Intervention in Syria comes with new obligations, aid groups say

In this file photo taken on June 8, 2016, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense Directorate in Liberated Province of Aleppo, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian civil defense workers, right, helps an injured woman after warplanes attacked a street, in Aleppo, Syria. (Civil Defense Directorate in Liberated Province of Aleppo via AP, File)

The decision to attack an airbase in Syria in response to chemical attacks on civilians represents a shift in U.S. policy toward the civil war. That shift – driven by horrific images of victims – should mean that the Trump administration is ready to do more to help Syrians, officials from multiple aid groups said.

“We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday at an event in Italy ahead of the Group of Seven meeting, according to Reuters.

The actions and words of the administration compel the Trump administration to do more to help Syrians, officials from multiple aid groups said, by working to end the war and opening the door to refugees.

“Now that the U.S. administration has chosen to deploy military force, they have a greater responsibility to redouble diplomatic efforts toward establishing a credible path towards peace,” International Rescue Committee (IRC) officials said in a statement. “President Trump’s fury over horrific loss of life in Idlib is welcome, but we urge his administration to support humanitarian assistance, at risk in his proposed budgets, and the country’s proven and effective refugee resettlement system.”

The humanitarian relief group argued that the only way to prevent civilian attacks is to end the war. IRC welcomed the fact that the Trump administration was upset by the chemical weapons attack that led to the missile strikes. The IRC urged the U.S. to remain involved to resolve the conflict and do more for the millions of refugees displaced by the fighting.

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Oxfam officials also said the administration must do more. It focused on the need to reverse the executive order reducing refugee resettlement and temporarily suspending admittance of Syrian refugees. The only difference between the people attacked last week and refugees is their geographical location. Refugees fled Syria for their own safety and sought asylum in the U.S. and other countries.

“If we truly want to help protect the people of Syria, we must also be willing to offer the Syrians assistance as they flee attacks in search of safety,” Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy adviser, said in a statement. “We should be opening our hearts and doors to the most vulnerable, not slamming them shut.”

Dozens of civilians died when chemical weapons were deployed in the city of Idilib, last week. Reports indicate that Syrian government forces were behind the attack and it was launched from the air base struck by the U.S. a few days later. By responding, the situation “amounts to an international armed conflict” that necessitates expanded humanitarian obligations, International Committee of the Red Cross officials told Reuters.

The chemical attack was an example of the human cost of the six-year-old conflict in Syria, said human rights and humanitarian groups. Both rebel and government forces have been accused of human rights violations for carrying out attacks on civilians and medical facilities. The Red Cross’s claim that it is an international conflict grants the group expanded access, including evaluating the treatment of prisoners of war.

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It is estimated more than 400,000 people have died during the conflict. The scale and brutality of the violence forced more than 11 million to flee their homes, nearly half to neighboring countries. Escalating the involvement of the U.S. provides a greater opportunity for the conflict to end. The humanitarian groups that campaigned over the course of the war for a peaceful solution hope that more will be done to protect Syrians.

“There has been striking political unity around the need to end impunity for war crimes.  That unity needs to be maintained and built upon. This has been yet another terrible week for the people of Syria,” IRC head David Miliband said in a statement. “The only good things that could come out of it are, first, global determination to prevent further atrocities in the conduct of the war, and second, renewed drive in the search for peace. The world’s attention must not be allowed to waver.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.