Trudy Rubin | Humanitarian crisis worsens in Syria

Americans are a generous people. During the holiday season, we are busy buying gifts and donating to the needy, and are quick to pull out the checkbook or text funds when a typhoon strikes the Philippines.

But this Thanksgiving, I can’t help wondering why the biggest humanitarian crisis in a decade is getting so little attention. I’m referring to Syria, where nearly one-third of the population, almost 7 million people, has either fled the country or is displaced and struggling to survive inside Syria. Half of the 2 million Syrians who have escaped to neighboring countries are children.

As winter sets in, the Assad regime is preventing humanitarian aid convoys from reaching besieged areas containing hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom are starving. Why hasn’t this human catastrophe affected us as emotionally as, say, a famine in Ethiopia? Perhaps because the dynamics of a famine are easy to grasp, while the Syrian story seems impossibly complicated.

So let me explain the nature of this tragedy and how you can help.

The crisis grew out of a decision by the Assad regime to respond with draconian force to peaceful demonstrations. When some civilians and army deserters then took up arms, the regime began a scorched-earth policy, destroying cities and towns that resisted.

Syrian refugees fleeing the bombs and shells continue to pour into neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, which are economically unable to handle the deluge. Some refugees are housed in camps, others are barely surviving in mosques and schools or on charity. In tiny Lebanon, the Syrian refugee population is now equal to around one-quarter of its population. That’s as if the entire population of Germany became refugees in the United States.

Inside Syria, the regime of Bashar Assad has bombed and shelled whole cities and neighborhoods into World War II-like wreckage. Three thousand schools and most flour mills and bakeries have been targeted, and 60 percent of hospitals destroyed.

“The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel and transportation remains a daily reality,” says Valerie Amos, the United Nations’ top relief coordinator.

“This is a middle-income country which is receding from the 21st to the 19th century,” says Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. “There is no school, no work, people are burning their possessions to stay warm. There is economic degradation, collapse of services, lack of medical care.”

The United Nations, along with Western governments and nongovernmental organizations, have been trying to get aid to displaced Syrians, but donor pledges fall far short of what is needed. With the exception of Kuwait, rich Arab gulf states have been shamefully stingy with Syria aid, and should be publicly embarrassed into giving more.

What is more shocking is the regime’s unwillingness to let convoys deliver aid where it is most needed. The government has refused visas for aid workers and thrown up endless obstacles to their operations — even as cases of polio have emerged in northern Syria.

The easiest way to reach some of the most desperate civilians would be across the border from Turkey. But the United Nations is only authorized to operate through sovereign states, which means it delivers all its aid via Damascus. As a result, aid never reaches many of the most needy.

The regime has rebuffed last month’s U.N. Security Council statement urging the Syrian government to permit cross-border deliveries. It also refused permission for U.N. aid convoys to access desperate civilians in areas besieged by government forces in the Damascus suburbs and Homs. (Islamist opposition groups also are blocking aid convoys, but the overwhelming share of the problem lies with the regime.)

Last week, the major powers, along with Iran, met to discuss this humanitarian crisis, and this month the Syrian government and opposition are finally set to meet in Geneva. But peace talks are pointless unless the regime first halts the siege of civilians.

While government pooh-bahs talk in hotels, Syrian civilians are dying. “The regime is using starvation as a weapon,” says Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian National Coalition’s representative to the United States.

For those of you who want to help, there are NGOs getting aid into Syria and U.N. agencies doing fine work under awful conditions. By helping them, you can help save Syrian civilians from a catastrophe as deadly — and far more evil — than a typhoon.