After six years of barrel bombs and mass torture in Syria, the recent chemical weapons attack should have been no surprise. Nonetheless, it left me with welling frustration. On Friday evening, I sat at my computer looking at photos, reflecting on the four weeks I spent living in Za’atari Refugee Camp. I paused when I came upon a snap of our neighbor’s kids, laughing with each other, despite their circumstances. A simple phrase—“brains not bombs”—emblazoned on a child’s shirt. Those words encompassed all that I felt, and still feel, about this crisis.
We need to remember only Syrians can rebuild their country—no military action can do that. If the world is outraged by the suffering of displaced Syrians, we must invest in them by providing them shelter and education in our own countries, and increasing the dramatically underfunded humanitarian aid budget.
I’ve worked with and on issues facing Syrian refugees for the past few years, watching as this crisis unfolded. Before you form an opinion about Syria’s future, here are four essential realities to remember:
Tragically, the Syrian war is likely far from ending. This targeted military action should not be confused with overthrowing Assad. This is not a moment to celebrate justice at last for a deserving dictator. Nor does it bring back the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed or the millions of displaced. It is a symbolic show of force in a complex conflict that, seven years into the Syrian war, is difficult for the U.S. to replicate or escalate moving forward. (Watch this for more on all the conflicting factions and interests at play in Syria.)
Peace will likely be negotiated, as there are limited military options. It seems doubtful that President Trump, who has been strongly isolationist in the past, will escalate military action in Syria. It would risk conflict with Russia, who has pledged to keep Assad in power, and given the many competing agendas in Syria, there doesn’t appear to be a clear path for how escalated military action alone will help long-term. While military options alone are limited, Assad’s renewed use of chemical weapons may have opened an opportunity to negotiate a ceasefire. The attack reflects poorly on Russia and will likely make it more difficult for them to justify their actions in Syria. Hopefully the international community can use this moment to protect Syrian citizens by negotiating the prevention of future chemical attacks, as well as barrel bombs and other war crimes by the Assad regime.
Investing in humanitarian aid now will save money and lives long-term. Over 80% of the country is now in poverty. Half of the country’s hospitals gone. 12 million displaced from their homes. An already tenuous civil society has been fractured. In 2015, 54% of the UN’s humanitarian budget for this crisis was funded by the international community. While the U.S. has provided the most aid since the war began, a proposed executive order threatens U.S. support for humanitarian aid agencies moving forward. This is a grave mistake, as increased investment in aid now will save money, time, and lives in the long-term. As Iraq showed us—an estimated $2.1 trillion dollars of military spending and countless lives later—bombs alone don’t build stable nations. Displaced Syrians need safety, education, the right to work, and the opportunity to rebuild.
Welcoming Syrian refugees builds key allies and keeps us safer. President Trump has been celebrated by many on both sides of the aisle for his strike on Syria. He even spoke out, demonstrating empathy that “no child of God should ever suffer such horrors.” He now has an opportunity to go one step further: By allowing controlled resettlement of Syrian refugees, he will not only reaffirm our moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world, but will provide perhaps the best possible defense against recruitment propaganda from extremist groups we’re trying to protect from. The world is listening. Refugees are listening. These are not isolated populations .
Syrian refugees are not helpless bystanders. They are engineers, doctors, and teachers. Albert Einstein and Madeline Albright are among history’s notable refugees. President Trumps’ actions brought Syria back into the public discourse, but it is only one step in a long process for Syria. For those who want to do more, and now, helping Syrian refugees is something any of us can do, right away.