As Syrian war grinds on, humanitarian aid slow to ramp up

People cross the Euphrates River by cable ferry in Raqqa, Syria, April 5. (CNS photo/Aboud Hamam, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As the spasms of the multisided civil war grow more faint in Syria, there is talk about how to help the people remaining in the battered Middle East nation.

It will not be easy. Syrian President Bashar Assad, who inherited his father's regime in 2000, proved to be an even more cruel tyrant. While keeping restive U.S.-allied Kurds at bay in the country's northeast, he has employed a scorched-earth policy and chemical weapons to crush a homegrown rebellion -- and simultaneously repelling Islamic State fighters who had taken over huge swaths of Syria during the war's height but are now reduced to clinging to small pockets of territory scattered at the edges of the country.

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Getting humanitarian aid to desperate populations during the conflict has largely been contingent on the warring sides to agree to a temporary cease fire, according to Stephen Colecchi, the outgoing director of the U.S. bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace. "Sometimes the cease-fires last, sometimes they end almost immediately after the aid reaches them," he said. To date, about $100 million already has been spent in Syria.

Syria also has been for generations the object of a proxy war between the United States and Russia dating back to when there was still a Soviet Union. The United States, particularly under former President Barack Obama, said the Assad regime had to go, while Russia and the U.S.S.R. have looked more kindly on the Assads.

The war, now in its seventh year, spawned a huge refugee crisis, as Syrians of all stripes fled the country, giving both European and U.S. governments pause over the extent of their generosity. Syria has been part of every "travel ban" executive order signed by Trump, including the first one signed a week into his presidency. Trump also severely cut the number of refugee admissions into the United States.

This war of attrition has left the Syrian government seemingly in charge. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "has repeatedly called for intensive diplomatic efforts to end conflicts in a range of countries, including Syria and (neighboring) Iraq," said a USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace backgrounder from February on international assistance and diplomacy.

Trump has zigzagged on Syria. The week before Easter, he told an Ohio audience he would remove troops from Syria soon. On April 3, he said the 2,000 or so U.S. soldiers would stay in the country to fight ISIS after getting assurances from military advisers it would take months, not years, to finish the job. Between the two, Trump told the State Department to halt $200 million in financial recovery assistance for Syria while the administration reconsidered its Syria policy.

The USCCB's Office of International Justice and Peace cited Syria in a February background paper on international assistance and diplomacy, saying that international aid assists, among others, "refugees and nations devastated by conflicts such as in Syria, Yemen and Iraq."

Colecchi said a threatened budget cut of 33 percent for the U.S. Agency for International Development proposed by since-ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- about $10 billion over the next five years -- was restored. "In fact, in a couple areas, we got a little bit of an increase," he added. This was before the $200 million freeze.

"Such cuts would devastate the U.S. ability to save lives and influence governments overseas," the USCCB February backgrounder said.

The USCCB backgrounder noted the change in federal budget priorities: "In 1950, the State Department budget was about half as large as the Defense Department. Today it amounts to 10 percent of the defense budget."

The budget issue is one of war vs. peace. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis acknowledged as much in a quote referenced in USCCB backgrounder: "If you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition."

Trump has tried to convince Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to contribute more to Syrian relief, but those efforts have fallen on deaf ears as the two Middle East nations have stepped up their own war-making against Yemen in another proxy battle, this time between the Saudis and Iran, for influence in the region.

"Has the United States done enough? No," Colecchi said. Other countries and nonstate groups involved in the grinding conflict have to "put aside their rivalries" to work on a peace agreement that "respects the Syrian people," he added.

Colecchi estimated that 50 percent of Syria's Christians have fled the country. A similar percentage of Syrians overall have either left Syria or have moved to safer spots within the country. Neighboring Lebanon, with a population of about 4 million, is home to 2 million Syrian refugees, he said. While Lebanon's hospitality is "outstanding," Colecchi added, "Lebanon needs for those people to be able to go back home."

Aleppo, a major Christian city in Syria that was the object of a monthslong siege earlier in the war, is "half-destroyed," Colecchi said. "There are no schools, no hospitals."

Colecchi noted his impending retirement at the USCCB, where it is customary for a retiring senior staff get a rocking chair. Another gift, though, does not appear to be in the offing: "I don't think we'll get peace in Syria in three weeks."

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