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Humanitarian aid groups prepare for long-term crisis in Syria

February 27, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development and Michael Gerson of The Washington Post about the devastating conditions for Syrian civilians and refugees, the barriers preventing aid organizations from reaching people in need and ways that concerned citizens can help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to two who have focused on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. Nancy Lindborg is assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, in charge of conflict and humanitarian assistance. And Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

Nancy Lindborg, we see these terrible pictures, almost impossible to believe.

How did it get like this?

NANCY LINDBORG, U.S. Agency for International Development: You know, it’s been steadily escalating, particularly in the last year.

We have seen the number of people who have been displaced rise by three times in the last year. And the Yarmouk people who you saw are part of 12 cities that are literally besieged, 250,000 people, many of whom haven’t received aid for months and months. And they’re eating cats and dogs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so is it as bad — we saw pictures in one place inside Syria. Is it that bad in other refugee encampments? 

NANCY LINDBORG: I think it’s hard to imagine the depth of difficulty people are facing inside Syria right now.

In Aleppo, they are dropping barrel bombs. These are bombs that are constructed from bolts and rebar and specifically designed to horrifically injure people. So what we are seeing is the unfolding, not just of a humanitarian crisis, but a serious human rights crisis, where people are being systemically denied food and targeted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael Gerson, there is the crisis for those who are inside Syria, terrible. You were at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. What did you see there? 

MICHAEL GERSON, The Washington Post: Well, I was with the Holocaust Museum that was examining these issues over there.

And we were at a border crossing seeing the people coming right across the border from Syria. And it is exactly what you are describing, their stories right on the border, very much — these are the besieged areas of Syria, the government surrounding areas, depopulating them, attacking them, using barrel bombs, using hunger as a tool.

This is not a case where these are the innocent bystanders or the byproduct of a civil war. This is a case where one side in that civil war is using attacks on civilians, mass atrocities, as a tool of war, as a strategy of war. That’s the testimony we heard from person after person, from homes in Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, 40-some areas right now, in the estimates, that are besieged and where civilians are being attacked.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us some of the stories you heard.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I — you know, I was surrounded at the camp by a bunch of people who were very anxious to tell their stories.

But there was one man that hung back and talked about how he had been a protester and then had his house targeted by a tank, a regime tank, lost a 4-year-old daughter, a 6-year-old son. A 15-year-old son lost a leg. And all he said — I asked — you know, I was in tears when he was telling this, but all he said at the end was, “I just wanted someone to know.”

And this is a case where part of the problem is, is a failure of sympathy. I talked to a lot of the great aid groups over there that are not getting much donor money right now for the Syrian crisis. One told me that they had raised in three months for the Philippines what it had taken three years to raise in the Syrian conflict.

People are not very engaged in this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy Lindborg, how much is getting in and who is sending it in? Where is it coming from? Remind us where this money is coming from.

NANCY LINDBORG: Well, the United States is the single largest donor. We have given about $1.7 billion of humanitarian assistance since the crisis began.

And we’re working with U.N. agencies, international NGOs, local Syrian groups. The courage of the humanitarian workers, who every day are risking their lives to deliver assistance, is really remarkable. Just one of our partners has lost 42 of its staff members since the conflict began.

So, the aid is coming in through all different ways, reaching people throughout the country. But it’s difficult to escalate the assistance as fast as the needs are arising.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I was going to say, I mean, there’s aid going in, but a lot of people are not getting aid.

NANCY LINDBORG: The United States alone is feeding two million people a day. We support the World Food Program. We’re the largest donor. They fed last month more than four million people. But the needs are so much greater.

It’s as if the entire state of New Jersey needs food and medical assistance every day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What else — what needs to happen? Who needs to step up here? Michael Gerson, I want to ask you, too. Who needs to step up and what needs to be done?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I want to confirm, on the humanitarian side, it is extraordinary, what the U.S. government is doing, what the Jordanian government is doing. They have taken in 600,000 people in a country that has poor water resources and, you know, is not a very wealthy country themselves.

The problem is there may be 500,000 mobile refugees right on the other side of the border in Southern Syria that could overwhelm a country like Jordan. And the problem — the difficulty is, how do you change the situation on the ground within Syria? And I think the administration is now reexamining some of its methods to try to do that, the question of whether…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean affect the conflict itself?

MICHAEL GERSON: Affect the security situation that’s producing this problem in the long-term.

But a lot of the humanitarian organizations are now beginning to plan for five years, 10 years out. This is going — not going to be solved in any short amount of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you — how do you see it? What needs to happen in the short run and the longer run?

NANCY LINDBORG: Well, immediately, we have the opportunity of the U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed on Saturday. It’s the first time there’s been a unanimous agreement among the members of the Security Council that the barrel bombing must stop, there must be full, unfettered humanitarian access, that, if this is not complied with, that the Security Council will examine and take further action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that having an effect?

NANCY LINDBORG: It just passed on Saturday, so we will be closely watching and pushing. The — Secretary Ban Ki-Moon will be making a report within a month.

There has to be action. Every day, Syrians are dying. Every day, children are suffering. And just to note to Michael’s point about people have become almost numb because of the complexity and enormity of this crisis. The children in particular have been suffering.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, is there something people watching can do who want to help?

NANCY LINDBORG: I suggest they go to, where there are different calls to action to help people get engaged, to help people partnership in a global call, both for action, as well as to let the Syrian people know that their stories are being heard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy Lindborg with USAID, Michael Gerson, we thank you.