BOSTON — To send arms or not to send arms? That is not the question the United States should be asking to end the tragedy unfolding in Syria.
Why? Consider Reema, a 12-year-old refugee.
"I was at school when it was bombed,” she said. “Some of the children were killed. We all ran away." After her school was destroyed, she fled to Lebanon with her parents and four siblings. They live in a single room in an unfinished, rubble-strewn building.
Wrenched from her home and confronted by horrific acts violence, Reema is my window into Syria. Like millions of Syrian children affected by this escalating war, Reema’s future is at risk—and she is why we must demand better from our leaders.
Earlier this week, the United Nations reported that 100,000 children, women and men have been killed in Syria’s two-year civil war, putting it alongside some of history’s most violent internal conflicts.
The true nature of the intense suffering inside Syria may not be known for years. The government of Syria—which controls a majority of the country—and the opposition forces release very little reliable information. This hampers the work of diplomats seeking a political end to the war, as well as the efforts of humanitarian organizations like Oxfam seeking to reach those in urgent need inside Syria.
In the 1990s, global leaders led by President Clinton coalesced around a program of serious and focused diplomacy to end the Bosnian civil war, which claimed 100,000 lives.
Today, Syria is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yet, President Obama’s administration is no closer to brokering peace than it was a year ago, when he stated: “Prevention of atrocities is one of this administration’s stated foreign policy objectives.”
Make no mistake: More weapons will not solve the conflict in Syria. So it was welcome news when US lawmakers exercised restraint last week and effectively blocked plans to provide arms to opposition forces inside Syria.
This builds on bold, bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Tom Udall of Arizona in late June aimed at preventing funding to support arms transfers to rebel forces inside Syria. What’s needed, cautioned lawmakers, is access to life-saving aid and leadership to bring this conflict to a peaceful end. We agree.
What is known about Syria’s war is shocking: Nearly one-third of its population has been directly affected; more than 8 million Syrians need humanitarian aid; countless women and girls have been raped or terrorized with sexual violence; children have been slaughtered, and millions of families have been torn apart and forced to flee to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
In all, more than 4 million children—a population larger than Los Angeles—need help. The risk of losing a whole generation of Syrians to the trauma and displacement of this war creeps closer each day. Meanwhile, some pundits and US government officials continue their shortsighted clamor to inject more arms into an already violent war, while global powers including the United States fail to bring the warring parties together to discuss a political solution.
Inside Syria and along its borders, Oxfam is working to protect families from the risks and indignities of war and displacement. We are providing access to shelter, food, and clean water for drinking and washing, to prevent the outbreak and spread of communicable disease like cholera.
But millions more Syrians inside the country and living in refugee camps on the margins are in need of humanitarian aid right now. It is increasingly critical that the government of Syria and opposition forces allow aid organizations like Oxfam to quickly ramp up our work to safely deliver relief and aid impartially to those most in need. Furthermore, donor governments everywhere must respond to this tragedy by fulfilling the UN’s historic appeal for humanitarian aid funding for Syria.
Oxfam is in Jordan and Lebanon right now, delivering essential supplies and services to vulnerable children and families that have fled the violence in Syria. To date, we have helped more than 250,000 refugees gain access to life-saving essentials like food, shelter and drinking water. We’re also starting work inside Syria to provide emergency water and sanitation to 300,000 people. Overall, we aim to help 650,000 people in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria over the coming months.
Even as need outstrips resources, we are striving to reach children and families in peril. But Oxfam and other US-based aid organizations need the support of our government and the American people.
While President Obama and Secretary Kerry have acted admirably to pledge humanitarian aid capable of addressing symptoms of the crisis, much more must be done to bring the warring parties together as soon as possible to negotiate an end to this war.
What kind of future awaits Reema and her generation of Syrian children? That is the real question.
Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam, a global humanitarian organization with operations in more than 90 countries. Oxfam America has offices in Boston and Washington, DC.