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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Syria: Overview of the Humanitarian Response

Rhoda Margesson
Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy

Susan G. Chesser
Information Research Specialist

The use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21, 2013, triggered an intense debate over possible U.S. military intervention. Chemical weapons use and limited military strikes in response have the potential to impact an already dire humanitarian situation. The ongoing conflict in Syria that began in March 2011 has created one of the most pressing humanitarian crises in the world. An estimated 6.8 million people in Syria, almost one-third of the population, have been affected by the conflict, including estimates of between 4.2 million and 5 million displaced inside Syria. On September 3, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of Syrians displaced as refugees exceeded 2 million, with 97% fleeing to countries in the immediate surrounding region, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and other parts of North Africa. The situation is fluid and continues to worsen, while humanitarian needs are immense and increase daily. 

U.S. Assistance and Priorities 

The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance and is part of the massive, international humanitarian operation in parts of Syria and in neighboring countries. In FY2012 and as of mid-September 2013, the United States has allocated more than $1 billion to meet humanitarian needs using existing funding from global humanitarian accounts and some reprogrammed funding. U.S. humanitarian policy is guided by concerns about humanitarian access and protection within Syria; the large refugee flows out of the country that strain the resources of neighboring countries (and could negatively impact the overall stability of the region); and an already escalating and protracted humanitarian emergency. The Obama Administration’s FY2014 budget request proposes an increase in FY2014 Emergency Refugees and Migration Assistance (ERMA) funds with an allocation of $200 million for the humanitarian response to Syria. 

International Response 

The international humanitarian response is massive and complex and struggles to keep pace with urgent developments that have escalated well beyond anticipated needs. Access within Syria is severely constrained by violence and restrictions imposed by the Syrian government on the operations of humanitarian organizations. Two U.N. emergency appeals, which identify a total of $4.4 billion in humanitarian needs for calendar year 2013, are less than 47% funded as of mid- September 2013. 

Ongoing Humanitarian Challenges of the Syria Crisis and U.S. Policy 

As U.S. policy makers and the international community deliberate over what, if any, actions they can or should take on the Syria crisis, possible humanitarian policy considerations for Congress include

• issues related to U.S. assistance and priorities, such as funding an ongoing humanitarian response;

• labeling or “branding” of humanitarian aid delivered to Syria so that recipients are aware of its American origins and the United States receives adequate political benefit; and

• balancing the Syria response with domestic priorities and other humanitarian concerns worldwide.

The United States has a critical voice regarding humanitarian access in Syria, the pace of humanitarian developments and contingency planning, support to neighboring countries that are hosting refugees, and burdensharing among donors.

This report examines the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the U.S. and international response and will be updated as events warrant. For background and information on Syria, see CRS Report RL33487,
Armed Conflict in Syria: Background and U.S. Response, by Jeremy M. Sharp and Christopher M. Blanchard, and CRS Report R43201, Possible U.S. Intervention in Syria: Issues for Congress, coordinated by Christopher M. Blanchard and Jeremy M. Sharp. See also CRS Report R42848, Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress, coordinated by Mary Beth D. Nikitin.

Date of Report: September 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R43119
Price: $29.95

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