What would a military strike on Syria mean for humanitarian groups on the ground?

September 11, 2013
Originally published in: Global Post
Written by Rebecca Lee Sanchez

As the international community awaits a decision on intervention, humanitarian aid organizations continue to brace for a worst-case scenario.

By now Syria’s conflict and the international predicament of whether or not to intervene — including the United States’ domestic debate over the matter — are strangers to few.

But an essential question remains unanswered: How would a Western military airstrike impact humanitarian aid organizations trying to keep refugee camps running along Syria’s borders and in neighboring countries?

The World Health Organization has deemed the Syrian civil war the “worst ongoing humanitarian crisis on earth.” As President Obama asks Congress to delay its vote regarding a possible military strike while a diplomatic solution is explored, the crisis has the potential to get worse for humanitarian aid groups already overstretching limited resources to provide care to huge numbers of displaced peoples. They continue to press on with preparations for a possible strike-related influx.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 4.25 million people are internally displaced in Syria. Although they remain in the country, albeit in places that are not their homes, these Syrians struggle to commute to work or school, reach necessary supplies or medical care.

Over 2 million have fled to neighboring countries as refugees. The number of Syrian refugees living outside of Syria — in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — has the potential to surge further if the US and its allies strike.

In Lebanon, humanitarian aid organization Concern Worldwide is already coordinating with other humanitarian organizations in preparation for a possible wave of refugees.

“As it stands now, we are operating on a low planning assumption of 200 families—1,000 people—per day for a period of three to five days on the low side and as many as 600 families—3,000 people—a day for a period of three to five days on the high side,” CEO of Concern Worldwide Dominic MacSorley told GlobalPost. “It’s important to remember that with more than 700,000 Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Lebanon, there is already a tremendous demand for shelter and other basic needs.”

MacSorley, who returned from northern Lebanon just a few weeks ago, went on to explain that the rate at which Syrians are fleeing—some 5,000 per day—is already stretching humanitarian aid to the limit.

“This crisis is at its boiling point and any increase in violence or instability as a result of airstrikes could leave more Syrians with no choice but to leave everything behind for the relative safety of other countries,” he added.

The group has already stockpiled emergency supplies, has latrines, shower rooms, “and other facilities assembled and ready for rapid deployment as needed.” If there is a large influx in refugees to Concern Worldwide’s camp, it will be met with buildings they are preparing to be used as temporary shelters. But they are not the only organization getting ready for a potential worst-case scenario.

UN teams are reportedly amassing large quantities of tents, plastic sheeting and other supplies in Dubai, in order to quickly deploy them throughout the region.

UNHCR is equipping a new refugee camp in Jordan, which will hold tens of thousands more Syrians.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has been monitoring the developments concerning international intervention while continuing to dispatch food in all governorates of Syria—an operation that Laure Chadraoui, a public information officer for the WFP Syria Regional Response, said is already facing huge challenges as more areas become inaccessible.

“It is hard to predict how the strike might affect the operation but we are concerned that vulnerabilities of people in Damascus and Rural Damascus might worsen if the conflict escalates further,” Chadraoui said in an email before returning to the Zaatari camp in Jordan today.

The WFP is also tending to its own contingency plans for a massive influx—in Lebanon building an inventory of enough food to feed an additional 120,000 refugees. In Jordan, where they already house up to half a million Syrian refugees, they are preparing for more. They have enough dry rations to feed up to 40,000 refugees for one month, another 50,000 “welcome meals,” and 70 metric tons of “high-energy nutrient dense ready-to-eat bars.”

As for those Syrians who remain in Syria—and as such, possibly under direct physical danger of a strike—WFP is working to confirm that they too are collecting food and basic supplies, even if prices are skyrocketing.

While food is still currently available, Chadraoui explained, increased demand coupled with a dramatic depreciation of the Syrian pound in the last four days has made it hard to acquire.

Still, the UNHCR expects the situation for both internal and external Syrian refugees will only get worse, saying that “by the end of the year it is estimated that half of the population of Syria will be in need of aid. This includes an anticipated 3.45 million Syrian refugees and 6.8 million Syrians inside the country, many of whom will be displaced from their homes.”

Humanitarian group Islamic Relief USA, an affiliate of United Kingdom-based charity Islamic Relief Worldwide, said they “welcome the fact that the horrors of this conflict are attracting fresh international attention, with a renewed sense of urgency about protecting civilians.”

“There is bound to be some risk of the conflict escalating and the humanitarian situation worsening,” Anwar Khan, deputy chief of operations for the group said. “Above all we want to see stronger international action to negotiate humanitarian corridors to enable the safe and effective distribution of aid, to broker a ceasefire and to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table – as Presidents Obama and Putin pledged to do in May.”