Habib Habash Ali, a refugee from the Syrian city of Dayr Al-Zour waits at Arbat refugee camp with her husband, Bilal Jadm Hamed. photo by Jacob Russell
ARBAT, Iraq — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged $60 million in “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian rebels Thursday, a donation that doesn’t mark a departure from previous Western policy on Syria and does little to contain the deepening humanitarian crisis spilling over the country’s borders, analysts say.
“The U.S. policy … toward the crisis in Syria remains one of reluctant engagement,” said David Hartwell, a defense analyst at IHS Jane’s in London. “This nuancing of approach by Kerry does not change that policy. And indeed, a dramatic shift in approach to the war in Syria from either the U.S. or the European Union is unlikely in the medium term.”
Kerry met Thursday with leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition at the Friends of Syria group of nations meeting in Rome, where he announced the United States would offer new help directly to “carefully vetted” rebel groups in Syria trying to topple dictator Bashar Assad. President Obama has said he wants Assad ousted, but he has not been willing to provide military assistance to the anti-regime opposition.
In what was billed as a shift in policy, Kerry said the United States will now provide food and medical aid to the rebels battling in a two-year-long rebellion in which an estimated 70,000 people have been killed.
“The rebels need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons,” said Hozan Ibrahim, a Syrian anti-regime activist based in Berlin. “If the Free Syrian Army possessed those weapons they could prevent further tragedy in Syria. If not, it’s going to be prolonged. And if the regime gains more ground, the casualties could double in a few month because the regime has intensified airstrikes.”
The duration of the conflict is also creating a unprecedented refugee population, according to the United Nations.
“The humanitarian crisis is glaring — and it’s only going to get bigger — and fears that this is going to destabilize the neighborhood have risen,” said Joshua Landis, professor of Middle East history at the University of Oklahoma.
According to UNICEF, the nearly 15,000 Syrians who have escaped the fighting into Iraq lack safe drinking water. On the outskirts of the town of Arbat in Iraqi Kurdistan, rows of tattered blue and white tents house people who trekked hundreds of miles to escape the violence. Help from the outside world has yet to arrive here.
Habib Habash Ali has little in her family’s tent apart from a kerosene oil lamp and a pile of rugs donated by Iraqi Kurds. She came here from Dayr al-Zawr in eastern Syria, where the family used to have a shop.
“We had to leave because of the bombardment,” Ali said. “My husband is sick with leukemia, and my son had to carry him on his back.”
The semiautonomous region of Kurdistan currently hosts 80% of the refugees in Iraq. Most are Kurds from northern Syria.
Fawaz Aqeel Ahmad shares a tent with his wife, Narjs Yuns Muhammed, and their six children, all under the age of 10. Ahmad has liver disease but is unable to get any treatment here. He says he sold all their possessions to escape the fighting.
“We’re not getting water from anyone,” Ahmad said. “No agencies have visited. We don’t know if the water here is clean enough to drink so we have to buy it.”