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U.S. Response To Syria's Humanitarian Crisis Criticized


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Strategic despair - that's how Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson describes the response of the U.S. and its allies to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.

MICHAEL GERSON: It's easy to argue that any given policy that the administration or the international community might take would be inadequate, late or risky.

MONTAGNE: Inadequate, late or risky, perhaps, but Gerson argues that falling into a kind of strategic despair is not an option when it comes to what's happening to the people of Syria. He recently returned from Jordan where he met with Syrian refugees. He traveled with Michael Abramowitz of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on a trip sponsored by the museum. When they came into our studio, it was Gerson who began describing the suffering they witnessed.

GERSON: We were at the border, the distant border near Iraq with the refugees coming across. And they're generally coming across from besieged areas like Homs and Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus that have been purposely surrounded, starved out, beaten with barrel bombs. These are people with horrible stories of suffering, hunger, who fled their homes sometimes several times at several stages in order to get across the border with almost nothing.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: I think the thing that was really striking to me, Renee, was the large number of children that were coming across the border. I think about of the 2.5 million refugees that have fled Syria, you know, more than a million are children. So we saw, you know, families with five, six children, you know, coming across the border, and you really see the future of Syria in the faces of these children being destroyed.

MONTAGNE: These last comments from Michael Abramowitz, director for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the Holocaust Museum. You've written that the international community could have curbed the conflict by invoking the doctrine, and it's a United Nations doctrine, Responsibility to Protect. Explain how that would work in a situation like Syria.

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, the Responsibility to Protect is, as you say, a U.N. doctrine which actually doesn't have to be invoked. It's in force at all times. I mean, every country in the world has signed on to that doctrine which basically says that in any country where four basic crimes are either taking place or threatened - genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing - that the obligation to protect civilians from those crimes is on the host government, in this case Syria.

But where that host government is either unable or unwilling or in this case is actually perpetrating many of the crimes we're talking about, then it falls on the international community to try to do something about it.

MONTAGNE: Right. But I think Syria's a prime example of how complicated that can be.

ABRAMOWITZ: No, absolutely. You know, the one thing that I would say is that the responsibility to protect does not obligate you to one specific course of action. It does not say you have to have military intervention but it does say that the international community has to act to try to stop these crimes.

GERSON: And I would add that we're seeing here in Syria not just the failure of an international doctrine but a failure to some extent of humanitarian sympathy. We talked with a lot of groups on the ground that are doing great work with the refugees but having an impossible time raising money in the West in order to meet these needs. You know, we asked people, why is that? What's the difference between the Philippines or other disasters where they raise money quickly?

Some of it is the complexity of the situation. Some of it is people are tired of the Middle East. But this is the largest refugee situation, or displaced person situation, since Rwanda.

MONTAGNE: Well, Michael Gerson, let me put this back on you, though. You are associated with the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda in the Middle East, part of which included the war in Iraq. I mean that is one thing that certainly soured Americans on military intervention and especially in the Middle East. So let me ask you about Syria. What realistically could the U.S. have done with these attitudes domestically?

What could it have done practically and what can it do now to affect the outcome in Syria without actually getting bogged down in another war?

GERSON: Well, I want to stipulate that the strategic situation is difficult in the Middle East because of commitments we've had both in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's absolutely true. The problem is when these mass atrocity situations, when you look at them throughout history, the strategic circumstance is often difficult. You know, you have to look at what's possible in your own time.

Now, you know, I've tried not to engage in this situation in what the administration could've done a year ago or two years ago. That really is not relevant. The question is, are things possible now? And the administration is moving forward in some areas. I mean, we saw evidence on the ground of attempts to help the acceptable rebels, particularly in the south. My impression when I was there is not that the solutions are easy. But a number of countries in the region - whether you're talking about Jordan or Turkey or Saudi Arabia or others - are looking for some answers, some ways to help with the situation that the United States could provide some leadership on.

MONTAGNE: And this, of course, all in the context of Russia, which is an ally if Bashar al-Assad. Russia's sending in weapons, Iran backing Hezbollah - sending in thousands of troops. So there is some thing being done there by the international community, it's just being done to help the regime.

GERSON: Well, I think, you know, one of the things that we heard on the ground from actually the refugees themselves, which was really moving, you know, the refugees are very aware of the geopolitical situation. You know, we were in the Zaatari camp and we also visited the homes of some of the refugees - they're following this very closely. And their perception is that the allies of Assad are very, very all-in, if you will. You know, the countries that you mention: Iran, Russia.

And that people on the other side: the West, the Gulf States are less invested in this. It's really seen as a proxy battle for the entire Middle East. And so, it is definitely something that people on the ground felt very upset about.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

GERSON: Thank you for having us, really appreciate it

ABRAMOWITZ: Good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. Michael Abramowitz directs the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.