By: Matthew Worsham – Managing Editor
Just over a year ago, the United States debated military strikes against the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Today, American and allied bombs are falling on Syrian soil, but with a different target and mission scope.
In response to the violence committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a United States-led coalition including five Arab nations began bombing ISIS targets in Syria Sept. 23 local time in an effort to degrade and defeat the militant group. The expanding war continues to drive refugees from their homes in Syria and Iraq and into neighboring states, especially Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
ISIS’s goal is to create a Caliphate, or Islamic state, under its radical interpretation of Islam. It has long been a player in the Syrian civil war, and, this year, it returned to Iraq, where it began in 2004 as the group al-Qaida in Iraq, to capture territory in the west of that nation. The group is infamous for an especially barbaric track record in Syria.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated in September that 6.45 million Syrians are internally displaced, and 3 million have left the country; 10.8 million people there need humanitarian assistance.
According to a July estimate by the OCHA, approximately 1.8 million Iraqis are internally displaced.
Additionally, Iraq is host to more than 210,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to Sept. 18 data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This data also shows that Jordan hosts more than 610,000 “persons of concern,” while Lebanon bears the biggest burden with over 1,160,000 registered Syrian refugees. For comparison, the population of Lebanon is 4.467 million, according to the World Bank.
A Sept. 14 estimate shows Turkey hosts more than 840,000 registered Syrian refugees, but today’s number is likely much higher due to events that have developed since. According to a Sept. 22 UNHCR report, 130,000 individuals crossed the border into Turkey between Sept. 19-22, fleeing an ISIS advance on the northern Syrian city of Kobani.
Bombing by coalition forces will likely increase the number of refugees.
While coalition airstrikes may roll back ISIS forces, the situation on the ground will remain complex.
Youssef Farhat, a graduate student in the masters of public administration program from Lebanon, stressed in an interview last year the importance of the international community in protecting minorities. But as the war has grown and the influence of ISIS has spread, he and many other observers are at a loss for words.
“Honestly, this has been overwhelming. I don’t know where I stand at this point,” he said. “One thing that’s really important is to understand the conflict. There’s something missing from the story that the news is not reporting on…we’re taking the human rights aspect out of it.”
Indeed, it is difficult for advocacy groups to communicate the urgency of the humanitarian crisis. Joel Pruce, a political science professor specializing in human rights advocacy, explained one reason why the United States has been hesitant until now to take a larger role in the conflict in Syria.
“This is always a problem for human rights advocates. It’s not very clear how a bloody, ruthless, endless war in Syria affects our national interests,” he said.“There are a lot of humanitarian and human rights problems, but connecting those kinds of problems to harder national self-interests like security, protection and stability takes a broader argument.”
Now that the danger is clearer, America has re-evaluated its position.
“ISIS, which is in many important ways an outgrowth of the Syrian civil war and, critics would say, an outgrowth of the international community’s inability to respond to the Syrian civil war, now is no longer just a threat to Syria and Syrian civilians. It is no longer just a threat to Syria’s neighbors, but they pose a much broader regional threat, which is a security threat and a threat to stability,” he said.
Students at the University of Dayton need to understand the complexity of the war because the political choices they make this fall will influence the American response.
“As we’re heading into midterm elections, it’s important to understand the political issues at stake,” Youssef said. “These are human lives.”