Syria: Five Years of Suffering Must End

For Immediate Release
March 14, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. — March 15 marks the 5th anniversary of the peaceful protests that set the stage for the Syrian conflict.  This conflict has spawned a devastating humanitarian crisis with a death toll ranging between 250,000 and 470,000, 4.7 million Syrians registered as refugees in neighboring countries, more than 6.5 million internally displaced, and over 140,000 children born stateless.  This brutal conflict has become sectarian in nature, with Syria now an overwhelmingly hostile place for all ethno-religious groups, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, and Turkmen.  

The actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime, elements of the armed opposition, and terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra, are responsible for the bloody conflagration in Syria. Along with the millions of Syrians who have been killed and displaced, the country’s religious diversity has been irrevocably damaged, with dire consequences that go far beyond the region,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George.

The civil war in Syria began in March 2011 when opponents of the oppressive al-Assad regime, mostly Sunni Muslims, peacefully protested and called for the repeal of the country's abusive emergency law, space for political parties, and President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation.  The al-Assad regime responded with a brutal crackdown and played on sectarian fears. U.S. designated terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, have supported the regime. The regime’s opponents included dozens of domestic and foreign groups, among them some that espouse democracy and are recognized by the United States, and others that are motivated by ideologies, religious or secular, that espouse violence, including ISIL.

Over 13.5 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance, as do the millions forced to flee to neighboring nations, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.  Such large numbers of refugees are straining resources and exacerbating sectarian tensions in these countries.  The United States has done much, having contributed over $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid to Syrians and neighboring countries, but more needs to be done given the scale of this crisis, not only for the sake of these millions of people, but for regional stability and U.S. national security,” said Chairman George.

USCIRF calls on the U.S. government to work with our international partners to prioritize the protection of and assistance to all non-combatant Syrians, especially vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities, and help ensure that issues related to religious freedom and human rights are included in any political negotiations that seek to end this devastating crisis.  USCIRF also urges the U.S. government to increase the number of Syrians accepted for resettlement to 100,000, subject to proper security vetting and a prioritization based on vulnerability, in order to aid those in the greatest peril, demonstrate U.S. leadership, and show support for governments in the Middle East and Europe that are hosting millions of refugees. USCIRF also calls on the U.S. government to allocate sufficient resources to the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies that conduct the rigorous individualized vetting of refugees being considered for resettlement in the United States, to allow them to expeditiously process applications and thoroughly conduct background checks in order to facilitate resettlements without compromising U.S. national security. 

USCIRF has recommended since 2014 that Syria be designated as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.   For more information, see USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report chapter on Syria.  

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact Travis Horne at thorne@uscirf.gov or 202-786-0615.