On April 24, THO partnered with the Syrian American Council (SAC) and the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) for a roundtable discussion on the Syrian refugee crisis. Leading the discussion were Mohammed Ghanem (Director of Government Relations and Senior Political Advisor at SAC) and Mais Balkhi (Advocacy and Outreach Manager at Syria Relief and Development).
The discussion began with questions from the YPFP members on U.S. policy regarding Syria, specifically in reference to the recent airstrikes that the U.S. carried out as a response to the chemical weapons attack on civilians in Khan Shaykun. Mr. Ghanem explained his understanding that while the White House has not yet formulated a coherent plan for Syria, the recent attack on Assad’s forces should not be underestimated. The shock and awe approach left the Assad government and Russia surprised.
Responding to a question on how to end the conflict, Mr. Ghanem described SAC’s two focuses: political transition and the protection of civilians. He expressed his view that the conflict can only be ended through a transition of power that removes the Assad government. He noted that the state institutions are Syrian institutions, not Assad’s, and the higher negotiations committee has a vision for the transition.
The group also discussed humanitarian aid for refugees and reconstruction within Syria. Ms. Balkhi noted that Turkey, Canada, and Germany are doing a commendable job with hosting Syrian refugees. Other countries like Lebanon and Jordan are facing major problems, such as lack of proper documentation and work permits for refugees. For example, in Lebanon, if refugees do not have the proper paperwork, they cannot move between checkpoints without being arrested.
Ms. Balkhi emphasized that there are two types of Syrian refugees: those who are integrating into their host communities and building new lives and those who plan to return to Syria. As a result, any approach to the refugee crisis must address not just the immediate needs of today’s refugees but also the reconstruction of Syria. Ms. Balkhi noted that the Trump administration’s plans to cut U.S. aid by 70% has generated concerns about the prospects for reconstruction in Syria. The U.S. is the largest contributor of international aid financially, and with these cuts, the U.S. would withdraw all funds from the United Nations’ international aid programs. Ms. Balkhi explained that this scenario would preclude any opportunity to plan long term for reconstruction in Syria.