‘Option is not a failure’ and aiding Syrian refugees

“What if [America] got massively more involved in Syria, but in a way that was not military?” Rachel Maddow asked last week. What might that look like? What options are there other than 1. Bomb; and 2. Don’t Bomb?

“The list of concrete, actual proposals is not all that long,” Maddow acknowledged, “but it is growing and it turns out it’s growing in a nonpartisan, non-left/right split kind of way. The ideas are coming from everywhere.”

Maddow highlighted Republican Rep. Chris Smith’s call for an international tribunal on war crimes in the Syrian conflict. And she pointed to Lydia DePillis’ WonkBlog piece examining “Three big ways the U.S. could help Syrians without using the military.”

DePillis’ three points are these: 1. Let more people in (accepting more Syrian refugees in the U.S.); 2. Insist that Russia at least support a Security Council resolution protecting medical facilities within Syria; and 3. Give more aid. That second step is laudable, but I’m not sure it really counts as a “big” way to help. DePillis’ first and third steps, though, really could have a big impact on the lives of Syrian people who are suffering from this conflict. I don’t know how they would affect the conflict itself, but for the affected people, they would be far more effective while also being far less costly for America (cruise missiles are not cheap).

The focus on refugees is something I’ve seen a lot of from those of us calling for some alternative other than bombing and not-bombing.

The need is real, desperate and urgent. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that more than two million Syrians have become refugees in this conflict — including more than a million children. Some 740,000 Syrian refugees are children under the age of 11.

A massive increase in aid and support for these refugees may not do much to bring Syria’s civil war to a swift and just conclusion, but it could mean the difference between life and death for many of those 740,000 young children. The current lack of funding to assist such refugees, Rebecca Gang reports for The Guardian, means that some are risking their lives by returning home, hoping for better odds of survival amid the violence there than in refugee camps.

Again, I don’t know that aiding these refugees really amounts to an alternative to military intervention in that it addresses a different set of problems — problems that military intervention does not and cannot address, and that military intervention would likely make worse. But aiding refugees would certainly be an alternative to doing nothing — and it stands as a clear alternative to the notion that “doing nothing” and military action are the only possible options. Aiding refugees — and accepting more refugees here in America — might not directly address the goal of ending the conflict, but military intervention is unlikely to advance that goal either.

The strongest reason for why aid for refugees should be increased is simply that it’s something that can be done. It is a step that doesn’t require any further reason or benefit. If you see a drowning child that you are able to save, you save the child because you are able to do so. If any further reason is required, then it is unlikely that any further reason will be persuasive.

It’s possible that such assistance could benefit America’s national interest as well. Enhanced goodwill from millions of people in that region of the world is not nothing. And the potential to enhance America’s moral standing in the world can keep the U.S. from being trapped by having all of its eggs in the single basket of military superiority. But then the U.S. is already the largest donor of emergency food aid for Syrian refugees, and it’s possible that even a ten-fold increase in that aid would not result in America reaping credit or grateful praise for such assistance. So it’s probably best to see any such benefit only as a potential bonus and not a main motive for doing what we ought to do simply because we can.


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  • I keep saying we ought to let Syria crash on our couch, but no one takes me seriously.

  • hidden_urchin

    Why would we want to increase aid to refugees? It’s not like we see ourselves as the city on the hill leading other, lesser, countries towards a glorious future or anything…

    Oh. Wait.

    Anyway, I’d totally be good with increasing aid. I think the hardest part would be making sure that it didn’t get funneled to any of the aggressors.

  • AnonaMiss

    ‘Give more aid’? We’re already pouring aid into the country as fast as we can get it in without getting our own people shot at. I strongly suspect that the US government pressured the US news media to downplay the protests in Turkey because we needed to maintain a good relationship so we could continue pouring aid into Syria.*

    At this point, the only way to give more aid to Syria would be to get in planes and airdrop it over friendly territory; which would mean exposing American pilots to Assad’s anti-aircraft weapons; which would mean, effectively, going to war.

    Helping refugees is good, though as you noted it is palliative, not curative.

    * There was way too much journalistic gold and way too little coverage for it to have been just overlooked. Like the man who was elevated to Erdogan’s cabinet for proposing that he was under telekinetic [sic] attack by an international conspiracy. The US news should have been all over that. Or Peter Kenyon’s piece on Turkish reactions to the recent coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, which was broadcast while the Turkish demonstrations were still going on, yet made no reference to any Turks being unhappy with the Islamist AKP.

  • Guest

    Yeah… I’m pretty sure these options would require military intervention as a prerequisite. Forget bombing, we’d probably have to put boots on the ground.

  • Guest

    How do you propose we evacuate massive numbers of Syrian civilians from a warzone without becoming involved militarily?

  • Daniel

    I know a guy with a van.

  • Erl

    Really? I doubt the Syrian government OR rebels would shoot down U.S. planes that 1) contained only humanitarian aid and 2) were chock full of non-violent U.S. personnel, each and every one of them a causus belli.

  • Guest

    Funny, but, I was hoping he had a better plan. I’d like to assume that the nonviolent plan isn’t that ridiculous, despite the fact that I can’t imagine such a plan, that has any hope of success without some sort of military intervention to back it up.

  • OriginalExtraCrispy

    I like that idea, personally. Send planes to the refugee camps and offer free trips for anyone willing to relocate. It would be a relief valve for those countries that are hosting the displaced persons. Hopefully our allies would assist, since we probably don’t have that many couches, what with a still-too-high unemployment rate and all.

  • MaryKaye

    People are not going to trust US planes. We’re the folks who bombed a wedding in Iraq (near the Syrian border, too) and killed 42 civilians. But that points to an idea–maybe we could fund someone else who’s better placed to help. NGOs like Doctors Without Borders–except that they can’t afford to take US government money, because we’re too hated and it would jeopardize their independence.

    I don’t know. I think we may have burned our bridges in the Middle East to the point where there’s little good we can do. Maybe put pressure on other regional powers in the UN? Maybe offer debt forgiveness to countries which take in refugees, if they owe us money?

    In the long run, reconsider the policies that have made us so justly hated over there? That would probably do more good for more people than any intervention now.

  • Erl

    Well, maybe not. But I’m less certain of this than you are. My model is, of course, the Berlin Airlift, which was executed on a city that we had 1) quite deliberately bombed into rubble and then 2) militarily occupied in conjunction with our new rival. My guess is that you can build a lot of good will pretty quickly in a war zone by showing up with food. And we could perhaps start by aiding the Kurdish-controlled regions in the north—my impression, perhaps unjustified (I am no scholar on the matter) is that Kurds bear us less ill will—and then move slowly outward as it becomes clear we are not bombing anyone.

    It would require the courage to pursue a genuinely anti-violent strategy in the Middle East. And risk our soldier’s lives. That bit would be hard.

  • J_Enigma32

    But… but… if we don’t bomb, how do you expect those Red-Blooded All-American Military-Industry Complex companies Defense Contractors to make any money? We’d be denying them their rights as Whole-blooded, Patriotic American Citizens to indiscriminately bomb brown people; hell, these citizens are so Patriotic their suppositories are red, white, and blue. Of course, that’s the sort of thinking a Liberal would indulge in, I know it. Just like you want us to open our doors and take in all those Terrorists “refuegees” who are probably sympathetic TERRRORISTS to the ACORN-Muslin Brotherhood Connection.

    You just hate ‘Murka.

    Seriously, I’m all for anything that doesn’t result in arming either side or being directly responsible for more people getting killed, but we’re so hated over there that I’m not sure how well it’d play out. I’m all for giving anything a shot to save lives, though.

    But if our two choices are “bomb” verses “don’t bomb”, it’s because we put ourselves in that position. Pushing the U.N. right now might be our best option, and maybe asking Russia or China to help here (or, heaven forbid, Iran. We know they’re involved somehow; maybe a cookie – we’ll support your attempts to join the 21st century with nuclear power – if they offer to help try and solve this problem with us?)

  • Guest

    Do you support sending more planes and possibly soldiers to protect these planes and personnel? With the understanding that they might have to shoot at something or someone in order to do it?

  • wendy

    They don’t need protection. Send the planes into Jordan and Turkey, unload at their main airports and truck it the rest of the way to the camps. Nobody needs to go into Syria to deliver aid to refugees who aren’t in Syria anymore.

  • Goldenapplepie

    They’re talking about sending aid because Assad gassed his own people. I don’t really think they’d have a problem shooting down someone else’s planes.

  • train_star

    They seem to be already evacuating themselves.

  • Guest

    Sorry if I misunderstood, Ross’s original comment seemed more comprehensive. Helping those who have already fled the country should, indeed be possible without military intervention. I just thought we were also taking the internally displaced citizens into account.

  • schismtracer

    It’s not like we see ourselves as the city on the hill leading other, lesser, countries towards a glorious future or anything…

    That mentality, combined with Fred’s silly “we have to do things because we can do things!” idea is a large part of why the US has such a poor reputation worldwide. Global interventionism just makes you look like a bully, regardless of your intentions.

  • We Must Dissent

    The pedant in me is horrified at the image this has created in my mind.

  • Whereas “Those people aren’t us. So fuck ’em, it’s their problem let them sort it out. I got mine.” has a sterling track record.

    The very fact that we exist as an obscenely rich country in a world where places like Syria descend into states like the state that Syria is in is a form of intervening. We have to do something because we’re free, rich and alive all at the same time, and there’s a price you got to pay for keeping it that way.

  • Erl

    I don’t think they have a moral issue shooting down U.S. planes. I think they have a practical one.

    One way of understanding the problem right now is that there are norms that the international community is (largely) willing to enforce with military action, like “don’t invade our countries” and “don’t kill our citizens” and others, which are important but don’t have the same strength of response, like “don’t use chemical weapons” or “don’t kill your citizens.” Without judging whether that distinction is a good idea (there are, I think, some good and some bad reasons for it), and admitting that the sketch above is super, super general, I think this does a good job explaining why Syria is under threat but not under attack right now. However, that also explains why it would be a bad idea for Syrians (whether from the army or the rebels) to shoot down externally aligned aid vehicles.

    More broadly, I think that ways of 1) promoting good aims while 2) peacefully forcing the issue are probably our best bet for better interventionist strategies. Non-violent doesn’t have to mean non-confrontational, and we can, I hope, do things that force rogue or failed states to choose between becoming international pariahs, subject to real and justified invasion, or accepting stabilization by external forces.

    I admit that this is all a very cold way to think about sending people up into the sky, knowing they may be shot. And I acknowledge that this approach does not especially respect national sovereignty. But I don’t care very much for the latter, when war and lives are on the line. And I think we do more or less the former all the time, except we ask those we send out not merely to risk their lives, but to kill, too. I get why that doesn’t bother us as much as just asking them to risk themselves and not others. But I’m not sure it should.

  • Turcano

    Also, a very uncomfortable question that still needs to be addressed: is humanitarian aid in a warzone even a net positive?

  • alfgifu

    There is already a humanitarian mission underway to get aid to the refugees around Syria. They need all the help they can get.

    I happened to read this article on the train this morning.

    The US is giving more – in absolute terms – than any other donor. If the UK honours all the promises it’s just made, we’ll be a long way out ahead of everyone else in proportional terms. It’s not nearly enough to meet the UN targets.

    It certainly seems as if one advantage of the military option being shouted down by Parliament is that Ministers are refocusing on the aid issue and are actively looking for other ways to try to make things better. So there’s that.

  • Boidster

    Not “things” – helping starving refugees. Are you seriously arguing that “global interventionism” such as providing food and medical aid to refugees makes the US look like “a bully”?