The two year anniversary of the Syria uprising coincides with another dark milestone: over one million refugees have fled across Syria's borders into neighboring countries. More troubling news is that half of that number arrived in the last two months. The UN estimates that over 2.5 million people are displaced inside Syria and many more have been affected by the upheaval and fighting inside Syria.
I suppose many Americans tune out when they hear the numbers of people involved in this crisis. After all, “2.5 million” sounds like just a number. But I am quite certain that this audience knows full well that I am talking about people, about individuals, about families in peril. You have all been affected in one way or another and no doubt some of your own relatives remain in danger.
In recent months I have met on numerous occasions with diplomats from the region and I’ve traveled repeatedly to Turkey and Jordan and I’ve visited Lebanon. In every one of these countries I have met with Syrian refugees. I’ve visited camps in Turkey and Za’atri camp in Jordan. I have also sat and talked with Syrian families on the floors of apartments in Amman and Mafraq in Jordan and or met at UN offices in Beirut. So, like you, when I talk about the numbers of those who have been affected by the fighting in Syria, I recall the faces of real people, with real fears and worries.
They are fathers who have brought families to safety but are too proud to say they need help or are temporarily unable to provide for their families. [They are] mothers who wonder how they will take care of their children while living in a tent. Children still in Syria who cannot or are afraid to go to school and babies who have not been vaccinated.
Let me say at the outset that in my speech today I won’t be able to give you what you and what your friends and relatives in the region truly want: news of the fall of Asad or an end to the fighting and a return to peace, or the establishment of a democracy in Syria that will respect and include all Syrian citizens. Rest assured: this is a goal we all seek.
My role is to talk to you about what the U.S. government is doing to respond to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East. To share with you the approach my bureau in the State Department and colleagues at USAID are taking to the crisis. Perhaps, if I can, to debunk a few rumors, and to enlist your help in justifying the use of taxpayer dollars for humanitarian purposes and secure your support for our diplomatic efforts.
The U.S. government is the leading donor to aid operations in response to the crisis and is currently providing $385 million to respond to the growing humanitarian needs in Syria and in neighboring countries. With this support, international and non-governmental organizations, called NGOs, have brought emergency medical care, food, shelter, and household supplies to victims of the conflict in all of Syria's 14 governorates.
Efforts to manage the current refugee flood and help the millions of people in need still trapped inside Syria have produced real results. Neighboring countries are admitting refugees and providing aid directly or allowing international aid agencies to do so. International NGOs and local NGOs are working round the clock to help and delivering aid. The United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other partner organizations are supporting Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq to manage the influx of new arrivals.
Inside Syria, providing humanitarian assistance is extremely risky and the fighting hinders access to populations in need on both sides of the conflict. You heard me say before that aid has reached all 14 governorates, but that does not mean it reached everyone who needed it within those 14 governorates. An assessment carried out in mid-January that was partly funded by the U.S. government confirmed that millions are in need. The U.S. is pursuing all means to reach these people, working with NGOs, the UN and International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), all of whom have staff in Syria.
The ICRC and UNICEF have managed to keep clean water flowing out of taps all over Syria. Thanks to them, ten million people benefit. NGO partners have even managed to get clean water into the Atmeh displaced persons camp in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey – a tough place for aid to reach. There, latrines have been constructed, pipe has been installed for a sewage system, and garbage is being collected and removed. We are also mindful that most displaced Syrians are not in camps or settlements and so our programs help communities like Idlib and Aleppo and provide extra household supplies and food to host families.
But operations inside Syria are dangerous. The list of problems is daunting and includes: ongoing fighting, numerous checkpoints, various restrictions by the Syrian government, targeting of humanitarian workers and medical personnel and risks posed by extremist elements among the opposition. Aid workers have been injured and killed. Despite repeated requests by the UN to the Asad regime to allow humanitarian aid to be brought in across land borders, the regime continues to deny permission and has threatened to expel the UN and other humanitarian organizations if they attempt such operations. On a daily basis, UN aid workers try to expand what is allowed by the government and try to get aid to those who need it, while dodging bullets and bombs. Humanitarian workers regularly put their lives on the line to deliver assistance to those in need. Ten members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been killed since the conflict began, and five workers with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees have paid the ultimate price.
UN organizations have succeeded in carrying out operations with aid flown into government-controlled airports. The UN has conducted three successful operations to date to cross from government-controlled areas to reach opposition-controlled areas. But it is not enough. Over the coming weeks, the UN aims to conduct daily convoys delivering assistance to conflict-affected areas in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, and Deir-ez-Zor.
The U.S. government has also encouraged the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s Assistance Coordination Unit, or ACU, to assume a role in humanitarian operations inside Syria. I have met in Turkey with senior representatives of the ACU and I recently welcomed the Syrian Coalition’s Washington representative to my office to discuss aid efforts.
It is important for you to understand that we remain committed to providing humanitarian assistance solely on the basis of need. This is what we do all over the world and the Syria crisis is no different. The phrase “humanitarian” has a very specific meaning to my colleagues and to UN and other aid agencies. It not only describes the type of aid -- basic lifesaving materials, like clean water, food, and shelter -- but also the motives of the donor and the way aid is delivered. Core humanitarian principles include providing aid to all people, in all circumstances, while ensuring respect for the individual; doing so on an impartial basis, so aid is distributed based on need and not by playing favorites; and delivering aid independent of politics and the whims of governments .
Recently you heard Secretary of State Kerry announce that the U.S. would increase the amount of aid given to the opposition. This aid is different from humanitarian aid. It is handled by other offices, and is intended to help the opposition succeed. In the past aid to the opposition was to provide equipment and communications gear to support nascent civilian offices. We also sponsored civil society groups with similar aid to allow them to build support for opposition efforts. The increased aid will help the Syrian Opposition Coalition in communities deliver essential services (for example, trash collection, schools) and operate like a local government..
Meanwhile, despite using a principled approach to deliver humanitarian assistance, there has been criticism. Some charge that humanitarian aid is concentrated in regime-controlled areas. U.S. assistance is more evenly distributed than critics suggest or the press reports. Observers on the scene may not realize that aid provided in smaller communities is, in fact, paid for by the U.S. government. USAID is working with partner organizations to “brand” or put the U.S. flag on our assistance in opposition-controlled areas when safety allows so that aid recipients know that we are helping. But if branding aid or taking credit for it will endanger the lives of the people who distribute or receive it, it is not worth doing. We don’t want medical kits destroyed because of a U.S. flag sticker, or children harmed for buying bread at a U.S.-supported bakery. Our aim is to save lives.
Some are concerned that involving the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in aid deliveries is tantamount to giving aid to the friends of Asad. While the political views of Red Crescent workers probably reflect the diverse views held by the rest of the Syrian populace, I have heard repeatedly that Red Crescent staff and volunteers are living up to the ideals of the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement for neutrality and impartiality. They are courageously working across the country, including in opposition-held areas, and are making a great difference, especially because they know the local geography, they know the neighborhoods, and they have a better sense than international staff or staff from Damascus about where it is and is not safe to go.
Another rumor that has cropped up a few times is that aid is being diverted to feed Asad’s troops. We have investigated this rumor and can report to you that it has no basis in fact. We have a large number of contacts throughout Syria and there is no evidence that this is happening.
The UN has been accused of funneling aid dollars to the Asad regime and as contributing to the Asad regime’s control. Let me assure you: this is completely false. This rumor has not only misinformed and demoralized many Syrians, it has had the effect of dampening donations to UN agencies, which is a terrible mistake. It is true that UN agencies have offices in Damascus and need to get the government’s approval to secure visas and operate. No money, however, is being used to prop up the regime.
The UN’s planning figures of up to 1.1 million refugees that were previously considered a worst case scenario are now the baseline for current requirements. The UN needs at least $1.5 billion in donations to meet the existing needs through the end of June 2013 and is already in the process of preparing an additional appeal.
Donors have met only about 21% of the UN's current appeals and generous pledges made at the end of January by the Gulf States and others have yet to materialize. My fear is that international assistance will not rise to the levels needed.
The sad truth is that the scale of the suffering in Syria continues to outpace efforts to address it. This trend threatens to exhaust the hospitality of neighboring countries and to overwhelm the ability of international relief organizations. The "international humanitarian system" is a network of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, and others. Within this network, the United States is a traditional leader. The network only works when all of the groups involved are funded, expert staff get access to areas in need, and borders remain open. I fear we are pushing this system beyond its capacity.
And I want to assure you that even as we work to get medical supplies and equipment into Syria, set up mobile medical units and support clinics, and we train additional first responders and medical staff, that our goal is not to run the best battlefield hospitals on earth. Our real goal is to make these efforts unnecessary and to bring peace back to Syria.
Even if the Asad regime falls soon, continued political, economic, and social insecurity will mean a sustained reliance on humanitarian aid and refugees living outside Syria for the foreseeable future.
So…I’ve got my work cut out for me in terms of convincing other countries to give more, in setting the record straight about the heroic efforts of aid workers inside Syria, in pressing international aid agencies to do as much as they can wherever they can. I am encouraging UN leaders to take on more risks and “push the envelope” to get aid into those hard-to-access parts of Syria where the needs are great. And we are formally requesting that they plan for every conceivable contingency, since this crisis has already defied predictions about its likely scale and scope. We are asking neighboring countries to keep their borders open despite political tensions and economic burdens within their own countries, to work with us to ensure international aid reaches the Syrians, and to help us uphold international standards in order to protect and aid refugees.
At the same time, we could use your help.
I am glad Congressman Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will speak to you shortly. It is important that your elected representatives know that you care about what happens in Syria and that you support U.S. government engagement and efforts to help. Your presence today when he speaks makes that clear.
Please also try to keep coverage of this crisis in local newspapers, on radio. You can write letters to the editor or invite the press to cover events, like this conference today. Or, post updates you receive on facebook, share with friends, follow State department and USAID twitter feeds and retweet information that you think others should hear. Let your relatives and friends overseas know that we are doing our utmost to help.
You can write me, too, if you want, but please believe me when I say Syria is never far from my mind. My office has global responsibilities, so I care about what is happening in Mali and South Sudan and Somalia, too. But lately I would estimate that I spend most of my time on the Syria crisis. You must, too, or else you would not be here today.
Finally, let me thank you for coming today, for your attention to this issue and for everything you do to help the victims of violence in Syria.