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
See more stories about...
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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4414) }}

What We're Following See More »
Kristol Recruiting National Review’s David French for Third-Party Run
46 minutes ago

"Two Republicans intimately familiar with Bill Kristol’s efforts to recruit an independent presidential candidate to challenge Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have told Bloomberg Politics that the person Kristol has in mind is David French -- whose name the editor of the Weekly Standard floated in the current issue of the magazine.

French is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to the website of National Review, where French is a staff writer, he is a constitutional lawyer, a recipient of the Bronze Star, and an author of several books who lives in Columbia, Tenn., with his wife Nancy and three children."

Jerry Brown Backs Clinton
2 hours ago

California Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed Hillary Clinton today, calling her "the only path forward to win the presidency and stop the dangerous candidacy of Donald Trump." While praising Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign, Brown said "Clinton’s lead is insurmountable and Democrats have shown – by millions of votes – that they want her as their nominee. ... This is no time for Democrats to keep fighting each other. The general election has already begun."

Clinton Says Voters Still Hung Up on Gender
5 hours ago

In a New York Magazine profile, Hillary Clinton said she still encounters misogyny at her own events: “‘I really admire you, I really like you, I just don’t know if I can vote for a woman to be president.’ I mean, they come to my events and then they say that to me.”

Trump Vows Not to Change
5 hours ago
McConnell Urging Rubio to Run for Reelection
8 hours ago

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: "One of the things that I’m hoping, I and my colleagues have been trying to convince Senator Marco Rubio to run again in Florida. He had indicated he was not going to, but we’re all hoping that he’ll reconsider, because poll data indicates that he is the one who can win for us. He would not only save a terrific senator for the Senate, but help save the majority. ... Well, I hope so. We’re all lobbying hard for him to run again."