Syria: The Humanitarian-Security Nexus

September 13, 2017


As the Syrian civil war eclipses its sixth anniversary in March 2017, the plight of Syrian civilians who have been forced to flee their home country over the past six years continues to worsen. The debate around how to most effectively confront the Syrian refugee crisis revolves around an essential question of international security: must countries choose between humanitarianism and security, or are the two inextricably linked so that investing in one promotes the other, while ignoring one deteriorates both? In this report, we argue that in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, humanitarianism and security are mutually reinforcing aspirations, and we call for government policies and responses to the crisis that recognize the complementarity of these two issues.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the situation in Syria has continued to devolve while the factors and factions involved have only multiplied. Internationally, developments in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. constantly alter the equation while the suffering of civilians intensifies. In light of the recent decision by the U.S. Government to ban Syrian refugee admittance into the U.S. for at least 120 days, a clear and non-partisan summary of the humanitarian and security issues involved is of utmost importance. While we have sought to be comprehensive, the enormity of the task precludes us from asserting any indisputable way forward. Nonetheless, our analysis leads to four general policy recommendations, which should be used as a guide in which the reader can further develop responsible policies that are reflective of the inseparability between humanitarian and security concerns.

Without question, the Syrian conflict is exceedingly complex. Various actors pursue independent interests, contesting territory and trading military offensives. All the while, civilians bear the brunt of the pain, as victims to constant fighting and hopeless ceasefires. Estimates indicate upwards of 400,000 Syrian civilians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011. More than 4.9 million Syrians have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and as many as 6.6 million more have been internally displaced within Syria. Further, upwards of 75% of Syrian refugees are women and children, with 1.2 million displaced women and girls of reproductive age and at least 80,200 pregnant female refugees. By UN estimates, 8.4 million Syrian children—more than 80% of Syria’s child population—both in and outside the country, have been affected by the conflict. The experience of war has robbed young Syrians of their youth, and the indignity of prolonged situations as unwanted refugees could prime them to be vulnerable to the messages put forward by violent extremist organizations. Without meaningful international intervention, these young people risk becoming members of a lost generation. Lacking education, agency, and opportunity, the failure to address their current situation could present several major threats to future security.

With refugee camps filled to capacity and routine international failures to meet humanitarian funding benchmarks, the countries on Syria’s borders—forced to play an enormously disproportionate role in addressing the refugee crisis—are experiencing increasing strains on internal stability. As host to the largest population of Syrian refugees in the world, the crisis highlights the immense security ramifications for Turkey and the region, as well as Turkey’s critical role in geopolitics. The massive influx of refugees into Lebanon threatens to upset the country’s already malfunctioning confessional structure. As the burden of the large influx of refugees continues to undermine the stability of the Jordanian state, the country will have to increasingly reorient its focus to addressing internal instability.

Though Western European countries and the U.S. are among the most economically capable in the world of accommodating large influxes of refugees, the issue has largely been a political non-starter. In Europe, the task of confronting the bulk of the EU refugee crisis has been relegated to economically weaker European states such as Greece and Eastern European countries. The long- term socioeconomic implications of marginalizing refugees will significantly destabilize the EU as refugees struggle to enter the workforce, find adequate housing, or gain access to social services. The refugee crisis has been an important point of disunity for the EU, increasing Euroskepticism among the bloc’s members.

In the U.S., the European experience of the refugee crisis has been used to justify a 120-day ban on refugee admittance, despite obvious and substantial differences between the situation in Europe and the U.S. While the connection between refugees and concerns of terrorism in the EU is overstated, it remains a legitimate concern. The proximity to conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa, vast numbers of refugees, lack of influx controls, and open borders within the Schengen Area expose the EU to the real possibility of terror groups exploiting the refugee crisis to infiltrate operatives into Europe. The U.S. does not suffer from any of these challenges. The current processes in place for refugee resettlement in the U.S. involve extensive interviews, biographic and biometric checks, and multi-agency intelligence and security reviews; the entire process can take up to two years to complete. Insulated from the direct impact of the Syrian refugee crisis, and far more capable economically and in terms of security capacity to accept and accommodate refugees than any other country in the world, the U.S. has thus far proven derelict in its duty to lead the Western world in the appropriate and necessary response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

With the prospects for any near-term resolution to the Syrian conflict highly tenuous, a larger and more committed international response to the refugee crisis is essential to prevent a continuing and worsening regional and global security crisis. Even if hostilities were to cease altogether, the consequences of the dual-pronged humanitarian and security crisis will continue for generations. Therefore, it is crucial the international community recognize that the Syrian humanitarian crisis has direct security implications for Syria, the region, and the international community as a whole, and address the myriad issues surrounding the crisis as such.

The humanitarian and security crises cannot be addressed independently of each other. In fact, addressing either one in a vacuum will only prolong and contribute to policies that fundamentally misunderstand the dichotomous nature of the conflict. Only when the international community properly acknowledges the mutually reinforcing and co-dependent humanitarian and security crisis in Syria can it properly strategize how to achieve long-term peace and stability.