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In Syria, humanitarian donors hard to find

Jun 14, 2013 - By Paul Richter, MCT Washington Bureau

Facing a growing humanitarian crisis, Oxfam, the international relief agency, set a goal in January of raising $53 million to aid victims of Syria's brutal civil war. So far, Americans have contributed $150,000.

Oxfam isn't alone. Mercy Corps has collected $900,000 for Syrian refugees during the 27 months of the war, a fraction of the $2.5 million raised in a few weeks in 2006 during the one-month war between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Other aid groups report similar low levels of response -- a sharp contrast to Americans' usual warmhearted giving to help victims of foreign earthquakes, floods and wars.

The stinginess reflects the murky nature of the Syrian war. It also serves as a rough gauge of public sentiment on a crisis that has frustrated the Obama administration for more than two years. In polls and with their checkbooks, Americans have delivered a message of non-engagement, bolstering President Barack Obama's aversion to deeper involvement.

Reluctance remains

That reticence has remained constant even as pressure to act has risen in Washington. In recent days, the Syrian government, aided by its Hezbollah allies, has made progress on the battlefield, seizing a key town from rebels. Reports have circulated that the government plans to follow up that victory with assaults on rebel positions in and around the city of Aleppo.

The setbacks for the rebels have sparked a new round of administration meetings behind closed doors as officials resume a months-long internal debate over whether to escalate U.S. military support for the rebels in a bid to pressure the government of President Bashar Assad.

Hope for any international peace conference has grown dim, however. Although the Syrian government has agreed to participate in talks sponsored by the U.S. and Russia, U.S.-backed opposition factions have refused to take part without assurances that Assad will leave office -- something the Syrian leader has refused to do, especially when his forces appear to be gaining momentum.

Rebels are asking

And in the wake of their recent losses, the rebels have been increasing their demands that the U.S. and its Western allies supply them with sophisticated weaponry.

Many foreign policy experts, including some Obama advisers, have urged deeper involvement. By hanging back, the U.S. has allowed Syria's crisis to worsen, they say. For the last year, Obama has rejected suggestions to provide arms to the rebels, create a no-fly zone over part of Syria to protect them or authorize airstrikes against the government's military assets.

As of Thursday, Obama said the U.S. would increase its military aid, but only in the form of arms shipments, not active participation.

Officials acknowledge that those options are difficult because arms given to rebels could fall into the hands of extremists, and limited military action could entangle the United States in a long war without yielding victory.

Those risks, plus the public's reluctance to engage, appear to have reinforced the president's caution.

"Americans tend to be incredibly generous," said Noah Gottschalk, senior policy adviser at Oxfam America. Oxfam America raised $29 million after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, and $4 million in a single year for the Darfur region of Sudan. "This crisis isn't high on people's radar for giving."

Public confused

The reasons for the public's reserved attitude are clear. Syria's civil war involves multiple armed groups, none of which appears entirely sympathetic in American eyes.

The Assad government has a brutal history and strong ties to Iran. Significant parts of the opposition, meanwhile, are allied with militant Islamic groups, including al-Qaida. This week, a 14-year-old who was accused of blasphemy by extremist members of the opposition was beaten and killed in public in Aleppo.

On Wednesday, the Syrian government accused rebels of attacking the village of Hatla in the east and killing 30 people, including women and children. Video posted on the Internet showed scorched homes and rebel fighters, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, hoisting black Islamist flags and decrying Shiite "dogs" and "apostates."

The conflict also comes at a time when Americans are war-weary from the costly, inconclusive U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

From the standpoint of average Americans, the Syrian war "is too unclear, too confusing, too far away and coming at the wrong time," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

A survey released this week by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that 15 percent of Americans supported U.S. military action in Syria, and only 11 percent wanted the United States to arm the rebels. The poll found that 42 percent wanted to provide only humanitarian relief, and 24 percent believed that the United States should take no action.

The poll allowed respondents to support more than one option.

Americans' misgivings about Syria mean that Obama faces little political risk by limiting the U.S. role.

Other nations appear to share the U.S. ambivalence.

Countries sympathetic to the Syrian opposition pledged $1.5 billion in January to help people in Syria and the 1.6 million who have fled the country. But actual collections have fallen far short of that figure.

Meanwhile, the need for aid to refugees is growing.

The United Nations last week said it expected the number of Syrian refugees to double by the end of the year, to 3.2 million, and it appealed for $5.2 billion to help them -- the biggest appeal in U.N. history. To awaken interest, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has enlisted a cast of international "celebrity supporters," including a country singer, a supermodel, writers and classical musicians.

Jeremy Barnicle, chief development officer for Mercy Corps, said the organization considered Syria a "very, very major crisis" and hoped that individual donors would become more generous as the scale of the suffering became clear. News coverage of the war has focused heavily on international politics and less on stories of human suffering, another possible reason for the sluggish donations, he said.

Decisions to donate to a cause are usually made quickly, he added. "If there's any ambivalence, that can push them to a decision not to give."

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Editor's note: Paul Richter writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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