Three big ways the U.S. could help Syrians without using the military

September 5, 2013

The case for striking Syria, as the Obama administration has laid it out, goes something like this: If we don't take punish Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, he'll continue using them to kill his own people, and future tyrants will be emboldened to use them, too. As Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "The task I’ve been given is to develop military options to deter — that is to say, change the regime’s calculus about the use of chemical weapons."

But what if we were interested in saving Syrian lives rather than upholding norms of warfare? And what if Congress doesn't want to authorize force to do it? There are a few options there, too:

Turkey has accepted about 400,000 Syrian refugees. The U.S. could take more than 2,000. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)
Turkey has accepted about 400,000 Syrian refugees. The U.S. could take more than 2,000. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

1. Let more people in. 

In recent years, the United States has done two things to allow Syrians to take refuge here. Last spring, it created a Temporary Protected Status program for Syria, which allows people who were already in the U.S. to stay for 18 months. The program was reauthorized in June, and a total of 4,629 applications had been accepted as of Sept. 1, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (out of the first batch of applications, 2,022 were approved, and 405 were denied, with the rest pending).

Then, last month, the U.S. agreed to allow in 2,000 refugees, who get to stay here permanently if they can prove they're fleeing persecution in their home countries. But nobody's actually been admitted yet, since they have to go through an extensive screening process for possible terrorist ties.

Those are drops in a 2 million-person bucket.

To actually alleviate the refugee crises in Jordan and Lebanon, the United States could dramatically increase the number of people it accepts from Syria. Sweden has already accepted 14,700 since 2012, and just threw open its doors to all comers. If a country with fewer than 10 million people can handle tens of thousands of refugees, surely the U.S. can,  too.

At the very least, says Syrian American Council Chairman Hussam Ayloush, the U.S. could allow anyone with relatives in America to join them until it's safe to return. Syrians have been coming to the United States for decades now — mostly well-to-do professionals, many of them doctors — and now there are about 159,000 living here, according to Census estimates. They could help family members who wish to escape, minimizing the impact of a refugee influx and avoiding fights over granting them permanent residence.

"We have to start somewhere," he says.

Universities could also play a role here. The Institute for International Education set up a program to offer scholarships to Syrian students, but found that participating universities were overwhelmed by applications. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, was one of them  — he couldn't sift through the deluge of young people whose college careers had been interrupted and were desperately seeking a way to continue.

"It was heartbreaking, but I didn't know what to do with the flood of messages," Landis wrote in an e-mail. "One educated kid could help raise his family out of misery and a refugee camp. He could help siblings navigate the difficulties of education. It is a cost effective way to help a lot. Much better than bombs."

Put the screws on. (Alexei Nikolsky / Kremlin pool via European Pressphoto Agency)
Put the screws on. (Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin pool via EPA)

2. Insist that Russia at least support a Security Council resolution on protecting medical facilities within Syria. 

One of the biggest causes of death in the Syrian conflict so far hasn't been chemical weapons or disease spreading through refugee camps — it's people with chronic illnesses such as cancer, kidney disease and diabetes who haven't been able to access insulin, dialysis and chemotherapy treatments because Assad's forces have been targeting hospitals. Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society, says that more than 60 percent of Syria's doctors have fled, and about 150 have been killed. "The whole public health system in Syria has disintegrated," he says. "You can't leave it to villages and opposition groups to deal with that."

But it's also probably impracticable for the U.S. to send in ground troops or provide air cover for hospitals by itself. Even enforcing a no-fly zone could require more resources than the U.S. wants to commit. The best chance for Assad to respect medical operations would be for the United Nations Security Council to demand it. After repeated requests by Australia and others, Russia has stood in the way. President Obama could make Russian cooperation on this front his strongest request of Vladimir Putin at dinner tonight, and slow the mounting death count.

(Ali Jarekji / Reuters)
The 150,000-person Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. (Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

3. Give more aid — and don't forget about mental health.

America has now contributed more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees for food, shelter and medical care. That's not nothing. But there are certain problems in the refugee camps — and in isolated pockets outside of them — that require special attention.

Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Seige project, says that the worst issue she saw while traveling through refugee settlements is mental trauma. "I met so many women and men, where the depression hangs off their faces," she says. "Psychologically, it's the massive disease that nobody's treating."

And what could fix that? Sending trained psychotherapists to work with families would help. So would creating jobs, even low-paid ones, for both men and women to regain a sense of dignity and progress — which in turn might alleviate the scourge of rampant domestic violence. Wolfe observed, for example, that many of the women refugees were hairdressers, but lacked even the scissors necessary to ply their trades. The big things matter, like having enough tents to house people and food to keep them alive. But the second-order needs can be just as important.

Along with aid and getting cooperation from Russia, The Post's Max Fisher also identified intelligence sharing with rebels as an option that could help repel Assad's advance without actually arming the rebels. Human Rights Watch also has more ideas for the G-20, like getting international cooperation in suspending all business with countries and companies that supply arms to the Assad regime, as well as referring the matter to the International Criminal Court.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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Ezra Klein | September 5, 2013