My thoughts on what is happening in Syria cannot be summarized into a Tweet, a short Facebook post or even a comment or two on other articles. This situation is enormously complex and in order to understand the usefulness of the military action of last night, one must be reminded of the context that has led to where we stand today.
Over the last 6 years I have watched in horror as the largest humanitarian crisis in my time has unfolded. The humanitarian crisis is a result of the deadliest conflict in the 21st century—the Syrian Civil War. I’ve also watched in horror, frustration and anger as the West has done little to aid in the humanitarian crisis.
Many in our country are unaware of why the conflict even arose in Syria. For many across the globe, 2011 was a tipping point of action for citizens living in countries where freedoms are greatly restricted. The world saw uprisings, later to be known as the Arab Spring, in places like Tunisia, Libya and later Egypt. Protestors were pushing for changes that would allow a broader democracy in their nations on their own terms.
In terms of Syria, many point to the detention and torture of 15 boys as the tipping point for protests within that nation. The boys, accused of pro-Arab Spring graffiti, were detained and tortured for the act and a 13 year old died as a result of the injuries. What started as peaceful protests of this senseless death turned into the Assad regime killing hundreds of its own citizen protestors and throwing even more of those protestors in prisons. These actions of the Assad regime lead to the organization of a rebel movement, The Free Syrian Army, as a response. The Free Syrian Army was made up of not only citizens who wanted to see a regime change, but also military personnel who had defected following the response against protestors (compilation of various news sources: BBC, Aljazeera, ABC, United Nations).
However, Syria was in poor condition prior to the uprising. The country was experiencing poor economic conditions, restrictions on personal freedoms and a drought that was forcing rural people to move into cities. This movement of people was creating strains and stresses on urban spaces as more people attempted to find work and make a life given all of the factors that were impacting the ability to live. Further complicating matters, in the years since the start of the civil war are the number of groups now laying claim to various parts of Syria. According to Aljazeera and the BBC, the following groups have laid claim to various parts of the country: the Syrian government, ISIL, Kurdish forces, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Rebel Groups, there are areas under Turkish control, areas under control of US forces, areas that are still contested and then large portions of the country that are not highly populated.
With the Civil War growing ever deeper, the displacement of people became a humanitarian crisis. According to the most recent figures over 450,000 men, women and children have been killed, conservative estimates place injuries of citizens at over a million people, and over 12 million people have been displaced. I don’t know that many people realize that this is half of the population of Syria! This figure is a mixture of those who have left and those who are misplaced internally. Countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have taken on the largest number of people fleeing the war. Estimates say approximately 4.8 million people have fled to those countries. Conditions in the refugee camps are dire. Problems include access to water, food security, adequate housing, and more than 2 million children are out of school as a result of displacement (BBC, Aljazeera, Amnesty International, United Nations). We have an entire generation that is not being educated. Let that sink in as far as the future of Syria.
We also have seen the desperate flight of people into Europe. Estimates say about 10% of Syrian refugees have attempted to make it to Europe (BBC). Just given proximity, the Syrian people can attempt to take boats and gain entry through Greece and try to make their way further into Europe. We saw the pictures of babies washing up on shore as their families fled this war. Imagine the desperation. Imagine the helplessness it must take to say the best choice they have is to pay ruthless human smugglers to take a ride on a water craft that is not even close to sea worthy with the HOPES of getting to the shores of Europe.
So, what has the United States been doing in terms of the response to the humanitarian crisis and taking in people displaced as a result of this war? Well, public opinion has largely argued the situation in Syria is not our business. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in October 2016, 54% of registered voters said “the US does not have a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria. There was a wide partisan gap on this measure, with 87% of Trump supporters who said the same” (Key facts about refugees to the US: Pew Research Center). But, this is not atypical. According to the same Pew Report, the US has never been exactly welcoming to refugees who are fleeing civil war. Key examples include the disapproval of Hungarians in 1958, Indochinese in 1979, Cubans in 1980 and Ethnic Albanians in 1999. In 2016, the United States accepted approximately 84,995 refugees overall. We admitted the greatest number from the Democratic Republic of Congo (16,370), next was Syria (12,587), Burma (12,347), Iraq (9,880) and Somalia (9,020). In terms of JUST Syrian refugees from the start of the Civil War we have only allowed 18,007 people to resettle in the United States. Of the millions of people displaced, we have allowed in less than 20,000.
Now, there has been much debate about the need for an “extreme vetting process.” I’m sorry. That is bull. Just bull. There, I said it. The refugee vetting process in the United States is already extreme. According to the US Department of State the following groups and organizations are involved in the vetting process:
“United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is comprised of:
- The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Five international or nongovernmental organizations operating Resettlement Support Centers around the world under the supervision and funding of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State
- Nine domestic nongovernmental organizations with a total of about 350 affiliated offices across the United States.
- Thousands of private citizens who volunteer their time and skills to help refugees resettle in the United States.
The total processing time varies depending on an applicant’s location and other circumstances, but the average time from the initial UNHCR referral to arrival as a refugee in the United States is about 18-24 months.” (https://www.state.gov/j/prm/ra/admissions/).
Given the level and scope of the humanitarian crisis the United States needs to be doing more to help these people. How can we argue this is NOT our responsibility? How can we argue our fellow man is NOT our responsibility? How can we justify not allowing people to resettle that have been ravaged by war? And, before I get the argument that we need to take care of groups A, B, and C first—yes. I get that we also have social problems we need to address in this country. I am a Sociologist. I study these problems. I teach on them on a daily basis. I am VERY well aware of the issues. However, there are times that as a nation you just do the right thing when an entire nation of people are suffering the impacts of an unstable regime that is killing them and making their future unclear and bleak.
The context for the Syrian Civil War is complex and challenging. We are looking at a situation that needs not only a political solution in terms of removal of a tyrant, but also social and economic solutions of nation re-building. There are many groups competing for the future of Syria. I firmly believe it is time for the world to step up and take a more forceful approach to removing Assad and begin the hard work of national rebuilding. Too many nations have argued they do not want to get dragged into the internal conflict that is Syria. But, this has gone beyond an internal conflict. The Syrian people are fleeing and they are showing up on our shores desperate, fearful and broken. They continue to be tortured in their own borders. This has been and continues to be a global issue.
As I’ve laid out and provided ample evidence for, the situation in Syria is much more complex than a single bombing is going to take care of. Further, I haven’t even gone into the geo-political complexities that involve the backing of the Assad regime by Russia. But, what I do know is that we cannot bomb an airstrip without also stepping up our game as far as what we are going to do for the people fleeing war. What is do know is we cannot bomb and airstrip without a real strategy to handle the complexities that are the Syrian Civil War. I hope to see more of a global strategic plan in the days to come. I hope to see the American public push for more Syrians to come to our nation. I hope to see more support of the international aid agencies and nonprofits who are on the ground with the people of Syria. I hope to see us do more to aid those nations who have taken on the largest numbers of refugees. This is a crisis that we will feel the repercussions of for decades. The question becomes how will we respond and we will open our arms to our neighbors from Syria and not call a bombing of an airstrip a solution.