Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Council on Foreign Relations

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Lemmon—the best-selling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana—assesses the escalation of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

After almost 10 years as a journalist, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon left her ABC News post to earn her MBA from Harvard. During her case study research, she met and began writing about women entrepreneurs in war zones, including Afghanistan and Rwanda. She's now a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy and a policy expert on Afghanistan. Her book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, credits the women she met as real entrepreneurs who got their families through hard economic times, political turmoil and war. Lemmon also served as an informal advisor on women’s empowerment for economic officials at the American Embassy in Kabul.


Tavis: The escalating war in Syria has left some nine million people in the middle of a conflict that shows, sadly, no signs of abating tonight, and has put almost three million people on the run, including, sadly, a large number of children.

According to administration officials, the U.S. is using all the diplomatic tools possible to bring an end to the conflict, but in the meantime, the humanitarian crisis continues to escalate.

Joining us now, best-selling author Gayle Lemmon, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Women and Foreign Policy program. Gayle, good to have you, once again, on this program.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Glad to be here.

Tavis: So what do we make of where this situation is at the moment? Some months ago there was at the last minute a sign of hope that something could be done to deal with this stockpile, and now we have a crisis that seems to be spinning even further and further out of control.

Lemmon: I think a lot of people hoped we would be in a different place than we are, but really and truly we now face the biggest humanitarian crisis that we have seen unfold in real time in a long time.

What is so striking about it is the children who are paying the price. You have 2.2 million refugees; half of them are kids. Three-quarters of those are under 12. It’s just a catastrophe of such large proportion that even trying to keep up with it has just swamped donors’ imaginations and the world’s ability to absorb anything in terms of the real numbers and the sheer magnitude of what’s happening.

Tavis: So King Abdullah of Jordan is going to meet with President Obama here in California later this week, on Friday, to be exact. What’s your sense of what that conversation is going to be about, given that so many of these persons, Syrians, are looking for shelter in Jordan.

Lemmon: Yeah, the thing is that Jordan and Lebanon have been absolutely swamped. One in four in some of these countries are refugees. If you think about that, that is just like 30 million people coming to America all at once.

We just can’t even begin to understand what that means in terms of services, in terms of schools, in terms of water, in terms of places to live, in terms of jobs. These countries are really asking for support. Jordan is a big U.S. ally, and it really does need to be bolstered.

Tavis: So bolstered in what ways?

Lemmon: Financially in part, because the world has yet to really pony up in terms of the real epic catastrophe that we’re seeing. You have about 60 percent of what the UN has asked for funded. That leaves 40 percent, even if you’re not a math major, that the world has yet to actually say yeah, we’re going to help.

The World Food Program, right, they need $270 million just between now and March to keep everybody fed who needs to be fed, and that’s inside Syria. So I think Jordan would like to see the U.S. get more engaged in all kinds of ways – not necessarily militarily.

Tavis: Yeah, but to your point now about not necessarily militarily, I want to go there, because it seems to me that one could, if one wanted to, make the argument that the humanitarian crisis forces us to look at military options that were once on the table and have been taken off.

What’s your sense of the link between the humanitarian crisis and our or some other country’s hand being forced to do something militarily to deal with this crisis?

Lemmon: I hate to be cynical, but I don’t think it’s the humanitarian crisis that’s going to force the world to act.

Tavis: That’ll be the excuse.

Lemmon: That’s right.

Tavis: Or the rationale.

Lemmon: Well, it’ll be part of it, right?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Lemmon: But right now, the ghost of Iraq hangs over everything. If there were no Iraq, it’s very hard to argue there’d be no action in Syria in the way that there has been, but there was Iraq, and the American public is exhausted by all of these years of war.

The president and the administration is not keen to say hey, let’s pony up and start a new war. So I think what they’re trying to figure out is how do you do as much as you can, short of military intervention, and right now, none of those options have been great.

So it’s really the question of are foreign fighters, who are now using Syria as basically the extremist Club Med. Extremists from all over are coming. It’s basically 1980s Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. So you have foreign fighters from all over coming and using Syria as their base.

I actually think if there were going to be any kind of action, it would be that that would be the impetus, rather than the humanitarian crisis, unfortunately.

Tavis: Is it just financial aid, or would King Abdullah be wise this Friday to press the Obama administration, the president especially, for that plus? If it is that plus, what is the plus?

Lemmon: The plus for many months, when you talk to State Department people who worked very closely with allies in the region, is diplomatic pressure. What I have never understood is we have worked so hard to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, and yet the future of Syria’s children has not been secured in the same way, because we’ve never seen that as the same kind of imminent threat.

Yet if you look at what happens when that many children are out of school – Arne Duncan, who you’ve had on this show, will talk about that link between violence and low educational attainment.

This will not be a problem that stays local for a long time, and I think that’s what King Abdullah is going to – has been saying and will continue to say.

Tavis: Far be it from me to speak for the Obama administration, but I suspect if they were here, the president were here right now, he’d say, well, Gayle, that’s precisely what we’re trying to do. By going after the stockpile, by trying to deal with the nuclear threat, by pressing Syria on what they’ve done to their own people, that’s how we avoid these children being placed in harm’s way.

That’s how we avoid the humanitarian crisis, because there is a direct link between the two.

Lemmon: The counter to that is absolutely, but you need more because you’ve left every conventional weapon on the table. I had one aid worker tell me the other night that they have seen more people killed in two weeks by barrel bombs than they saw the entire killed by chemical weapons.

So the chemical weapons things makes us all feel better because it is incredibly important, but in terms of people killed on the ground, people are dying every single day.

You now have basically the equivalent of Burbank, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, killed in this conflict. Take those cities off the map. It’s more than 100,000 people.

Tavis: Part of the problem here is, I think some would argue, is that if you can’t get some agreement in the UN, particularly amongst the UN Security Council, to do more vis-à-vis Syria and Mr. Assad, then how do you avoid this crisis getting worse?

Lemmon: Yeah. I think the UN is absolutely, it’s an incredibly important point. The administration has really fought there and has been blocked at almost every turn by Russia.

Tavis: Precisely, yeah.

Lemmon: But if you look at how did you get the chemical weapons deal, that was people with real diplomatic energy putting overnight nights, all-nighters, to get the chemical weapon stockpile secured.

Now we should also talk about the fact that less than 5 percent of that has actually happened. The deadline was supposed to be the end of this year, and now we’re looking at the middle of next, or middle of this year.

But I think that diplomatic imagination from the American side absolutely has to be there, and I think Secretary Kerry has worked very hard, and there’s no question his hands are tied. But could we do more? Yeah, absolutely.

Tavis: But again, some would argue that when the president first stepped out on this issue and had to back down on the issue, that diplomacy won the day. That was the spin he put on it, that I’m going to hold up military action, we’re going to advance the notion of diplomacy.

So for a moment, diplomacy won the day. But look at what diplomacy has brought us. So for those who are saying Gayle, you’re pressing for more diplomacy; it was holding the phone on military action and engaging diplomacy that brought us this humanitarian crisis.

Lemmon: Well, and I think it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. So when you talk to people who are really in favor of doing much more, things that they think we should have done two years ago, like really supporting the moderate opposition, really going in – all of those, from what folks I talk to now, really are being evaluated.

Because there is this real fear of what it means to have that man extremists wreaking havoc in one country, and being able to do, because this crisis has not stayed local. It’s commuted now around the region, and there is real fear from people you have on this show all the time that that will not stay a local threat for a long time.

So the question then becomes what do you do diplomatically, and I think you have to go back to the UN, you have to go back to the Russians, and you have to really use every tool.

In the same way that we did with Iran – economic, the threat of military action, the actual sense that the U.S. cares very deeply about what happens there has to be there.

Tavis: The irony here is that Barack Obama as president might end back up where this all started – with the threat of military action. He started there, did a 360; I mean a 180, and it may end up being a 360. We may end up right back to where you suggest he will be, using that threat to get something done diplomatically.

Let me ask right quick in closing how much more Lebanon and places like Jordan can do. My sense is that even when countries are trying to be charitable and generous and letting others come across their borders, there’s only so much they’re going to take of that. At some point they’re going to close their borders. What happens then?

Lemmon: Lebanon and Jordan have been taxed in ways that I think are almost unimaginable to us. I think right now the question is how do you get more support for young people who are there?

There’s this plan right now, Gordon and Sarah Brown have been really advancing to get a second shift of schools in Lebanon, so that kids who are from Syria in that country can actually go to school.

There are all kinds of sort of creative plans like that to help alleviate the burden on those countries, but short of this conflict ending, there is nobody who you talk to on the ground who sees an end in terms of what could actually make things much easier. I think you’re going to continue to see that burden grow.

Tavis: And we’ll continue to follow it and talk about it, Gayle Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks for your insights.

Lemmon: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you on once again.

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Last modified: February 11, 2014 at 7:37 pm