The study, written by Rhoda Margesson, Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy and Susan G. Chesser, Information Research Specialist, was published on Sept. 4, 2013. It provides a thorough summary of the impact the conflict in Syria has had on the civilian population, the U.S. government’s contribution to humanitarian aid efforts and the international response. It identifies policy issues the situation raises Congress, including the level of funding, whether aid should be “branded” as coming from the U.S., given the safety problems such a move would create for people on the ground.

The report summarizes the humanitarian situation as follows:

  • The ongoing conflict in Syria has created one of the most pressing humanitarian crises in the world. An estimated 6.8 million people in Syria, almost one-third of the population, have been affected by the conflict, including more than 4.2 million displaced inside Syria (estimate as of August 15, 2013). On September 3, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the number of Syrians displaced as refugees exceeded 2 million, with 97% fleeing to countries in the immediate surrounding region, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and other parts of North Africa. The situation is fluid and continues to worsen, while humanitarian needs are immense and increase daily.  (emphasis added)

The U.S. has given more than $1 billion for humanitarian aid in Syria and the Obama administration has asked for $200 million more in the FY14 budget.  The UN has raised only 47 percent of its emergency appeals seeking $4.4 billion for humanitarian needs.

The report said U.S. policy is guided by:

  • concerns about humanitarian access and protection within Syria;
  • the large refugee flows out of the country that strain the resources of neighboring countries (and could negatively impact the overall stability of the region); and
  • an already escalating and protracted humanitarian emergency.

On the issue of branding, the report notes that:

  • Many Members of Congress have demonstrated an interest in the labeling or “branding” of U.S. humanitarian aid delivered to Syria so that recipients are aware of its American origins. This issue is complicated in the Syria context. Very little U.S. assistance is currently being branded. The U.S. government is trying to balance the desire to maintain visibility as a contributor of humanitarian assistance with concerns for the security of aid recipients and implementing partners who could become possible targets of attacks. Finding appropriate ways for the United States to leverage its political objectives without politicizing humanitarian aid remains a significant challenge. There has been some debate about whether the United States is receiving adequate political benefit from its humanitarian assistance efforts. Anecdotal evidence from field reports and implementing partners suggests that many Syrians who may be receiving U.S. assistance remain unaware of its origins, or assume it is from a foreign government other than the United States.
  • In response, some Members of Congress and observers have argued that the United States should begin to more aggressively brand U.S. aid to enhance local perceptions that the people of the United States stand in solidarity with Syrians.12 Humanitarian groups argue that objectives such as winning hearts and minds potentially compromise the neutrality of humanitarian assistance in general. In the context of Syria, experts contend that if a U.S.-funded clinic were to be targeted for its U.S. affiliation, it could jeopardize much broader humanitarian efforts there. Moreover, it is unclear whether raising awareness of U.S. humanitarian assistance would do much to change perceptions, as Syrians who support the opposition want weapons and other kinds of military help. The Administration is reportedly looking into ways of branding U.S aid that do not jeopardize the safety of those on the ground.