About 10 miles from a U.S. military outpost in southern Syria, some 30,000 civilians are in crisis — with almost no food, water or medicine — and, for complicated reasons, the U.S. government refuses to feed them. These innocent people are living under the protection of the United States, fearing the Bashar al-Assad regime, Iranian militias and the Islamic State. But the U.S. government, which bears primary responsibility for their fate because of its control over the area, is standing by and watching them needlessly starve to death.
There were originally about 50,000 people at the Rukban internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, living there for as long as four years after fleeing their homes in Homs province, which has been reduced mostly to rubble by shelling from the Assad regime. They chose to make camp close to the U.S. military base called Tanf. The United States has a few hundred troops there, training partner forces to fight the Islamic State and holding a strategically crucial location on the road between Tehran and Damascus, near Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan.
Living in squalor and facing starvation, thousands agreed to be transported back into Assad-controlled territory. Most of them were likely detained by the regime as suspected rebels, forcibly conscripted into Assad’s army or killed. Those who didn’t want to risk this fate remain in Rukban, cut off from the world and begging for help on Facebook and Twitter.
“I am speaking to you from Rukban Camp, the camp of death and the camp of hunger,” said one female camp resident, whose identity is concealed for fear of retribution, in a video message. “I am pleading with every human who has a conscience to find a solution to this camp.”
The situation inside the camp is dire. Residents can no longer find food or medicine on a daily basis and disease is rampant. People there have no jobs and no income. The last aid convoy came in February and the camp is besieged on all sides. It survives only because it falls within the 55-kilometer radius of Tanf’s security zone.
The residents want to be fed or transported to a place where they can be fed — but outside the control of the Assad regime. They would be happy to go to the north, to territory held by Sunni Arab or Kurdish groups, or east to Iraq, but there are no open roads out of the camp. The elderly and the young are the most vulnerable.
“Our kids are dying in front of us and we are unable to do anything about it,” the female camp resident continued. “We used to hear about hunger but now we understand it. People die of hunger here.”
In other videos, Rukban residents praise the U.S. soldiers at the Tanf base for keeping the Assad regime, the Islamic State and Iranian troops at bay. But they are also begging for food and basic humanitarian aid.
At last weekend’s Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, I asked James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria, why the United States won’t feed the residents of Rukban, something it has the capability to easily do.
“First of all, if we feed them, it will look like we are going to stay there forever, and there may be other options for them, for example in the northeast or the northwest of the country,” he said.
Jeffrey has been negotiating with Russia about providing humanitarian assistance for the camp. He acknowledged that those talks have now stalled, and that U.N. aid convoys (which require the Assad regime’s permission) have stopped as a result.
It’s true, as Jeffrey said, that if the United States begins feeding the people in Rukban, Moscow is sure to argue we are forming a permanent and (in Russia’s view) illegitimate occupation of part of Syria. This could have diplomatic and legal implications. But the point seems trivial compared with letting these people starve to death.
“Secondly, we can’t commit to a long-term presence in Al Tanf or in anyplace else in Syria,” Jeffrey said, nodding to the fact that President Trump could pull the plug on the U.S. outpost at any time. After all, the president did announce a troop withdrawal from Syria by tweet without consulting his own officials.
But the logic of withholding food from starving people now because we might not be able to feed them later is lost on those people and Americans who support them.
“The fact that we are afraid to feed these people because somehow we will become responsible for them doesn’t make sense,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. “The fact is, we are responsible for their well-being because they are living under our protection.”
The United States’ obligation to the people of Rukban is not purely humanitarian. The local partner forces that fight the Islamic State in the area are recruited from the camp. The soldiers get to eat, but their families and friends are left to starve. The Russian government then points to those deaths and distributes propaganda claiming that the United States is starving civilians deliberately to turn them into terrorists.
“Russia and the Assad regime and extremists are using this camp’s humanitarian crisis to undermine the legitimacy of our military presence,” Moustafa said.
For more than eight years, the United States has failed to lead a strategy that puts the Syrian people’s interests first, and the world has failed to stop the Assad regime’s brutal slaughter of civilians — aided by Russia and Iran. But these 30,000 people are still alive and depending on the United States for survival.
One tweet, one snap of the finger by Trump could allow the U.S. military to do what it does for people suffering all over the world — save their lives. We can feed them, or we can transport them to areas of Syria not controlled by the Assad regime. But we can’t stand by and watch them starve needlessly in the shadow of a U.S. military outpost.
If we don’t act now, our neglect will make us complicit in whatever horror they suffer next.