10/15/2014 10:04 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

The Silver-Lining of US Airstrikes in Syria

The success or failure of the open-ended American military intervention in Iraq and Syria will not be apparent for years, yet there is one area where the US mission has already yielded improvements: humanitarian funding. Over the last three years of the Syrian conflict, over 3 million refugees have fled their homes and poured over the borders into the neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees living in Syria at the conflict's outbreak have also fled. The crisis is unprecedented in scale and threatens the stability of the entire region; yet the international response throughout Syria's civil war has been tepid at best, and meaningful support is only now beginning to materialize.

Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, hosting nearly 95 percent of the 3.17 million refugees. Turkey and Lebanon alone now host over 1 million refugees each, and in Lebanon refugees from Syria make up approximately a quarter of the population. Recent fighting in the northern Syrian town of Kobane has forced 200,000 people to flee for Turkey in the last few weeks, and the country has struggled to provide adequate food, water, and shelter in the face of the sheer amount of refugees seeking safe haven. Ninety thousand refugees are registering every month with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and with rates increasing, nearly 3.6 billion refugees will have fled the conflict into the host countries by the end of 2014.

Despite the shocking pace and scale of the refugee crisis and the dire warnings of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, funding for the UNHCR's Regional Response Plan (RRP) has hovered around 25-35 percent of requested funds throughout the Syrian civil war. The current RRP, in its sixth iteration (RRP6), led to the UNHCR's largest funding request in its history: $3.7 billion dollars are needed to provide the refugees with adequate (but by no means spectacular) food, water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, shelter, healthcare, education, and security through 2014.

As of June 30, 2014, the RRP6 was only 33 percent funded, leaving a gap of $2.5 billion dollars. As Islamic State militants increasingly threatened the central government of Iraq, however, the US ramped up military involvement, and funding for the RRP6 also increased. As of September 30, the RRP6 was funded at a relatively high 51 percent; this still leaves a gap of $2 billion dollars, but it is the highest level of funding since the first funding report in April 2012, when the RRP1 was only funded at 18 percent, despite sitting at a relatively low amount, $84 million.

In recent history, US military interventions in the greater Middle East have led to massive refugee flows, yet generally, funding has not immediately materialize to help alleviate these crises. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the UNHCR struggled both to attract the necessary funding to address the Iraqi refugee crisis, and to pressure host countries into addressing the legal environment for refugees within their borders. Following a major shift in Bush administration policy in 2006 due to the unpopularity of the Iraq War, however, the UNHCR began receiving much higher funding commitments at international donor conferences, as well as better human rights practices in the host countries.

The political will to pressure allies and the US government alike to fund and support the crisis response only appeared after the Bush administration simultaneously increased military involvement with the infamous "Surge." In the case of the Syrian refugee crisis, the same trend has held true: only after an increase in US military involvement has humanitarian funding also gone up. Still, with winter coming and 2.4 million refugees and vulnerable members of host communities in need of winterization aid, the motives of the donors hardly matter.

To fill the $2 billion gap in funding to get the Syrian refugee populations through the winter, and increase support for the coming months when billions more will be needed, the world cannot count on the United States alone. The US is already the largest donor to the RRP6, and has given over $300 million, while the European Union, the second largest, has given $120 million as of September 23. Just four weeks earlier on August 25, US contributions only amounted to a little over $140 million. The drastic rise in aid has coincided with the increased US involvement in Iraq and Syria, and coinciding interest in alleviating the conflict's human toll.

Yet not all stakeholders in the conflict feel the same responsibility to lessen the human suffering of the Syrian refugees. This year, Saudi Arabia has only given $2.9 million to the RRP6; the United Arab Emirates has donated just $4.8 million to the UNHCR's relief efforts; on the other hand, Qatar, with an economy approximately a quarter of the size of Saudi Arabia's and half of the UAE's, has given over $15 million. State actors in the Gulf have a greater stake in the stability of the region than most, and both the governments and wealthy, private donors have been actively - if covertly - funding the conflict by donating arms and money (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars) to extremist Syrian opposition militias, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. To give money to the conflict and not to its victims is a shortsighted policy that relies on Western benevolence to address what could become a long-term crisis in human security. Not all regional actors have failed to live up to their claims of support for the refugees: Kuwait is the RRP6's third largest donor, at $93 million this year, and has a GDP about the same size as Qatar's. International actors have also been guilty of funding the conflict but not its humanitarian response: Russia has given a measly $300,000 this year, despite funneling significant amounts of arms and funds to the Assad regime throughout the conflict.

The 2015 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), so-named because of the shift in aid to both the refugee population and their host communities, is currently in its planning stages, but will likely lead to another multibillion dollar request for funding. While heightened US involvement has led to a slight boost in funding, it is unlikely to donate sufficient amounts to cover the entire funding gap in the next year. If the regional and international stakeholders in the Syria-Iraq conflict are truly committed to regional stability, then fully funding the 3RP will be a crucial first step towards both addressing the needs of the Syrian refugees, and increasing the resilience of the host communities in the face of the refugee influx. Host countries and communities have already sacrificed huge amounts of their own resources, infrastructures, and budgets to supporting the Syrian refugees. It is long past time that both regional and international stakeholders in the conflict step up to shoulder the responsibility to provide for its human victims.