Earlier this week, the international community celebrated as a UN convoy carrying food and medical supplies arrived in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, where reliable reports and photographs of starving people emerged over past the few weeks. The Syrian government had besieged Madaya since July, since it’s a rebel-held town northeast of Damascus near the Lebanese border—an area President Bashar al Assad regards as vital to the “useful” part of Syria he seeks to control.
But Madaya isn’t alone, and it’s a small part of the problem. There are dozens of besieged towns in Syria. At least 4 million people in Syria are already dependent on humanitarian aid shipments, while another 4 million are still in need of them. The relatively fortunate are the more than 4 million who have fled the country—only a fraction of those who have any hope of making it to Europe. And a tiny fraction of that fraction constitutes the few thousand who might, after extensive screening by multiple intelligence and law enforcement agencies, make it to the United States, provided the Congress doesn’t block their requests for asylum.
No matter how big the headlines and how tragic the circumstances, Madaya is just a piece of the humanitarian problem in Syria, as are refugees trying to enter the United States. Dealing with Syria by providing humanitarian aid shipments and taking in a few thousand refugees is like trying to empty the Atlantic Ocean with a pail. Every bucketful may make you feel like you are doing something, but there is no way you are going to succeed.
The problem of Syria is above all a political problem inside of Syria. Bashar al Assad is a dictator. When his multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic people peacefully protested in 2011 for “dignity” and “freedom,” he responded with a violent army crackdown in order to preserve his own hold on power. This drove some Syrians to violent resistance, enabling him to frame his crackdown as a fight against terrorists.
The Assad regime has received ample support in the rebel fight from Iran and Russia, neither of which targets extremists. Both are more concerned with protecting Bashar al Assad from moderate rebels, as Tehran and Moscow stand to lose a vital toehold in Syria if Assad falls. Iran provides both its Revolutionary Guard Corps to train and lead Syrian security forces, as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters it controls. Russia has long provided arms and ammunition, but felt compelled to intervene with its own air forces this fall to prevent the fall of Latakia, the heartland of support for the Assad regime threatened by rebels.
Assad’s violent crackdown has driven some Syrians toward the most effective fighters against the regime, who are often (not always) Islamist extremists, including some associated with the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra. The breakdown of law and order has also opened the door to what the West refers to as “foreign fighters,” attracted to Syria by the radical Islamic State. Relatively moderate rebels, who dominate parts of Central and Northern Syria, get assistance from the United States. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have provided military support to Assad’s opponents in a far less discriminating way, leading to charges that they support extremists.
President Obama has chosen to fight the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra—both of which threaten and commit harm to Americans—but not to attack the Assad regime, which on the whole does not present a direct risk to the U.S. Washington is providing upwards of $1 billion per year (a total of $4.5 billion since the war started) in humanitarian assistance, which does little to relieve the Syrians’ plight. The total UN-estimated requirement is $7.7 billion this year alone.
That is a lot of money. But it won’t buy peace in Syria, or even relief for all of the Syrians who need it. The UN is to convene talks aimed at reaching a political settlement Jan. 25 in Geneva. The recent dust-up over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shia cleric and Iran’s trashing of the Saudi embassy will make the talks even more difficult than they would’ve already been. But the best relief for starving Syrians and the best way to prevent more refugees from fleeing their country is a political settlement that ends Assad’s dictatorship and begins a political transition. It will happen sooner or later. The objective should be to make it happen sooner and to try to guide the process away from extremist control, which is where things will end up if the fighting continues.
Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He tweets @DanielSerwer.