- What is the current U.S. strategy in Syria?
As it currently stands, U.S. policy towards Syria includes ratcheted up air strikes against ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq, a $500 million program to equip and train the moderate opposition, and a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund that aims to strengthen Syria’s neighbors’ capacity to combat terrorism and host Syrian refugees. Missing from the Obama administration’s response to the crisis has been a political transition plan that would bring the conflict to an end.
However, given the unprecedented and growing humanitarian crisis in Syria, the diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, Assad’s weakened military position and alarm surrounding who would replace him, has led to a flurry of diplomatic activity internationally towards finding a political settlement in Syria. In a sharp reversal, both Turkey and the United States have indicated some role for Assad in an interim political arrangement—this was previously ‘a major sticking point in resolving the Syrian conflict’ that had led to stalled diplomacy.
There are also reports suggesting some level of intelligence sharing between the U.S. government and the Syrian regime against ISIS. While senior officials have insisted that the USG is not ‘coordinating’ with the Assad regime to target ISIS installations, John Kerry’s recent use of the word ‘de-conflict’ in this context seemed to suggest that the two governments are at least keeping out of each other’s way when targeting the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
In recent days, Democratic congressional leaders have also voiced concerns about the prospect of ISIS and other militant groups replacing Assad if he is removed from power. There is also deep skepticism about congressional funding for programs that will equip and train anti-Assad forces, given the colossal failure of previous similar programs—the chairman of the U.S. Central Command recently admitted that only about four or five rebel fighters trained under the program are currently fighting in Syria.
- What are some diplomatic and humanitarian options that could alleviate the suffering of the Syrian population?
In the absence of a well-defined strategy to bring the four-year civil war to an end, regional countries and humanitarian groups have repeatedly called for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to reduce the civilian cost of the crisis. Humanitarian corridors are transit routes that enable the delivery of aid to affected populations within a conflict zone—currently, 11 million Syrians or almost half of Syria’s pre-war population is displaced either within the country or as refugees in neighboring lands. The relative success of a humanitarian corridor established for the residents of Homs in 2014 (through an agreement between Assad’s regime and opposition groups) in which almost half of Homs’ 3000 affected were evacuated is touted as a model to replicate in other parts of Syria. However, concerns remain about parties to the conflict violating the agreement and attacking civilians and those delivering aid. Regardless of the risks, many see this as the best humanitarian option to pursue at a time when a political solution is elusive.
Another option that has gained currency in the face of the staggering refugee crisis, is the imposition of no-fly zones in Syria that would protect civilians from Assad’s aerial campaign that according to Human Rights Watch has caused more suffering than ISIS and chemical weapons combined. However, to avoid antagonizing Iran and Russia, the U.S. has not pursued the no-fly zone option in any serious manner. Instead, it is currently working on a draft U.N resolution with France and Britain that targets the Assad regime’s use of barrel bombs and would impose severe penalties were the regime to violate provisions of the resolution.
- How much has the U.S. provided in humanitarian aid and what are its resettlement policies with respect to Syrian refugees here in the U.S.?
Since the Syrian conflict began four years ago, the U.S. government has extended $4 billion in humanitarian aid and plans to give another $400 million this year. Most of this aid has gone to international and local humanitarian organizations working on the ground in Syria. However, given the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis, many have called upon the U.S. government to increase the cap on its resettlement numbers—the Obama administration agreed to take in approximately 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year and has announced it will increase the total number of refugees from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017. This has been met with considerable opposition from some congressional leaders such as Rep. Peter King, who suggested that admitting Syrian refugees will ‘put American lives at risk’ and will raise the specter of domestic terrorism.
In contrast, several U.S. mayors have penned a letter to the Obama administration asking it to increase the number of Syrian refugees the U.S. would resettle.
Given security concerns around terrorism, the refugee resettlement process in the U.S. is slow, laborious, and resource-intensive and involves multiple stages of screening and vetting before applications are approved. In 2015, in line with its regional quota, the U.S. had planned to take in a total of 33,000 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and had anticipated most of these refugees would be from Iraq. The U.S. government’s announcement to take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees would require it to send personnel to Syrian refugee camps in neighboring countries to process the various applications. This could take another 18-24 months.
Writing in Vox, Dara Lind summed up the situation:
“The Obama administration could easily raise its refugee cap for next year and beyond. But if it’s actually going to succeed at bringing more Syrian refugees into the US, it’s going to have to figure out what’s greater: the security and political risk that the “wrong” refugee poses, even if it is just one or two out of tens of thousands, or the humanitarian urgency of helping the “right” refugees now”