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Omar Dahi: Syrian humanitarian crisis escalates as US military mulls intervention

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On Monday, the Syrian government made strong advances in the key rebel stronghold of Homs. This is the most recent aggression in the two-year ongoing civil war, and the U.S. is weighing having more direct military intervention. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey estimated the cost will be in the billion. And just last week, Syrian rebel leaders met for the first time with the United Nations Security Council, saying they’re prepared to take part in peace talks if the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to a political transition.

Now joining us to give us a deeper analysis of the situation is Omar Dahi. He’s an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s also an editor at The Middle East Report.

Thank you for joining us, Omar.


NOOR: So, Omar, the Obama administration has already been arming rebels in Syria, some of whom have been linked to al-Qaeda. But that assistance is supposed to be limited to small arms and restore some balance between Assad and the rebel forces. Now there are talks of more direct military intervention. Can you describe what’s being proposed by the Obama administration? And what do you make of these proposals?

DAHI: Well, it’s hard to know exactly what the Obama administration is going to do next. In terms of the five proposals that you mentioned, that were outlined to Congress, none of them seem particularly desirable for the U.S., and they’re all equally unlikely to lead to a peaceful negotiated solution.

What we’ve been operating under for the past year or so, despite all these different headlines, is the general contours of a Russian-U.S. agreement. And the broad contours of this agreement, in a way they were laid out in the first Geneva accord of June 20, 2012, which was really the signal of a tacit agreement between Russia and the U.S. in a way that allowed the Syrian regime to consolidate its control over certain areas of Syria and the rebels to consolidate their control over the ones that are now–the areas that are now outside regime control.

In many ways we’ve been seeing this broad agreement be put into place. The Syrian rebels are not gaining new territory. They are losing the territory of Homs, and they lost the territory of Qusayr, which was a key link of arms and supplies to Lebanon. And the regime so far does not seem to be trying to retake much of the northeast north of Aleppo and south of Daraa, which is under rebel territory.

So you begin to see that the broad parameters of a negotiated settlement might be in place if, of course, the fighting stops and if there is an attempt to bring back the rebels or to bring the rebels and the regime to an agreement. The U.S. supplies of weapons, we don’t know exactly how much or their scale or what type of weapons, but they don’t seem to be making an impact on the battles that are ongoing at the moment in Homs and the areas that are now fiercely contested.

NOOR: And what do you make of the estimated financial cost of the war, with some estimates being with a possible intervention costing billions of dollars?

DAHI: Well, that’s certainly true, as we saw from the war of Iraq. Not only did it the vastly outweigh the expected costs, but there were unexpected costs that went up into the billions and trillions of–and a trillion dollar, perhaps, as the book by Joe Stiglitz mentioned. And so the war in Syria is likely to be not only financially costly but devastating in terms of the fact that it’s likely to be a regional war, it’s unlikely to be simply confined to Syria.

That’s why I don’t take seriously these plans that the U.S. is going to intervene through direct military confrontation with the Assad regime. If there is some sort of more aggressive or direct intervention by the U.S., I believe it might be to consolidate control of the areas that are now outside regime control. But I really don’t think an actual invasion or no-fly zone over regime territories is in play, because of the fact that the Syrian regime and its allies are still militarily very strong and they’re winning and they have enough firepower to turn this into a nightmare regional scenario. So I don’t think that’s going to happen.

NOOR: And let’s get back to this question of the real cost of war, the human casualties, the human refugee toll, which is rising dramatically. More than 100,000 people have been killed, and neighboring countries have been swamped with refugees. And now there’s talks of England and perhaps even the U.S. receiving thousands, maybe tens of thousands of refugees. What do you make of the latest humanitarian toll this conflict is causing?

DAHI: Well, that’s the problem. All those simply discussing the military options and armament and egging on more militarization are being completely tone deaf to the humanitarian catastrophe which has been documented over and over and is constantly increasing dramatically. You have hundreds of thousands and millions of internally displaced and refugees. They’re scattered in camps, some more formal, some less formal, some inside towns and villages, all over more than five countries now. You have Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Algeria, increasingly, seeing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. So you in fact now have a whole Syrian population outside of Syria which is increasing by the day.

And as you saw in the case of Lebanon, as you see now in the case of Egypt, and even documentation from Jordan and Turkey, their problems don’t end once they get to the refugee camps. They are faced with poor humanitarian conditions, lack of assistance, and in many cases hostility from some of the population where they’re going.

Of course, there is a lot of attention increasingly being paid to this. But those countries who claim to be on the side of the rebels, those countries who called on Assad to leave and who essentially facilitated the conditions for this tragic civil war should be the primary ones responsible both for direct humanitarian assistance and for welcoming the refugees. And so far that hasn’t happened. It’s been very difficult for Syrian refugees and others citizens applying to European countries and to the U.S. There’s been very little action on that front.

NOOR: What do you make of recent reports that are arguing that even food aid is being used as a weapon of war?

DAHI: Well, it’s the case in every refugee and humanitarian catastrophe that aid will be manipulated by different groups. You’ve seen reports that in many cases the militias in the areas outside regime control are manipulating the aid. You’ve seen reports that the Syrian government itself is using aid as both a carrot and a stick to punish those who are against it and to basically bribe or to aid its loyalist forces. It’s no different than most other humanitarian catastrophes. And it’s something that deserves serious attention. I think there’s very little–given the ongoing nature of the conflict and the fact that the war is still happening, there’s very little research at attention being paid to the different and heterogeneous conditions under which all the refugees live.

NOOR: Omar Dahi, thank you so much for joining us. And we’ll keep following this story.

DAHI: Thank you for having me.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Omar S. Dahi is an associate professor of economics. He received his B.A. in economics from California State University at Long Beach, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on South-South economic cooperation, and on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa.