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Refocusing Humanitarian Aid in Syria

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The ongoing conflict in Syria has stretched into its fourth year, and the regional humanitarian crisis shows little signs of improvement. The United States must do more to ensure that its aid is utilized to the greatest effect possible.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 140,000 people, including 7,000 children, have been killed. Nearly 2.5 million refugees, including 1.2 million children, have fled to neighboring countries. Within Syria, nearly 7 million people have been displaced from their homes, and 19 million are in need of emergency food support. It is projected that by the end of this year, 75 percent of the Syrian population will need humanitarian assistance.

The civilian population inside Syria faces systematic starvation, shelling of residential neighborhoods, government use of chemical weapons, and threats from improvised barrel bombs filled with explosives and dropped by military helicopters into residential areas.

In the dozens of refugee camps now surrounding Syria, food remains scarce, access to sanitation and clean water is limited, and diseases like polio -- on the verge of eradication worldwide -- have resurfaced.

The United States has rightly pledged and contributed a combined $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance since the start of the crisis. These funds are critical for the Syrian people caught in the middle of the conflict. Their survival, and indeed the future stability of the region, hangs in the balance. As a leader in the international community, we must ensure that these funds are used efficiently and distributed in a manner that reaches as many people as possible.

I recently heard a story about a school in the Aleppo province that continued to hold classes despite the war raging around it. When the school's funding inevitably ran out -- and with international aid not immediately available -- extremists in the area also fighting the Assad regime came forward with the resources that the school needed. In return, they demanded that the school dispose of its moderate textbooks for more politically charged texts and required the teaching of the Quran.

Accepting assistance from extremist groups in exchange for loyalty is a decision faced by Syrians on a daily basis. For most civilians, the radical views expressed by the extremists are not in line with their own moderate views. Many are simply trying to carry on with their lives.

Organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have had considerable success in distributing school materials, food, medical supplies, and vaccines. However, Syria is a war zone, and these large-scale operations are often not equipped to distribute materials and aid at the local level -- like the school in Aleppo -- where they are needed most.

But imagine if these organizations could know which schools had exhausted their resources, which hospitals were in immediate danger of running out of supplies, and which neighborhoods were being most affected by the lack of incoming food relief. Making this process more efficient is no small task, but it is possible. If we are to avoid greater catastrophe in Syria, it is also necessary.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, I have urged Congress and the president's administration to increase cooperation with Syrian non-government organizations (NGOs) to get aid where it needs to go. Increased engagement with Syrian and Syrian-run groups is essential to expanding assistance inside Syria and making every dollar of foreign aid count. Syrian aid groups are now working in nearly every sector of the humanitarian response, delivering flour to bakeries and medical supplies to field clinics and helping protect refugees.

Already, USAID and other NGOs in the region rely on information and distribution networks of local aid groups to deliver supplies to areas most in need. Empowering these Syrian groups will make our impact on the region even greater. These groups have the most at stake and work at great personal expense and risk.

The Department of State and USAID should work together to establish training, capacity building, and aid delivery partnerships with Syrian relief organizations in order to expand their operations. With proper oversight and strict training on the international standards governing the delivery of aid, the United States can enable hundreds of Syrian civilians to take greater control of their country's future while assisting those inside Syria who are not reachable by other means.

The United States has shown leadership in providing aid for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but we must do more with the international community and Syrian refugee host nations to improve our aid delivery systems while pressuring the Assad regime and its supporters. As the war drags on with no end in sight, time is in fact running out.

Congressman Alcee L. Hastings represents Florida's 20th congressional district and serves as Senior Member of the House Rules Committee, Ranking Democratic Member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Co-Chairman of the Florida Delegation.