Whether you wanted to or not, you’ve most likely heard a lot about Syria in the past few weeks.
The recent debate on whether Western nations should intervene in Syria has finally managed to draw the two and a half year old conflict into the forefront of our awareness. The statistics and death tolls have been rehashed time and time again in the last few days since Assad allegedly used chemical weapons, killing an estimated 1,429 people; almost a quarter of whom were children.
The death toll from this single sarin gas attack is about equal to the weekly death tolls that have been inflicted upon Syria since the civil war started in March 2011.
This conflict has drawn out widespread, passionate debate about what should be done concerning Syria. President Obama is seeking Congressional approval before getting our military involved—something he may well receive—but public support is leaning against him. A new Pew Research poll says only 29 percent of Americans are in favor of a military strike, and much of the international community is skeptical. Whatever happens, one of the biggest questions has been overlooked.
What do we do about the growing numbers—an estimated 1.8 million people—who have lost everything and fled their homes in Syria?
The Rwandan genocide displaced about 2 million people in its path. This tidal wave of refugees created its own human rights spectacle that gave birth to the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis and ultimately the First and Second Congo Wars, which have proven to be the bloodiest battles since World War II.
The refugee camps around Rwanda were festering with poverty, sickness, discontent, famine and militarization. Largely unsupported, these camps turned into ideal breeding grounds for recruitment into militias and gangs, which started a horrifying domino effect that created a regional war, resulting in one of the worst conflicts the modern world has seen. Looking back on Rwanda is a sobering reminder of the consequences of Western apathy.
Recently the United Nations mandated, for the first time in its history, a fighting force composed of African nations to disarm and neutralize opposing combatants in Congo. While the UN slugs it out in the DRC, NATO forces are working on handing Afghanistan back to the Afghans after a long war plagued by guerrilla tactics and a seemingly unending supply of insurgents.
In a cruel twist of fate, the war that has been spent fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda has created prime opportunities in neighbouring countries for these organizations to absorb fresh recruits from the 2.2 million people still displaced (as of July 2013) outside of Afghanistan.
With much of this talk about Syria, a topic that has come up repeatedly has been of regional instability. With the Arab Spring having agitated many of the already volatile nations surrounding Syria, a major concern is that this civil war could spill out and turn into a regional one.
The laundry list of nations with interests in Syria is long, and they are not alone in having a stake in the outcome of this conflict—organizations such as Hezbollah and Al Qaeda have their fingers in this pot as well. To say regional stability is a concern would be an understatement; fighting has already spilled over into neighboring Lebanon with over 200 dead.
Every year since 2003, the U.S. has spent approximately 80 billion dollars on fighting the Iraq war. Several reasons contribute to this, but it is incredibly difficult to get an accurate number on how much it actually costs to maintain a refugee camp.
For the refugee crisis during and after the Rwandan genocide, the cost has been estimated at “$800 million in one year,” or “$1.4 billion over nine months,” or “$1.3 billion over two years.” Let’s take the most expensive number for the Rwandan genocide: 1.4 billion over nine months. It is estimated then, that at their most expensive, the refugee camps for 2 million people cost just under 2 billion dollars per year.
According to these numbers, the price of operating a refugee camp is at least 1/40th the cost of fighting a war. Hardly a drop in the bucket when compared to the nearly 1.5 trillion dollars which has been spent by the U.S. on military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.
The Spanish/American philosopher George Santayana has been famously quoted as saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This conflict in Syria is the perfect opportunity to remember our past and retain the lessons of the mistakes we have made in conflicts such as Congo and Afghanistan.
Conflict today looks vastly different than it did 100 or even 50 years ago, and because of this we need to reshape our paradigms of what fighting a war looks like. In the face of modern warfare it is increasingly obvious that it is equally or more important to empower and protect displaced and war-affected people than it is to drop bombs and fire rifles. An educated and healthy population is vastly more stable and sustainable than one who is attempting to survive on the ruins of their society.
In a recent article on the New Yorker website, David Remnick writes “Given the size of its population, one high-ranking Jordanian official told me, the scale of the influx is equivalent to thirty-three million Canadians or Mexicans entering the United States. And many officials think that the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan could double by the end of the year.”
While we must face hard questions in Syria about whether military intervention is appropriate, we must also face a hard reality that displaced people groups need much more attention than an underfunded UNHCR and scattered NGO’s can give them.
Neglecting this issue will sink us deeper into guerrilla quagmires of hit and run warfare and suicide bombings as militant and extremist groups dig deep into the reservoirs of people whom the world has ignored. Health care, housing, quality education and access to a hopeful future is what we need to invest in, and millions of displaced Syrians are people worth fighting for.