Shortly after it was announced that President Obama would travel to the Middle East, I led a congressional delegation to Israel and Turkey and then to Austria to attend the annual Winter Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Everywhere we traveled, President Obama's visit was a topic of conversation, alongside the peace process, Iran and Syria. This included frank discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The violence in Syria, and especially the regional humanitarian crisis it has spawned, loomed large in our high-level government meetings. President Obama will hear firsthand how very real and immediate the threat of cross-border violence is for Israel, Jordan where he will visit, and Turkey where our delegation traveled to the Syrian border.
While in Turkey, our delegation met with representatives of the Syrian opposition. We visited the Kilis refugee camp which shelters more than 13,000 Syrian refugees on the Turkey-Syria border and is one of 17 camps that have been established by the Turkish government. I commend Turkey for keeping its border open to those fleeing the violence in Syria, and for not only sheltering and feeding these refugees, but also providing medical care and educating their children.
Just prior to our visit, the camp residents had held an election and selected leaders for their temporary community. Our delegation met with these elected officials who shared stories of their triumph in leading their families to safety in Turkey. Their frustration with the lack of support from the international community was clear. These leaders repeatedly expressed their expectations that the United States would take decisive action. Our conversation also reinforced concerns that destabilizing elements may take advantage of the void of cohesive leadership in the opposition as time drags on.
I expect that while in Jordan, President Obama will thank that government for maintaining open borders with Syria, along with its neighbors Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. These countries have welcomed Syrians into their communities and constructed camps for them, despite limited domestic resources for their own citizens. These countries need and deserve abundant and consistent support from the international community as they take action to keep the violence and humanitarian crisis in Syria from destabilizing the entire region.
On March 6, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of people fleeing Syria had exceeded one million, with 400,000 crossing the border since January of this year. More than two million remain displaced inside Syria and over four million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. In December 2012, the UNHCR appealed for $1.5 billion in contributions from the international community to meet the needs of the then expected one million people to have fled across Syria's borders by mid-2013. We have already passed that human milestone but the UN has received less than 20 percent of the requested funding.
The first response needed from the international community is to fully fund the UN appeal to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria. To date, the United States has contributed nearly $385 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people and approximately $115 million in nonlethal support to the Syrian Opposition Coalition. This funding also includes the $60 million in food rations and medical equipment recently announced by Secretary of State John Kerry that will be provided to both the Syrian Opposition Coalition and to the opposition's Supreme Military Council.
We just passed the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising that began in March 2011 and the situation inside Syria and in the region is reaching catastrophic proportions. Assad clings to power by launching SCUD missiles at universities and hospitals and unleashing fighter jets against civilians across Syria -- supported by ongoing arms transfers from the Russian Federation. This must stop. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, who both are sending their fighters into Syria, must stand down.
Bashar Al Assad must go. The United Nations is investigating reports of 20 massacres in Syria, including three just since December. Assad is murdering his people and has lost all legitimacy. The international community must be united in its call for an end to the Assad regime and a transition to a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Syria. The more assistance that is provided to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the sooner Assad will realize that his bloody grip on Syria is over and he will be held accountable under international law for his crimes.
It is my sincere hope that President Obama's visit to the Middle East will provide the Israelis and Palestinians with an opportunity to rekindle both the desire and the will to meet together again at the negotiating table. I am hopeful as well that he will galvanize our allies and the international community in our quest to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and in our efforts to help the people of Syria.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chairman of the U.S. Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission).