Syrian Refugees and the Costs of Non-Intervention

Conditions in Syria remain heartbreaking for anyone with a modicum of human sympathy, and the future looks dark, perhaps as dark as it has since Bashar Assad started murdering peaceful protesters. Over 7 million people have been displaced and perhaps 150,000 have been killed, according to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Assad’s forces have been gaining strength, as have rebels who are affiliated with al Qaeda. The moderate rebels have seen their strength and support collapse since the US struck a deal with Assad on chemical weapons (and having never received adequate assistance from the United States).

As the Geneva II peace conference approaches, few believe that a resolution to end this brutal civil war will be reached. The possibility of a tolerable outcome (with a government that is not run by mass murderers) seems to have disappeared. ‘Last resort’ was clearly tens of thousands of deaths ago (no one with any prudence should have mistaken Assad’s intentions after the Houla Massacre of May 2012), yet we now seem to have reached the point where it is impossible to enforce the responsibility to protect. If a tolerable outcome seems unachievable, a just peace seems inconceivable.

Many Catholic commentators who irresponsibly weighed the best-case scenario of non-intervention against the worst conceivable outcome of intervention are now seeing that there are ‘unintended consequences’ to non-intervention, not just intervention. Sectarian violence is spilling across Syria’s borders, Assad’s forces continue to perpetrate crimes against humanity, and the opposition is growing more extreme and brutal. Their hopes of a negotiated settlement with a reasonably just outcome (somehow to be achieved without providing any assistance to those with some commitment to democracy and human rights) have proved as unrealistic as some Iraq War enthusiasts’ belief that American troops would be greeted as liberators and that a transition to democracy would be relatively quick, smooth, and painless. Yet few admit that they were dangerously naïve or that conditions have deteriorated badly. Actually, few seem to be aware that Syria still exists, now that the possibility of American intervention appears very unlikely.

Now with winter looming, aid organizations are deeply concerned that many Syrian refugees in makeshift shelters will lose their lives. The UN has appealed for $6.5 billion in humanitarian aid to address the situation, its largest appeal ever. The gravity of the threat seems clear when one considers the conditions many face:

Often fleeing Syria destitute, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, they have made a home out of whatever they can find including plastic bags, wood panels or potato sacks.

These constructions do little to protect against freezing temperatures and often collapse in the snow. When it rains the mud patches of land often turn into swamp lands, the crudely dug canals spilling raw sewage.

The Washington Post has a new series of articles that highlight the personal stories of 18 refugees from a wide-range of backgrounds. Kevin Sullivan explains:

Linda and I interviewed and photographed widows and orphans, the wealthy, the wounded, children and the elderly, those surviving in camps, and those suffering in urban slums. To capture the full range of refugee life, we witnessed a birth and a wedding, classrooms and operating rooms, and we visited a cemetery where families mourned not just for their dead, but for the fact that they are buried in foreign soil.

We saw terrible misery and inspiring stories of resilience and survival. We hope the portraits of these refugees, and the nations struggling to help them, will further an understanding of one of the most daunting human crises in recent memory.

These people, and these countries, will never be the same.

The stories highlight the devastation created by Assad’s lust for power and the costs of the international community’s failure to act on its responsibility to protect civilians from repressive, murderous regimes. These refugees were lucky enough to have escaped being killed in their own beds, gassed by chemical weapons, or intentionally starved to death, yet the suffering they face is hard to imagine for those of us living securely in the West.

While we have failed to protect these people and the loved ones they have lost, we can still help to provide them with humanitarian assistance, both as a nation and as individual persons, to help them survive the immanent threats they face from winter conditions. It’s the least we can do.