In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
Last week the U.S. military began a series of humanitarian aid airdrops to tens of thousands of civilians who fled to the desolate Sinjar mountains from Islamic State (ISIS / ISIL) fighters in Iraq. This is the profoundly right thing to do. When we know about the suffering of innocent people–especially those we pledged to assist and protect during the years of the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq–we are obligated to alleviate human suffering when we have the ability to do so. As I watch this important news unfold, here are a few observations that I cannot help but share with you, dear readers:
Airdrops are needed in Syria, too. These stunning feats of aerial logistics–some 5,300 gallons of water and 8,000 Meals Ready-to-Eat supplied in just 15 minutes over a drop zone–also serves as a powerful example of what the U.S. (and other large military forces) have been capable of, but haven’t yet used to aid the estimated 240,000 innocent people who are still besieged, cut off, and systematically starved in Syria–or the millions more who have fled their homes to other countries as a result of the persistent air strikes, ground incursions, and sieges. I’ve written before about the need for humanitarian intervention in Syria, and I remain insistent that the time is now to alleviate the suffering of innocents. The U.S. and western military powers have the ability to do this. Why aren’t we?
Military airdrops are the way to go for fast delivery of large quantities of humanitarian aid. A couple of months back I worked with a group of innovative veterans and humanitarians with intense international experience who wanted to develop a coherent plan for airdropping humanitarian aid to besieged areas in Syria. Even as we tried to put every possible option on the table, the simple, incontrovertible reality is that an impactful airdrop of humanitarian aid is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish using commercial means. Airdrop capabilities are what militaries do well–especially the U.S. military, which has successfully delivered critical supplies to troops in impossible places in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan for more than a decade. The airdrops over Sinjar have been from U.S. C-17s and C-130 aircraft, where skilled riggers configured skids of food and water into Container Delivery System (CDS) bundles, and skilled pilots and flight crews timed the altitudes, wind speeds, and drop rates just right to get this astonishing volume of aid goods onto a designated drop zone. It may look beautifully easy, but it’s a hard science to get right. Just ask anyone who’s seen airdrops go wrong.
Starvation cannot and must not continue to be used as a war tactic in Syria. Over the last three years, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has isolated areas of urban and rural areas to systematically choke the movement of civilians and goods in and out–in addition to an aggressive campaign of air strikes and ground incursions against specific populations he sees as resistant to his authoritarian regime. The Free Syrian Army hasn’t just been fighting–they’ve also undertaken high-risk logistics operations to smuggle in food and medicine to innocent people who have been under siege. Children in particular suffer from malnutrition and associated illnesses. People have had to resort to eating cats and dogs. People are even starving to death. Many die for lack of basic medicine and medical aid. All of this, according to humanitarian workers I’ve talked with in person and over Skype, goes on even as Assad gives tours of cities like Damascus and Aleppo to foreign journalists to show how things are “normal” in some areas–but conveniently hiding from the world the atrocities he is committing. Airdrops of humanitarian aid would bring immediate relief from suffering and starvation, as well as sending a powerful message that the world will no longer stand idly by and allow the defining humanitarian crisis of our time to continue.
Humanitarian aid delivery is no longer an issue of Syrian sovereignty. The United Nations Security Council at long last passed a resolution last month authorizing humanitarian aid delivery into Syria, regardless of approval by the Assad regime. The United Nations recognizes that at least 10.8 million people inside Syria are in urgent need of assistance, and that nearly half of these people are in communities that have not been reachable by existing aid organizations. It stands perfectly within reason for the United Nations to further broker military airdrop efforts to bring immediate and ongoing relief. We can be frustrated and angered that it took three years–and the needless suffering of millions–for the UN to declare that humanitarian aid cannot be blocked by a government like Assad’s. The least the UN can do now is begin funneling the largest pipeline of aid possible to civilians in need–and that would be by airdrop.
Inaction won’t make the crisis go away or get better. These years of crisis in Syria have given rise to players like the Islamic State (ISIS / ISIL), as well as pushing millions of refugees into neighboring countries that are becoming increasingly destabilized by this human crisis. If you don’t care about the human dimension of this crisis–you should at least care about the threat to western and U.S. national security that this now poses, and will increasingly worsen. The crisis won’t go away because we choose to ignore it. And it won’t get better with inaction–it will only become worse. The costs and consequences of continuing to do nothing far outweigh the costs of helping, and helping now. We help people in need after natural disasters–why not when man-made ones like this happen also? As Martin Luther King, Jr., also said:
The time is always right to do what’s right.
Help is years overdue, but it’s not too late for those still alive, besieged, and crying out for help. There is too much to gain by helping, and too much to lose by not helping. Which will we choose?