indirect and materialize after a prolonged period of time.
However, the Committee remained committed to supporting humanitarian efforts in Syria. Instead of becoming disillusioned, Rep. Meadows recommended that Congress use its resources to raise awareness and funds for the Syrian humanitarian crisis. The Committee knew it had to exercise caution, but it still remained optimistic.
Life-saving aid is a “good reminder of why we’re proud to be Americans,” said Rep. Deutch.
– Dean Delasalas