TRUDY RUBIN: Humanitarian crisis worsens in Syria

Americans are a generous people. During the holiday season, we are busy buying gifts and donating to the needy, and are quick to pull out the checkbook or text funds when a typhoon strikes the Philippines.

But this Thanksgiving, I can’t help wondering why the biggest humanitarian crisis in a decade is getting so little attention. I’m referring to Syria, where nearly one-third of the population, almost 7 million people, has either fled the country or is displaced and struggling to survive inside Syria. Half of the 2 million Syrians who have escaped to neighboring countries are children.

As winter sets in, the Assad regime is preventing humanitarian aid convoys from reaching besieged areas containing hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom are starving.

So let me explain the nature of this tragedy and how you can help.

The crisis grew out of a decision by the Assad regime to respond with draconian force to peaceful demonstrations.

Syrian refugees fleeing the bombs and shells continue to pour into neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, which are economically unable to handle the deluge. Some refugees are housed in camps, others are barely surviving in mosques and schools or on charity.

Inside Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has bombed and shelled whole cities and neighborhoods into World War II-like wreckage. Three thousand schools, and most flour mills and bakeries have been targeted, and 60 percent of hospitals destroyed.

“This is a middle-income country which is receding from the 21st to the 19th century,” says Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. “There is no school, no work, people are burning their possessions to stay warm. There is economic degradation, collapse of services, lack of medical care.”

The U.N., along with Western governments and nongovernmental organizations, have been trying to get aid to displaced Syrians, but donor pledges fall far short of what is needed.

What is more shocking is the regime’s unwillingness to let convoys deliver aid where it is most needed.

The easiest way to reach some of the most desperate civilians would be across the border from Turkey. But the United Nations is only authorized to operate through sovereign states, which means it delivers all its aid via Damascus. As a result, aid never reaches many of the most needy.

The regime has rebuffed last month’s U.N. Security Council statement urging the Syrian government to permit cross-border deliveries. It also refused permission for U.N. aid convoys to access desperate civilians in areas besieged by government forces in the Damascus suburbs, and Homs. (Islamist opposition groups are also blocking aid convoys, but the overwhelming share of the problem lies with the regime.)

This week, the major powers, along with Iran, are meeting to discuss this humanitarian crisis, and next month the Syrian government and opposition are finally set to meet in Geneva. But peace talks are pointless unless the regime first halts the siege of civilians.

While government pooh-bahs talk in hotels, Syrian civilians are dying. “The regime is using starvation as a weapon,” says Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian National Coalition’s representative to the United States.

For those of you who want to help, there are NGOs getting aid into Syria and U.N. agencies doing fine work under awful conditions. I’ve listed several below. By helping them, you can help save Syrian civilians from a catastrophe as deadly – and far more evil – than a typhoon.

• Doctors Without Borders, www.doctorswithoutborders.org;

• World Vision, www.worldvision.org;

• CARE, www.care.org;

• International Rescue Committee, www.rescue.org;

• Syrian American Medical Society, http://sams-usa.net;

• UNHCR, www.unhcr.org; (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees))

• UNICEF, http://www.unicef.org/emergencies/syria.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.