The crisis you almost forgot is still there. The violence in Syria is suddenly halfway through its third year, with no end in sight. With depressing predictability, the conflagration has eluded our moral sensibility not by concealment but standing in plain view—it’s precisely the vicious regularity of the conflict that’s created this curtain. Our media is anesthetized by the suffering, often unable to keep Syria afloat in our brains amidst the new Kardashian baby and baseball statistics. So it is that the American public’s attention is divided.
And the American public is also torn, as are our politicians. This is the question that foreign policy in the era of the War on Terror must answer: What do we do when there isn’t a good guy? We sympathize with the rebels, though in part this is because we project our (sometimes glorified) conceptions of our own revolution and our quest to spread democracy onto these fighters. At the same time, they aren’t who we want them to be. Are we ready to invoke the ghosts of Bushes Past, and for that matter, are we even ready for more of Obama’s Libyal liberal interventionism?
No matter what we decide, we do have at least some responsibility to the innocents harmed in the process. We may not end the war, but we can at least offer support to those who have suffered from its wrath. While Americans continue to anticipate satisfactory news about the rebels’ identity and their true allegiances—news that does not exist and will not come—in the time being, we may learn more about our own.
Syria’s metastasizing refugee crisis is that moral test. There are 1.5 million Syrian refugees currently living the region around Syria and an additional 7 million internally displaced persons inside the country, though that combined total is only 1/5 the number of combined Kardashian twitter followers. They need assistance that, regardless of the American stance on the situation inside the borders, we have an ethical responsibility to provide. We can pat ourselves on the back for trying, but the $500 million the U.S. has donated so far to help refugees amounts to pennies when you look at the massive scale of the crisis (and the $4.5 billion that the UN recently estimated the refugees need). Our current spending is equivalent to renovations at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, in a country where multiple cities have been reduced to ashes.
Those ashes have spread to neighboring countries Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, who have kept their borders open to refugees. But an open border doesn’t mean open hearts, and Syrian refugees have struggled to assimilate and secure basic necessities.
In addition to the mounting resistance that international arbitrators encounter in the persuasive effort to keep neighboring borders open, regional governments face a number of clear costs by accommodating refugees. Besides running camps, governments have extended public benefits to the refugees, and both present an enormous strain: after receiving two years’ worth of refugees, these native populations are becoming increasingly unhappy about welcoming Syrians into their borders.
The complexity of running camps and supporting refugees has prohibitively driven up costs for host countries, which increasingly fail to provide the basics. Refugees must struggle to find shelter, food, health care, education, clean drinking water, services for women, and just about everything else. Camps are overcrowded, heightening the potential for dramatic pandemics. The Iraqi al-Qa’im camp, built for 10,000, now houses an astonishing 35,000. And while NGO’s, USAID and the UN have offered sporadic services throughout various camps, the programs are few and far between, unstaffed, underfunded and underused.
That three-quarters of refugees are women and children—rendering education and specialized healthcare even more essential—makes refugee prospects even worse. Many are turning to unsafe practices, including increasing reports of sexual harassment and abuse, with many women having turned to trafficking. The vast numbers of infants, for instance—not children, but infants—demonstrates the moral severity of the situation. In Jordan, one out of every five refugees in their camps is under the age of four. Though many camps have schools, most are ridden with the same problems of overcrowding and underfunding.
For American policymakers obsessed with either reelection or legacy, the failure to aid refugees registers so faintly that it borders on the banal. But policymakers do respond to showmanship and pride, and recently the crisis itself has become a Rorschach test of moral vision in the aftermath of a decade’s worth of Middle East regime change.
The perfect example is Iraq. The American public may not want to hear those four letters yet again, especially after Iraq suffered years of its own refugee crisis (many of whom went to Syria). Testing the limits of caricature, hamstrung Iraq must now find a way to house nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees—cousins-by-quagmire whose shared fate is bound in the swift shoulder-turning of a Western media which is fast learning that genocide doesn’t sell. Approximately 500 Syrian refugees used to arrive at the Iraqi border each day to be placed among the 35,000 of al-Qa’im or the similarly crowded 40,000 of camp Domiz; both suffer a severe lack of supplies and shelter. Refugees who try their hand outside of the camps fare little better: already-scarce jobs discriminate against Syrians, who rarely enroll their children in Iraqi schools (where classes are not taught in Arabic). Since refugees cross the border in Iraq’s Kurdish North, the government views the problem as a Kurdish problem. When Iraqi borders finally closed recently, it only placed more strain on neighboring countries.
The Jordanian camp Zaatari has a population of 150,000, with a severe overcrowding problem. A chronically water starved country, Jordan lacks the clean water supplies to run the camp effectively. Refugees are an added burden to a strained domestic budget in Jordan—where leaders recently acquiesced to tight fiscal adjustment policies from the IMF—and Jordan’s funds are low and getting lower as investment and tourism in the Middle East drops dramatically. The population is growing restless, and there grows increasing intolerance toward the presence of Syrians that could break out in violence.
After Jordan’s 475,000 refugees, Lebanon has received the largest number of Syrian refugees, now comprising roughly 10% of those living within Lebanese borders now, and with predictions of nearly 25% for the end of 2013. The rapidly changing demographics could jeopardize a precarious political balance in which Hezbollah’s role seems ever less predictable. Egypt, hardly a haven from political strife in the turbulent months of the Morsi presidency, has no camps but plenty of refugees, and sits on the precipice of a second refugee wave emigrating from the squalor of Jordanian and Iraqi camps. The beacon of hope in the region is Turkey, which, amidst a crescendo of violence and protest as it approaches an historic crossroads of identity, has appropriated $1 billion dollars in aid to sustain 17 well-managed camps.
Turkey’s relation to the Syrian conflict is no less fraught than America’s—in an eerily inverted image of Turkey’s own violence, a secularist dictator incites pandemonium while sectarian interests resist fiercely but in vain. If ever there were an opportunity to paint democratic secularists as “terrorists,” as Prime Minister Erdogan has attempted, the opportunity sits on a silver platter. Yet cutting through the violence, the Turkish government has chosen to lead the world on an issue that transcends ideology, in a region where too few things do. We should take this as a reminder that, oxymoronic as it may sound, there is a strong place for morality even in politics. We see the same message in post-Arab Spring Egypt and the 80,000 refugees harbored there. Even in a torn country, there is a space for moral discretion.
These refugees are innocent victims of a terrible conflict. They have lost their homes and their possessions. Many have lost friends and loved ones. All have lost their peace of mind. This is the kind of humanitarian effort that the United States should be committed to – one that doesn’t require funneling arms into a conflagration, but instead funneling support into the arms of those in need, and who need to be shown that the world is listening. A Syrian refugee crisis is a political crisis in Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, risking increased violence and perhaps more institutional instability. Those problems are bubbling to the surface, but in slow enough motion for the United States to decisively act. One only imagines our luck, could we have said the same for Syria.