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.
Syria’s neighbors have been overwhelmed by calls for help. Lebanon is trying to accommodate nearly one million refugees. In Turkey, an estimated 200,000 refugees are in official camps, but at least twice that number are struggling alone in towns and cities. Support from around the world is fitful: only 60% of aid pledges have come in, with only a fraction actually reaching the intended beneficiaries. Although some agencies have been able to get aid supplies across national borders, they cannot get through the frontlines of the fighting to reach those caught in the crossfire.