Solving The Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Require American Leadership

A refugee camp in the Bekaa plain in Bar Elias, Lebanon. October 06, 2016.
A refugee camp in the Bekaa plain in Bar Elias, Lebanon. October 06, 2016.

The world was shaken as images poured out of the latest chemical attacks on Syria.

Heartbreaking photos, like that of Abdel Hameed al-Youseefl, a young husband and father covered in sweat and tears, clutching the bodies of his twin daughters poisoned in the attacks, have awakened the world once again to the nightmare that those living under Assad’s brutal regime are forced to live every day.

This week, I had the opportunity to see the impact of the crisis first-hand. I travelled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt with a bipartisan Congressional delegation to meet with displaced families from war-torn Syria and to better understand the destabilizing factors plaguing the region.

After talking with mothers, fathers, teachers, refugees, local officials and others along the way, it’s become clear that if the cycle of violence is going to be ended ― and stability restored for the long-haul ― American leadership is going to be crucial.

The Syrian refugee crisis has approached levels unseen since the end of WWII with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced, fleeing the country to avoid terrors like we saw last week when the Syrian military released Sarin gas on its own citizens, killing at least 80 civilians and wounding hundreds more ― including women and children.

According to the United Nations, more than 5 million Syrians have now left the country, headed for safety in places like neighboring Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.

In Lebanon alone, the country from which my grandfather immigrated to America, more than a million Syrian refugees have moved in since the civil war erupted six years ago. Refugees now comprise about a quarter of their entire population. 

For perspective ― it would be equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom and Canada combined (about 100 million people) suddenly immigrating to the United States (a country of 325 million) in just six years.

The effects on any county would be stunning.

Solving this for the long-term starts with taking a strong stand against both President Assad and the brutal mutiny being committed against his own people.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri says these rapid changes have pushed his country to the “breaking point.” But if you look at the headlines here in the U.S., one might think that the key to solving the crisis is a debate over how many refugees, and under what conditions, the United States would agree to provide refuge to those displaced.

This focus is compassionate, but doesn’t solve the root problem.

The key to a long-term solution is ending the violence and fear forcing people from their homes in the first place.

Solving this for the long-term starts with taking a strong stand against both Syrian President Assad and the brutal mutiny being committed against his own people. President Obama’s unwillingness to take a stand or develop a clear plan has only allowed the violence in Syria to grow worse.

President Trump was right to hold Assad accountable with swift missile strikes, but our response cannot end there. We must present a clear and strategic plan focused on both effective humanitarian outreach and in securing our national security interests in the region, if we want to be successful in a way that’s lasting.

It also means making defeating ISIS our number one priority.

Secretary of State Tillerson has issued a strong warning that “Assad’s regime is coming to an end.” But we must be thoughtful and deliberate in our actions. Toppling Assad but, in turn, allowing these chemical weapons to fall in the hands of ISIS or al-Qaeda would leave us in an even worse position than we are now.

This humanitarian crisis requires the world’s attention, and the United States’ leadership, to resolve. The refugees making their way to camps ― like the Zhale and Azraq Camps I visited in Jordan and Lebanon ― need food and shelter for their families, but they also need access to education, jobs and opportunities to create a better life for themselves outside of the camps.

Nearly two thirds of refugee children attend no school at all. Most are also prohibited by law from taking jobs in their new countries. Without significant changes, an entire generation could be lost, or worse, left ripe for radicalization.

The United States cannot and should not take on these efforts alone. The innocent bystanders in the region are counting on our leadership to enlist multiple nations, NGOs, and public-private partnerships to resolve this complex challenge and allow millions of displaced families to return to their homeland.

The families I met are desperate and deserve more than a debate over the immigration of 10,000; they deserve the opportunity to return home and live in peace.

Congressman Darrell Issa is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the U.S. Representative for California’s 49th Congressional District.