Friday, October 4, 2013

How the International Community Is Already Intervening in Syria and Must Continue to Do So

by Brett Barkley

Lost amidst recent debate1 of whether the international community should militarily intervene in Syria are all the ways in which intervention has already happened.

As of late September, the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) had allocated nearly €1.8 billion to provide support for the over 6 million Syrians either registered as refugees or internally displaced since the crisis began in 2011. Funds originate from the EU humanitarian aid budget, as well as individual member states—the UK (€ 473 million) and Germany (€205 million) being the largest donors. The US, in 2012 and 2013 alone, provided nearly $1.4 billion in assistance.

Compare with the tens of millions of dollars Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House of Representatives that limited airstrikes in Syria would cost. Even if we assume that costs would be much higher, say in the hundreds of millions and perhaps approaching $1 billion (the approximate US contribution to the Libyan intervention), the numbers still don’t amount to the funds already poured into the crisis by the US and EU—albeit for more virtuous humanitarian assistance. This is not to say that the US or the broader international community should approve military intervention in Syria. But, it is to say that the isolationist refrain, heard recently across the US and perhaps parts of Europe, that tax dollars cannot continue to be wasted on conflicts in the Middle East is a bit off-base. For better or worse, the US and EU are already heavily invested, having already spent tax dollars in greater sums than a limited military intervention would likely require.

Fortunately, diplomatic negotiations have progressed, and military intervention now appears less imminent. Still, the humanitarian crisis on the ground continues to worsen. Even before the chemical weapons attack in late August, the UN had already increased the 2013 humanitarian appeal from $1.5 to $4.4 billion—the largest humanitarian appeal in the history of the UN. So, if there’s one certainty about the current crisis, it’s that the international community must continue to provide substantial monetary assistance. The stability of a region teetering on the brink depends on it.

Refugee camp in Turkey (Source: Creative Commons)

It has been nearly three years since the Arab Spring began, and few countries remain unscathed. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, still largely intact despite some tremors, can be counted in this group. But under increasing strain from the mounting number of refugees within their borders, tensions are rising in these host communities—typically the most impoverished areas of the neighboring countries. The number of refugees in Lebanon equates to 15 percent of the entire population and nearly 10 percent in Jordan, where water shortages amidst rising prices are creating animosity toward the visiting population. Such increasing stress on already scarce water in the region could lead to issues of food security as demand for food rises and supply falls for crop inputs, such as water but also animal feed and fertilizers, typically imported from Syria. Moreover, urban and rural labor markets are adversely affected, too, angering laborers in the host communities who now must accept lower wages or are out of work altogether. 

The reality on the ground, not only in Syria but perhaps just as importantly in neighboring countries, does not allow the international community to stand idly by. This may not mean military intervention, but it does preclude minding our own business. The recent agreement, however precarious, with Assad’s chief ally, Russia, to disarm Syria of its chemical arsenal is a positive step. Continued flows of humanitarian aid are a must. In short, by whatever means deemed effective and lawful, international leaders—despite certain and unavoidable geopolitical interests—must move in concert to intervene in attempt to alleviate the current tragic and disastrous conditions. 

Brett Barkley is a joint Master’s Candidate in the Departments of Agricultural & Consumer Economics and Urban & Regional Planning. He is currently a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellow with the European Union Center, studying Turkish. His research includes the impact of the EU accession process on environmental policy in Turkey, particularly as it relates to the management of transboundary waters.

Alexander, David. "Cost of a U.S. strike against Syria could top Hagel's estimate." Reuters, September 5, 2013.

Daalder, Ivo, and James Stavridis. "NATO’s Victory in Libya: The Right Way to Run an Intervention." Foreign Affairs, March 2012.

ECHO. "Syria Crisis: ECHO Fact Sheet." September 23, 2013.

FAO. "Agricultural Livelihoods and Food Security Impact Assessment and Response Plan for the Syria Crisis in the Neighboring Countries of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey." March 2013.

Gordon, Michael. "U.S. and Russia Reach Deal to Destroy Syria’s Chemical Arms." The New York Times, September 14, 2013.

Hewitt, Gavin. "Syria crisis a 'defining moment' for the European Union." BBC News, September 9, 2013.

UKAID. "UKAID Syria Response." September 25, 2013.

UNOCHA. Syria: 8 things you need to know about the Syrian humanitarian crisis. June 7, 2013.

USAID. "Syria-Complex Emergency: Fact Sheet." September 24, 2013.

Warrick, Joby. "Influx of Syrian refugees stretches Jordan’s water resources even more thinly." The Washington Post, June 15, 2013.

1 The European Union Center (EUC) at the University of Illinois co-hosted a Teach-In on Syria on September 18, where professors from departments across campus addressed key issues concerning the conflict in Syria and held a robust dialogue with the audience. A video of the teach-in may be viewed by clicking here.


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