The Hill: U.S. Can Halt New Wave of Humanitarian Suffering in Syria

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

Last Friday, the war in Syria entered its ninth year. The conflict appears to be reaching its final phase. With support from Russia and Iran, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has regained control over most of the country’s territory. Yet, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. In the first eight months of 2018 alone, nearly 1.4 million people were displaced by violence. Now the warning lights are blinking red in Idlib and other areas outside of regime control. Many of the Syria’s 5.5 million refugees are under mounting pressure to return home before it is safe to do so.  

President Trump has made clear his desire to move on from Syria. But this would be a mistake. Disengagement now would condemn Syrians to a new round of suffering — with the potential to be among the worst of the war. The United States and other key stakeholders should take a series of steps in four key areas to avoid this eventuality.

First, the biggest concern is the situation in Idlib, where millions of trapped Syrians stand on the brink of disaster. An agreement reached last year between Russia and Turkey to de-escalate tensions in Idlib is under threat. Last fall, that agreement forestalled a regime offensive to retake the province, which would likely be lengthy and bloody. But now the Syrian army, backed by Russian air power, is once again building up forces around Idlib. In recent weeks, they have ratcheted up their bombing of the southern part of the province.

If the de-escalation deal collapses, the humanitarian catastrophe could be the largest of the war. Idlib hosts almost 2 million displaced Syrians. Over three-quarters of the population are already in need of life-saving assistance. It is not too late for the Trump administration to work with Russia and Turkey to avert a disaster. But this will require a major diplomatic push that the administration seems uninterested in pursuing. If the de-escalation agreement cannot be salvaged, Turkey must prepare to protect the hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians who will seek refuge along its border.

Second, over 40,000 displaced Syrians continue to huddle in an informal camp at Rukban in the south of the country along the Jordanian border. They have been sheltering from the Assad regime under a security umbrella provided by a small U.S. force presence at the nearby Tanf military base. However, conditions in the camp itself are beyond dire. Jordan long ago closed its border to aid convoys headed to Rukban. On the Syrian side, United Nations relief workers have struggled to secure permission from the Assad regime to deliver aid via Damascus.

In a welcome development, Damascus allowed the UN to carry out its “largest ever humanitarian convoy” to Rukban this past February. Going forward, the United States and other donors must continue to pressure the Russian government and the Assad regime to permit more aid deliveries. If the regime in Damascus blocks further convoys, Jordan must be convinced to allow access for humanitarians or to provide refuge for the displaced.

Third, the situation in northeast Syria remains precarious despite the Trump administration’s surprise decision last month to keep two hundred troops stationed in the northeast for a prolonged period. Maintaining a U.S. presence appears designed to prevent ISIS from re-emerging and to deter a cross-border military offensive by Turkey against Kurdish communities in the region. Ensuring the latter is key to avoiding a new humanitarian disaster. A major outbreak of hostilities in the area could put many of its 2 million inhabitants at risk, including some half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs),

However, it is far from clear that a small U.S. force can deter fighting across what amounts to a quarter of the country. Britain and France have not yet committed to keeping some of their troops on the ground to bolster the American contingent over the longer term. In addition, the U.S. has pulled diplomats and aid workers out of the area. This week, the Trump administration proposed to zero-out all new U.S. funding for stabilization efforts in Syria. Without additional NATO troops or civilian assistance, it is difficult to see how the administration’s plan can hold things together.

Finally, Syrian refugees are being pressured to go home. Last month, Assad called for refugees to return to areas under regime control. The government seems to believe that it can use such returns to secure international legitimacy and badly needed reconstruction funds. Syria’s neighbors are keen to shed the responsibility of caring for millions of refugees. Indeed, regional host countries — particularly Lebanon — are actively pressuring Syrians to go back by subjecting them to increasingly inhospitable conditions and even deportation.

The UN estimates that a quarter million refugees could return to Syria this year. Yet, those who have already gone back have encountered destroyed homes, limited services and few jobs. As attendees of a conference on Syrian reconstruction were warned in Brussels last week, returning more refugees before conditions permit would jeopardize their safety and could further destabilize the country. The UN, the United States. and its allies must resist attempts to pressure Syrians to return, while supporting host countries to continue to provide refuge. 

Hardin Lang is vice president for policy at Refugees International.