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Testing a US 'empathy deficit' in Syria

So far, the American humanitarian response for Syria has been its best success during the crisis. But with the UN making a record appeal for aid as refugee flows escalate, US empathy will be tested again.

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    Syrian refugee children build a snowman outside their tent at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal Dec. 15.
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In his campaign to be president, Barack Obama often talked of an “empathy deficit” among Americans. These days, he may spend more time talking about the federal deficit. But with the world now coping with its worst humanitarian crisis in decades, it is a good time to take measure of the alleged empathy deficit.

On Monday, the United Nations launched its biggest global appeal for money for a single crisis. It wants $6.5 billion to help feed, shelter, and otherwise care for some 16 million people who have fled their homes during the conflict in Syria. The amount of funds requested only begins to capture what aid workers say is an escalating crisis in the Middle East.

Over the next year, the number of Syrian refugees is expected to nearly double, the UN estimates. More than a third of all Syrians already need some humanitarian assistance, either within the war-ravaged country or in nearby Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon

What’s driving the increase? Over the past year, the number of armed clashes in the 33-month-old conflict has nearly doubled, according to UN statistics. On Monday, for example, the Syrian Air Force dropped barrels with explosives on the city of Aleppo, killing an estimated 76 people, nearly half of them children and women. The number of civilians killed since 2011 now exceeds 120,000.

To put this in a different perspective, the requested humanitarian aid for Syrians will take up nearly half of a record $12.9 billion in funds needed to deal with 17 major crises around the world in 2014.

One odd part about the refugee crisis is that much of it is not easy to see. Some 80 percent of Syrians in neighboring countries do not live in temporary tents near the border but rather have found ways to live within cities. The effects are felt, for example, by a water shortage in Jordan and a spike in unemployment and food prices in Lebanon. Resentment against the refugees could destabilize these countries’ economies.

Within Syria, much of the suffering remains hidden. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has largely restricted access of foreign aid groups, despite reports of starvation in some areas. The United States estimates that 9.3 million people in Syria need immediate help, especially as a cold winter hits the region.

So far, the US has spent about $700 million to aid the Syrian civilians in need. Both Congress and the Obama administration see the aid as both an empathetic response by Americans and a strategic move for US interests. “Our contributions demonstrated yet again that the United States is the world’s humanitarian leader,” Anne Richard, an assistant secretary of State, told US lawmakers last week.

Last summer, the US led the effort to start ridding the Assad regime of its chemical weapons. But it has largely failed in its nonmilitary support of opposition fighters unattached to jihadists. And its efforts to arrange negotiations for ending the Syrian civil war are faltering.

For now, the US humanitarian response remains its most successful effort in the crisis. On Jan. 15, countries that have donated money for Syrian aid will meet to agree on a new set of commitments. With the UN asking for more money as the fighting and refugee flows escalate, America’s alleged “empathy deficit” will be tested again.

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