Published July 23, 2013
More than a month after President Obama called for arming the Syrian opposition, a key committee has given a tentative green light to the effort. But the Capitol Hill victory surely will be tempered by the reality on the ground -- not only is the Assad regime seen to be gaining, but the stream of refugees from the war-torn country is at crisis level.
"It's brutal," Daryl Grisgraber, a senior advocate at Refugees International who has visited refugee camps in the countries surrounding Syria, told FoxNews.com. "It doesn't appear that there are people starving to death, but they have just about every other problem you can imagine."
Last week, the United Nations said Syria's civil war has led to the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide two decades ago. Close to 2 million Syrians have been forced to flee their own country and relocate in makeshift refugee camps at the border.
The accounts from the refugee camps, one of which Secretary of State John Kerry visited last week, paint a dire picture of what is happening not just inside Syria's borders, but beyond.
And they add urgency to the Obama administration's and Congress' protracted deliberations over how and whether to get more involved. The House Intelligence Committee tentatively gave its okay this week on arming the opposition, while continuing to voice serious reservations. The panel had delayed the administration from implementing its plan, Fox News has learned.
Even with the committee's sign off, Congress is deeply divided. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the intelligence committee, continued to oppose arming the opposition, warning of the U.S. getting "entangled" in a civil war.
If the U.S. were to get more involved, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey revealed a range of options in a letter late last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee. They include "limited" strikes as well as options involving "thousands" of troops on the ground.
But the U.S. and allied nations are faced with two distinct challenges -- how to check Assad's gains, and how to handle hundreds of thousands of refugees.
There are now more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in five host countries - Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, according to the U.N. Syria Regional Response Plan.
Around 330,000 Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon and close to 320,000 in Jordan, the refugee agency reported, with more than 185,000 in Turkey, 105,000 in Iraq, 43,500 in Egypt and around 8,000 across North Africa. Thousands of others have fled to Europe.
Those numbers are expected to jump to 3.5 million by the end of the year with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey taking in the most refugees.
Grisgraber says the conditions beyond the crammed border camps are the worst.
"The refugee camps get the most attention and there are problems with hygiene, water and sanitation, but it's almost twice as bad outside the U.N. camps," she said. "The residents of these countries have been extremely generous with Syrians but the bottom line is that things are getting tense."
Last week, Kerry met with six pre-selected refugees at the 115,000-person Zaatari camp near the Syria-Jordan border. He sat uncomfortably as they pressed him on what they see as the U.S. standing on the sidelines while Assad inches closer to victory.
"Where is the international community?" Reuters reported one female refugee asking Kerry. "At least impose a no-fly zone or an embargo."
Kerry insisted the Obama administration wasn't ignoring the problem -- but spoke more of future options than what's currently happening.
"We are trying to help in various ways, including helping Syrian opposition fighters have weapons," he said. "We are doing new things. There is consideration of buffer zones and other things, but it is not as simple as it sounds."
In the 11 months since Obama made his first reference to Syria crossing a "red line" -- defined as using chemical weapons -- U.S. assistance has mostly added up to humanitarian and other nonlethal support.
Over the weekend, David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, issued a dire warning about the situation in Syria and the strength of the Assad regime and its supporters.
"The reality is that, left unchecked, they will become bigger," Shedd said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. "Over the last two years they've grown in size, they've grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness."
In recent weeks, rebel groups have been dealt a series of demoralizing blows after losing ground on the battlefield and being out-manned and out-armed by Assad's army and loyalist militias.
On Monday, Russia tried to change the narrative by announcing Assad's regime was ready to talk peace and urged the U.S. and other Western countries to bring Syrian opposition groups to the table for a round of talks. The problem is that Russia wants the West to agree to a peace plan -- one without preconditions -- which isn't likely.
While the U.S. and other Western countries have pledged public support for the forces fighting Assad, they had been so far reluctant to provide weapons to rebel soldiers. In contrast, Assad's army has been regularly receiving large infusions of cash, weapons and manpower from Iran, Russia and the terrorist group Hezbollah.
Complicating matters more are the ongoing congressional conflicts in Washington.
On Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would place a hold on the re-nomination of the nation's top military officer, after he and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey had a heated exchange on the country's response in Syria. McCain clashed with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and suggested Dempsey was partly responsible for a lackluster response to the Assad regime's aggression. Dempsey's written response to the committee could help ease that stand-off.
A day earlier, Obama's pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. slammed the international organization during her Senate confirmation hearing and said it was unlikely the U.N. would take decisive action any time soon to stop the Syrian civil war.
"The failure of the U.N. Security Council to respond to the slaughter in Syria is a disgrace that history will judge harshly," Samantha Power told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But not everyone agrees.
According to a June Pew Research Center poll, more than 70 percent of Americans oppose intervening in Syria with the majority saying they don't want to be dragged into another country's conflict.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has strongly lobbied against American involvement in Syria.
"Any attempt to aid the Syrian rebels would be complicated and dangerous, precisely because we don't know who these people are," Paul wrote in Politico. "To the degree that we do not know who they are, we know that significant numbers of them are associated with Al Qaeda - as many as 10,000 fighters, by some estimates."
He added, "If the United States wants to choose a side in Syria, there is no clear moral choice. More important, there is no clear U.S. national interest in Syria."