SFRC Hearing Recap – U.S. Role & Strategy in the Middle East: The Humanitarian Crisis

Photo Credit: U.S. News

On Tuesday, September 29, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing titled, “U.S. Role & Strategy in the Middle East: The Humanitarian Crisis.” Witnesses included Michael Gabaudan of Refugees International, Nancy Lindborg of the United States Institute of Peace, and David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee. Below is a recap of the proceedings.

“We can staunch the dying, but it takes politics to stop the killing,” David Miliband told Senator Robert Mendendez (D-NJ) of the Middle East’s growing humanitarian crisis.  The relationship between assistance and the root causes of the Syrian conflict took precedence, with senators repeatedly inquiring into the geopolitical aspects of the refugee crisis.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) presided, setting the tone of the hearing by emphasizing the numbers of displaced persons in need of humanitarian assistance (estimated to be 60 million globally) and the need for a fundamental change in the way such crises are perceived. The average time spent in a refugee camp has risen to 17 years, with return to native countries unlikely for many refugees. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) cited this statistic and stated that current refugee laws must be reconsidered in light of this: “Protracted crises seem to be the new normal.”

Miliband called for greater recognition of the linkage between geopolitical and humanitarian situations, including a comprehensive return to a structured political process within Syria based on UNSC resolution 2139. As European aid surpassed American figures, Miliband focused on measures the United States should take in order to support refugees, including raising the ceiling on the amount of refugees allowed in the country and implementation of a “DNA family reunification scheme.”

Gabaudan spoke about the socioeconomic deterioration within Syria and the countries hosting Syrian refugees, stressing the need for development rather than humanitarian interventions. He critiqued the failure to fully reach the $4.5 billion request for Syrian refugees and called for a “Marshall Plan” aid package combining public and private sector initiatives aimed at bolstering host countries’ economies. Lindborg, citing the duration of refugees’ placement in camps, emphasized the need for employment and education initiatives in order to break cycles of conflict. She also mentioned the plight of the 7.6 million internally displaced Syrians, for which delivering humanitarian assistance is an exceedingly difficult endeavor.

Miliband stated that the recent surge of refugees and displaced persons worldwide is an emerging trend and advocated the integration of development and humanitarian assistance as a response to this evolution. Local integration is inevitable in border countries, and economic interventions are necessary in order to support the strained infrastructure in countries like Lebanon and Jordan.

Sen. Corker asked about the Russian role in the Syrian conflict and President Putin’s support for the Assad regime, to which Miliband described  the highly fragmented nature of conflict. A “pincer movement” has developed within the country, in which Syrians “flee from [Assad’s] barrel bombs, driven into the hands of ISIS.” He emphasized that Assad is primarily targeting civilians and fractured rebel groups rather than ISIS. Corker stressed Russia’s military build up and insistence on allying with Assad alongside Iran, asking what effect a Russian intervention would have on the refugee crisis.

Miliband then underlined the ubiquity of international law violations “from all sides,” adding that any significant political approach to ending the conflict must address both Assad and ISIS. Lindborg advocated enforcement of UNSC Resolution 2139 as an urgent opportunity to push for key actors to take a political solution seriously. As it stands, Lindborg asserted, the resolution “has no teeth to do anything about violations.”

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked about the possibility of establishing ‘safe zones’ for refugees, referencing Kosovo and Rwanda as possible precedents. While Lindborg answered that such zones are “fraught with moral hazard,” Miliband offered that aid agencies could provide expertise in creating areas of refuge. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) posed a similar question, alluding to General Petraeus’s testimony concerning the creation of safe zones with a base for opposition. Opposing the combination of safe zones and military bases, Markey asked the panel how the international community could focus its diplomatic efforts on creating areas of refuge for civilians. Miliband stated that with increased skepticism about military efforts comes an added responsibility for humanitarians action, adding that humanitarian engagement in the region may be a “way in” for a contact group to instigate political engagement within Syria. Lindborg countered, saying it is dangerous to conflate military approaches with civilian protection, calling a demilitarized zone “a nice aspiration.”

Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) inquired about the rise of economic migration and the immigration of those “who aren’t forced out but feel like they can do it” after seeing the successful resettlement of those fleeing crisis. Lindborg responded by stressing the need for a political dialogue centered around the right to return. Migrants overwhelmingly flee ineffective, fragile countries and cultures of violent conflict and oppression; it is therefore incumbent on the international community to refocus development and diplomatic efforts. A key to this is the encouragement of inclusive democratic societies, as outlined by goal 16 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Addressing the “bleeding sores” which create humanitarian crises is a fundamental step in mitigating refugee crises.

In his response to Risch, Miliband highlighted the integrity of the term refugee: “It is important that we don’t allow this status to be undermined.”