by Ben Cardin
In February, I led a congressional delegation to Israel and Turkey and then to Austria to attend the annual winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
There is very little that can prepare you for the humanitarian crisis that is now unfolding in the Middle East. During my visit, the violence in Syria and human suffering it has spawned were topics of discussion in both Israel and Turkey. The threat of cross-border violence for both of these countries is very real and immediate. The Syria crisis was also the subject of a debate by more than 200 parliamentarians from the 57 OSCE countries during our meeting in Vienna, Austria.
While in Turkey, our delegation met with representatives of the Syrian opposition. We also visited the Kilis refugee camp on the Turkey-Syria border, which shelters more than 13,000 Syrian refugees and is one of 17 camps that have been established by the Turkish government. I commend Turkey for keeping its border open to those fleeing the violence in Syria, and for not only sheltering and feeding these refugees, but also providing medical care and educating their children.
Just prior to our visit, the camp residents had held an election and selected a group of individuals to lead their temporary community. Our delegation met with these elected officials who shared stories of their triumph in leading their families to safety in Turkey. Their frustration with the lack of support from the international community was clear. These leaders repeatedly expressed their expectations that the United States would take decisive action. As time wears on, destabilizing elements are taking advantage of the void of cohesive leadership in the opposition. Those in the camps reinforced those concerns.
President Obama will visit Jordan, which along with Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, has maintained open borders to Syrians fleeing the violence. These countries should be commended for welcoming Syrians into their communities and constructing camps for them, despite limited domestic resources for their own citizens. They also need and deserve abundant and consistent support from the international community.
On March 6, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of people fleeing Syria had exceeded 1 million, with 400,000 crossing the border since January of this year. More than 2 million remain displaced inside Syria and more than 4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. In December 2012, the UNHCR appealed for $1.5 billion in contributions from the international community to meet the needs of the then expected 1 million people to have fled across Syria’s borders by mid-2013. We are already there. To date, the U.N. has received less than 20 percent of the requested funding.
The first response needed from the international community is to fully fund the United Nations appeal to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria. To date, the United States has contributed nearly $385 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people and approximately $115 million in nonlethal support to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. This funding also includes the $60 million in food rations and medical equipment recently announced by Secretary of State Kerry that will be provided to both the Syrian opposition coalition and to the opposition’s Supreme Military Council.
As we approach the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011, the situation inside Syria and in the region is reaching catastrophic proportions. Assad clings to power by launching SCUD missiles at universities and hospitals and unleashing fighter jets against civilians across Syria — supported by ongoing arms transfers from the Russian Federation. This must stop. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah who are sending their fighters into Syria must stand down.
Bashar Al Assad must go. The chair of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry for Syria recently reported that there is evidence of at least 20 massacres in Syria, including three in the central city of Homs since December. There is no question that Assad is murdering the people of Syria and has lost all legitimacy.
It is time for the international community to unite in its call for an end to the Assad regime and a peaceful transition to an inclusive and democratic Syria. The more assistance that our nation and the international community can provide to the Syrian opposition coalition, the sooner Assad will realize that his bloody grip on Syria cannot last. Assad must also know that he will be held accountable under international law for his crimes against humanity.
Ben Cardin is a United States senator representing Maryland.