A Long-Term Plan for Syria’s Refugees

Experts no longer talk of Syria's civil war lasting months; they speak in terms of years, or even decades. As a result, lessening the horrors of the conflict and its consequences requires thinking not only about emergency action to save lives, but also about meeting longer-term needs that make those lives worth living.

BEIRUT – After spending just three days with refugees and aid workers in Lebanon and Turkey, the apocalyptic nature of the Syria crisis is all too apparent: more than 100,000 deaths, nine million people displaced, two million children out of school, diseases like polio resurfacing, and neighboring countries struggling to cope with waves of refugees.

Countless heartrending stories of lost husbands, wives, siblings, and children, to say nothing of homes and livelihoods destroyed, provide yet more troubling evidence of how Syria’s civil war has become a regional conflict (as the bombing of Iran’s Beirut embassy suggests). Anti-Assad rebels are now fighting each other, as jihadists make gains. Experts no longer talk of the conflict lasting months; they speak in terms of years, or even decades.

Despite heroic efforts by aid agencies like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to save lives and bring hope to the region, the terrible truth is that it is not possible to protect civilians, especially from snipers and stray missiles, never mind hunger and homelessness. Warring factions do not even recognize the notion of unaffiliated noncombatants, and flout international norms of war. In addition to the use of chemical weapons, the United Nations estimates that 2.5 million civilians lack food, water, and medicines, because some towns and villages are too hard to reach, with an estimated 250,000 people completely cut off from outside help.