Syria has been pushed out of the news in recent weeks, a victim of American’s flagging interest in a civil war that appears no closer to resolution than it did six months ago. But it hasn’t gone away. And for the millions of Syrians displaced by the conflict, it is a nightmare on the verge of becoming a disaster.
A Syrian opposition leader said this week that the Western-backed rebel coalition is willing to negotiate with President Bashar Assad. But this gesture comes with conditions the Assad regime is unlikely to meet: the release of 160,000 Syrian prisoners and the renewal of passports for Syrian exiles.
At the same time, Israel all but confirmed its responsibility for an attack on a Syrian convoy last week. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the raid to destroy surface-to-air missiles — which U.S. officials say were headed to the militant group Hezbollah — showed Israel is serious when it says advanced weapons systems shouldn’t reach Lebanon. The attack gave Iran and Syria an opening to try to rally Arab support against Israel.
This week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers that last summer, he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported a plan developed by then-Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus to arm Syrian rebels. The White House, worried about getting too deeply involved in the conflict, rejected the idea.
Across Syria, the civil war appears stalemated, with neither side capable of inflicting a fatal blow. Meantime, the humanitarian crisis grows worse.
More than 2 million Syrians have been internally displaced. Another 670,000 people have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. But hundreds of thousands are in refugee camps.
At an aid conference last week, 40 nations and the European Commission pledged more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian assistance. Before the conference, President Obama said the United States had added $155 million to its relief effort. The United States has given $365 million so far.
Refugees — 60 percent of them children — live in tents that aren’t winterized. Camps are inundated by floods. Tents are blown away by high winds. Fires are frequent. There aren’t enough doctors or hospitals.
In Jordan, home to 320,000 Syrian refugees, one camp grew by about 40 percent in a week, to 70,000 people. Every day, 1.5 million liters of water have to be shipped in, and it takes about 100 trucks each day to cart away the sewage.
Tensions among refugees are rising, and sometimes spill over into violence. The camp in Jordan was designed for 60,000 people. A U.N. agency is revising plans to accommodate 90,000 refugees there, and beginning to think about adding a second camp, and perhaps a third.
Millions of Syrians have been displaced, physically deprived, and psychologically scarred by the competing ambitions of a few of their countrymen. Donor nations have come to their aid, but it is not certain that the effort will be enough, or come in time to prevent the rising tide from becoming a tsunami of suffering.