The Syrian crisis grows more severe by the day, with about half of the country’s population now displaced. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that the US will raise its emigration cap to accept 100,000 total refugees by 2017. Domestically, legislators are trying to ensure aid for those who have fled while eyeing a long-term strategy to address the Islamic State’s continued savagery in the region.
Congressman Stephen Lynch, who represents the 8th District of Massachusetts, spoke with the Reporter by phone last week regarding his experience visiting Syrian refugees and attending Congressional hearings aimed at finding ways to undermine the terrorist state financially. As the group now has a substantial revenue stream from illicit oil deals, antiquities sales, extortion, and kidnapping, it operates beyond avenues that can be regulated, Lynch said.
“What we’re working is trying to build a ring of defense around the territory that ISIL holds,” Lynch said, using one of two popular acronyms that refer to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. ISIL, also the preference of President Obama, the State Department, and the UN, stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The other acronym, ISIS, is shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “At some point,” he said, “they will need to get into the legitimate banking system in order to pay for food and supplies and finance services. They’ll also need currency, so they’re going to have to interface with the legitimate economy in some way at some point.”
“So what we’re trying to do is to use those countries, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan – especially Jordan, because it has a major financing center in Amman – and kind of build a fence around the ISIL territories as well, in order to prevent that exchange from going on,” the congressman added.
The hearings and a related bipartisan task force will be extended for another six months, Lynch said. They are focused on countries, including those he listed, that may have gaps in anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing laws meant to limit ISIL’s options on the legitimate market.
Given the power struggles between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, significant terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIL, a host of smaller militant groups, and a US-supported moderate Free Syrian army, the country’s territories have become increasingly porous. “There’s no question that all the kinetic activity in the Syrian region, even along the Turkish border, creates opportunities for smuggling,” Lynch said. “Those areas are unpoliceable, I guess, and they are no-go zones for the regular border patrols.”
The chaos that has gripped Syria in the past few years has made outside aid increasingly necessary, while ISIL’s presence has complicated the logistics of aid delivery, the congressman said, noting concerns regarding aid supplies being seized by unfriendly militants may limit their delivery locations.
“Most of our aid is going to areas outside of the territory of ISIL,” said Lynch. “So it’s mostly those in [refugee camps] Al-Za’tari and Kilis, which is right on the border, north of Aleppo, where probably half a million refugees are living right now. As well, we’re paying for food and medical supplies in Adana [Turkey], which is more westward of the conflict area, but where we have some major refugee camps.”
“We don’t feel, at least in those instances,” he added, “that any of that aid is being co-opted by ISIL. We are concerned that there are pockets of individuals in the contested areas, that are not necessarily under the control of ISIL, but those are the areas where some of the ... other groups are isolated, and the aid we would like to get to them is put in jeopardy.”
Of the more than 4 million total refugees, about 1.6 million are currently living in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon, and 630,000 in Jordan, though many refugees are not able to live in the limited camps. The rest of the refugees are scattering across the globe, many attempting to enter Europe. Germany expects to take in 800,000 refugees this year, and 500,000 for the next few. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, hundreds of thousands of refugees have swarmed into the bordering countries. Prior to the conflict, Lebanon’s population stood at 4.2 million, Jordan’s at 6.1 million. These are two of the weakest countries in the region, and, feeling the strain, they are “near the breaking point,” Lynch said.
Lynch has visited several refugee camps in the region. While conceding that moving the Syrians who have been displaced into new countries is a vital endeavor, “we have to make sure we support refugees in place,” he said. Primary needs are food, water, and functional refugee facilities, including schooling for the children who make up half of the refugee number.
“In my conversations with them... those Syrian families would like to go home. When you ask them, ‘What is your goal, what is your hope?’ they and their families will tell you, ‘Look, we have homes, we have villages, we have farms, we have communities, and we want to go back to those when it’s safe to do so.’ ”
As a recent New York Times article pointed out, many refugees who have chosen stay in the region are realizing their camps are going to be a semi-permanent situation. Most of the families who have reconciled themselves with emigrating say they want to be placed in areas where they have relatives from previous generations of Syrian immigrants. Lynch said Germany was usually at the top of the list, and they often have no connections to the US.
“Of course, this is an emergency situation,” the congressman said. “So it’s not like the ongoing immigration situation, where they know how many people we can take in and from what country. This is akin to the situation that we had in Haiti a few years ago, when we had the earthquake, and we had children arriving without adults at Logan Airport, and we’re trying to find places for them in public schools in Brockton and other places where the Haitian community had emigrated.”
When considering relocation, “we can’t just stick them somewhere where they’re completely isolated,” he said. “That would not be helpful. This doesn’t look like this is a problem that will be solved soon, so you’ve got to look not only at the short term, but also at the medium and long term opportunities for those families if they choose to come here.”