Who the Missiles Will Hurt
September 3, 2013
Believe it or not -- after John McCain played video games on his phone during a hearing on bombing Syria, and Eleanor
Holmes Norton said she'd only vote to bomb Syria out of loyalty to Obama -- there are decent people in the United States
government who mean well and take their responsibilities seriously. One of them, who works on actual humanitarian aid
(as opposed to humanitarian bombs) spoke to me.
He said that, beyond those who will inevitably be killed by U.S. missiles in Syria, and those who will die in the
escalated violence that is very likely to follow, a great many additional people may suffer for reasons we aren't paying
"So far, most of the concerns raised in connection with the use of military force in Syria have focused on the risk that
the U.S. might become further embroiled in this conflict, and that initially limited strikes could soon spiral out of
control, lead to retaliatory attacks by the Asad regime, spread the conflict throughout the region, and inadvertently
strengthen terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda. However, there is an additional, more immediate hazard, which has been
largely absent from the debate.
"We need to recall that our original rationale for concern about Syria was humanitarian in nature, based on the
suffering of millions of Syrian civilians who became refugees or internally displaced within their own country. The goal
of providing medical assistance, shelter, and food to these innocent people is widely shared by the majority of the
American people and their elected representatives in Congress. To that end, the U.S. Government has provided over one
billion dollars in humanitarian assistance for this crisis, and has been quite successful in providing aid to millions
of civilians, both within Syria and to Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. In contrast to our largely unsuccessful
efforts to engineer a political transition, and to strengthen a disorganized and fragmented opposition which may or may
not represent our interests, our humanitarian assistance has been our most effective and successful effort.
"Before we contemplate military strikes against the Syrian regime, we would do well to carefully consider what impact
such strikes would have on our ongoing humanitarian programs, both those funded by the U.S. and by other countries and
international organizations. These programs currently reach hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people throughout Syria,
in areas controlled both by the regime and the opposition. We know from past military interventions, such as in
Yugoslavia and Iraq, that airstrikes launched for humanitarian reasons often result in the unintended deaths of many
civilians. The destruction of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, which such airstrikes may entail, would
significantly hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria.
"The provision of this assistance in regime controlled areas requires the agreement, and in many cases the cooperation,
of the Asad government. Were the Asad regime, in response to U.S. military operations, to suspend this cooperation, and
prohibit the UN and Nongovernmental Organizations from operating in territory under its control, hundreds of thousands
of Syrian civilians would be denied access to food, shelter, and medical care. In such a scenario, we would be
sacrificing programs of proven effectiveness in helping the people of Syria, in favor of ill considered actions that may
or may not prevent the future use of chemical weapons, or otherwise contribute to U.S. objectives in any meaningful
In other words, the U.S. government is not just considering investing in missile strikes rather than diplomacy or actual
aid, but in the process it could very well cut off what aid programs exist and have funding. Humanitarian war grows more
grotesque the more closely one examines it.