“The fact of the matter is that when there’s military intervention, there has to be an accompanying humanitarian intervention, and that’s where we’re concerned,” said Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, a Jewish refugee-resettlement organization in the U.S. “Refugees have been vilified by the current administration.”
After last week’s chemical-gas attacks, Trump’s rhetoric on Syrians seemed to soften: “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” the president said. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” Hetfield wasn’t impressed. “It’s good that President Trump seems to now recognize that refugees represent babies and not terrorists,” he said.
The politics of Trump’s military strikes are even more complicated because he’s such a polarizing figure. Sergie Attar said she felt betrayed by activists who are protesting against Trump’s decision to order missile strikes. Since 2014, the Obama administration has carried out strikes in Syria in its offensive against ISIS, but she didn’t see many people protesting those attacks. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy on this,” she said.
Not all aid organizations support Trump’s military action in Syria. For example, Bill O’Keefe, the vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, believes “on-going violence aggravated by military actions by additional players like the United States will cause more people to flee and more instability.”
From the perspective of his organization, which offers humanitarian aid in more than 100 countries around the world, diplomacy is superior to bombs. “We, and the Catholic bishops, are always going to be the ones looking askance at military action,” he said. “Not because we oppose it on principle, but because the unintended negative consequences for real people are always real.”
Others, like the evangelical aid organization World Relief, have refused to weigh in altogether: Jenny Yang, the vice president of advocacy and policy, declined to comment on the group’s position in an email, saying there’s a lot that is still unknown.
The Trump administration seems to support an end to Assad’s rule: On Monday, Spicer said he “can't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al-Assad is in power.” Once the region is stable, Spicer said, the administration “can apply political, economic and diplomatic pressure for a regime change.”
But even that wouldn’t come close to fixing the humanitarian crisis in Syria. “The conditions have only gotten worse over the last six years,” said Kekic. “The devastation is so vast that even if the conflict stopped tomorrow, people wouldn’t be able to go home because there’s nothing to go home to.”
Meanwhile, said Sergie Attar, it’s getting harder for her small organization to do its work in Syria. The fighting has made it unsafe for volunteers and staff members to work in much of the country, so Karam is largely operating from communities on the Turkish border. From her perspective, it’s much less important to stand against Trump than to make sure her organization can reach people.