What Does Potential U.S. Military Action Mean for Millions of Syrian Refugees?

Humanitarian agencies are scrambling for resources, and a military strike may only make matters worse.

A refugee camp is seen in the Syrian territory near the Turkish border town of Cilvegozu.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 4, 2013, 8:03 a.m.

About 6 mil­lion Syr­i­ans have been torn from their homes. Two mil­lion have fled to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, while just over 4 mil­lion have sought shel­ter in oth­er parts of the coun­try, mak­ing Syr­ia the na­tion with the largest num­ber of dis­placed cit­izens.

The grow­ing num­ber of refugees com­plic­ates the ques­tion U.S. law­makers are pon­der­ing: To strike or not to strike, in re­sponse to a chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack that killed more than 1,400 ci­vil­ians in Syr­ia. “It is really something that, from a hu­man­it­ari­an stand­point, can­not be ig­nored, or else we can­not say, ‘Nev­er again,’ ” said House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., of the at­tacks.

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who thinks a U.S. mil­it­ary strike won’t stop Bashar al-As­sad’s re­gime, took is­sue with such a “hu­man­it­ari­an stand­point.” “Now we’re go­ing to have a de­bate about hu­man­it­ari­an bomb­ing and hu­man­it­ari­an mis­sile strikes,” he told MS­N­BC’s Thomas Roberts on Tues­day. “Why don’t we have a de­bate about do­ing something to keep the 2 mil­lion refugees that are across the bor­der in Jordan and Tur­key? We can take that bil­lion dol­lars and give some re­lief to them.”

Grayson was re­fer­ring to the monthly cost of main­tain­ing a no-fly zone over Syr­ia, ac­cord­ing to es­tim­ates that Chair­man of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mar­tin De­mp­sey gave last month.

The Of­fice of the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees re­ports that hu­man­it­ari­an agen­cies re­ceive less than half of the funds re­quired to provide refugees with ba­sics such as food, clothes, and shel­ter. Last month, the Pres­id­ent Obama au­thor­ized $195 mil­lion in food and oth­er hu­man­it­ari­an aid for Syr­ia, bring­ing Amer­ica’s total con­tri­bu­tion since the con­flict began to more than $1 bil­lion. In a joint press con­fer­ence with the prime min­is­ter of Sweden on Wed­nes­day, Obama said the U.S. will con­tin­ue these ef­forts. But the use of mil­it­ary force could cripple the dis­tri­bu­tion of hu­man­it­ari­an aid to dis­placed Syr­i­ans, a task that gets more dif­fi­cult as the con­flict goes on.

It’s safe to say that if an­oth­er chem­ic­al at­tack oc­curs, the num­ber of refugees would con­tin­ue to climb. But so would mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia. Any mil­it­ary strike, however lim­ited in scope and dur­a­tion, could drive out people who are afraid of be­ing caught in the cross­fire. It could also con­cen­trate refugees in­to spe­cif­ic areas in­side Syr­ia’s bor­ders, which the gov­ern­ment could tar­get in re­tali­ation to U.S. in­volve­ment.

Mean­while, Syr­ia’s neigh­bors are feel­ing the pres­sure of sup­port­ing thou­sands of new­comers in already strug­gling eco­nom­ies and in­fra­struc­ture. Of­fi­cials from Ir­aq, Jordan, and Tur­key are meet­ing with the UN­HCR on Wed­nes­day to ask for more fin­an­cial sup­port.

Syr­i­an refugees are not eli­gible to seek ad­mis­sion in­to the United States through the refugee ad­mis­sions pro­gram. But this week, Sweden be­came the first coun­try in the European Uni­on to of­fer per­man­ent res­id­ency to Syr­i­an refugees in the wake of es­cal­at­ing con­flict.

The num­ber of dis­placed Syr­i­ans now al­most equals one-third of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion. As talks about a mil­it­ary strike con­tin­ue in Wash­ing­ton, the fate of the 5,000 Syr­i­ans who flee the coun­try every day re­mains un­clear.

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