The following is an excerpt from The Case for a More Robust Intervention in Syria by Century Foundation fellow Thanassis Cambanis.
1. Double Humanitarian Aid to Syria
The United States should double its already generous humanitarian expenditures in Syria, marking a major financial commitment (although it would amount to a fraction of the costs of a military campaign). This expenditure would have serious impact. It would mark America’s position as the leading humanitarian donor, and should be accompanied by far more political messaging to make clear that the United States gives the lion’s share of humanitarian aid to Syria, as it does in many other troubled parts of the world. The tangible impact is important: every additional group of children enrolled in school, ill people given medical care, or displaced people sheltered, is important—these are clearly achievable goals. The moral impact is equally crucial: the United States can and should frame Syria’s conflict as a war against human beings and the institutions that enable them to live with basic services and dignity.
Since the conflict began, the United States has spent roughly $5 billion on humanitarian aid to Syria. It continues to underwrite much of the essential aid that keeps people alive in areas occupied by Islamic State, Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, and even the Syrian government. In many ways, international humanitarian aid has propped up every party to the Syrian conflict; but the funding has also checked the mind-numbing human suffering caused by the war. In comparison, the European Union has spent about €5 billion (equivalent to about $5.5 billion), while Turkey has spent about $8 billion.
2. Take on a Fair Share of the Refugee Burden
The United States has admitted an appallingly low number of refugees from the conflict. Meanwhile, more than 1 million Syrians have sought asylum in Europe. Lebanon houses more than 1 million registered refugees and an estimated 500,000 more unregistered refugees, an amount roughly equivalent to one-third of Lebanon’s total population. Turkey has taken in at least 2.8 million Syrian refugees. The United States has not admitted significant numbers of refugees, and it ought to do much better on that front; but what it can do quickly is shoulder an equal share of the burden by paying to provide for the displaced. That commitment would enable the United States to stand shoulder to shoulder on the same ground as its European and Middle Eastern allies who are reeling but doing their best to help the victims of the war.
3. Deliver Aid Directly to Those in Need
The United Nations—which oversees most humanitarian aid inside Syria—has proven incapable of functioning impartially. The Syrian government has been able to dictate which populations receive aid and which do not, all the while siphoning off a great deal of foreign humanitarian aid for its own supporters. The United Nations and its agencies operate under a state-to-state paradigm in an area where dozens of entities claim overlapping sovereignty.
The United States can take action to stop its contributions from being held hostage by the distorted approach taken by the UN agencies in Syria. It can and should withhold any aid that is funneled through the Syrian government, unless the Syrian government immediately lifts all access restrictions (which it has been unwilling to do throughout the conflict, in defiance of the U.N. Security Council). It should run its own airdrops of aid to besieged areas, since it has greater logistical capacity to organize airdrops and has the flexibility to coordinate air drops with the Russians. In Islamic State and Nusra areas in northern Syria that depend on food and other basic aid from U.S.-funded contractors, the United States should dictate new terms of engagement. If aid does not reach its intended civilian beneficiaries, it can cut off supplies. U.S. forces can also target pro- and anti-government militias that engage in predatory behavior and steal or block aid deliveries.