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February 16, 2016

Responding To: The Global Future of Security

When Humanitarian Needs Outpace the Security Solution

Who would have thought that the early 21st Century would produce one of the greatest refugee crises in modern history? Over 11 million people have been displaced from Syria as a result of the two simultaneous conflicts taking place: an internal civil war and a siege by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Globally, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights reports that the global refugee population has surpassed post-WWII levels.  Half are children. Syrian refugees comprise a significant percentage of the global displacement figures.  

International and U.S. government political leaders have struggled for several years now to articulate whether it is in those other countries’ or U.S. interests to engage militarily in Syria, and if so, what shape that engagement should take. These decisions have been complicated by the fact that policies and options that might have made sense in 2013, no longer make sense in 2016. As the situation has changed over these years – including ISIS’s territorial expansion, Russia’s military engagement in support of the Assad regime, and the increasing presence on the ground of various surrogates – the international community’s approach to developing a military strategy and political resolution for the collapsed Syrian state has necessarily shifted and evolved, as well.

In the interim, the refugee crisis has grown, and has created security issues of its own. These include but are not limited to: national security concerns that ISIS agents or sympathizers are infiltrating the refugee population and will present terrorism threats to countries receiving refugees; law enforcement concerns that displaced persons will engage in or be victims of crime; and civic concerns that increased refugee populations will stoke ultranationalist or even xenophobic political rhetoric or movements. The options for political solutions have become more, not less, complicated over time.

Once we acknowledge that a security resolution has not and will not come in time to relieve human suffering, we can adopt a view that the Western world, including the United States, can find a better way to address humanitarian needs during the period of time when we are collectively evaluating and implementing national security policies and solutions. Governments, in collaboration and cooperation with one another, can develop plans for humanitarian assistance that are not reliant on specific military or political outcomes, or even bench marks being met. Humanitarian assistance, plans and implementation can be developed in coordination with, but in parallel to, military and other national security strategies and actions. We may or may not arrive at a military or political solution anytime soon. But there is a human condition capable of being improved.  

Carrie Cordero is an attorney in private practice, adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, and contributing editor of Lawfare

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