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Samaritan’s Purse continues food distributions to displaced Syrians in northern Iraq as President Barack Obama makes his case for missile strikes. Photo submitted

Originally published: 2013-09-07 17:41:22
Last modified: 2013-09-07 17:53:35

Samaritan's Purse helps Syrian refugees

As the U.S. readies for a possible military strike on Syria, Samaritan's Purse and other relief agencies continue assisting thousands of refugees fleeing the war-torn country.

Despite a lack of support from key allies, President Barack Obama continues to support a missile strike in retaliation for the Aug. 21 chemical gas attacks that killed as many as 1,400 civilians. He plans to address Americans in a speech Tuesday.

"There is a growing recognition that the world cannot stand idly by," Obama told reporters Friday.

Since fighting began in March 2011 between the Syrian government and groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad, almost 100,000 people have died and more than 2 million have fled to neighboring countries, according to the UN.

But the widescale use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 outside Damascus marked a shift in the Obama administration's strategy, said ASU political science professor Curtis Ryan, who specializes in international relations and the Middle East.

"The president has avoided any kind of direct involvement in Syria during more than two years of civil war and staked his Middle East policy on getting the U.S. out of needless regional wars," Ryan said. "The use of chemical weapons on a large scale has shaken the position dramatically."

An attack by the U.S. appeared imminent last weekend, but Obama applied the brakes to seek formal congressional approval. The United States also failed to secure the backing of the British parliament even while pledging a short intervention aimed at deterring the government from using chemical weapons again.

Ryan said he believed the delay might have limited opportunities for success if and when the U.S. attacks.

"The delay has allowed the Assad regime to move many military forces and assets, forcing the Pentagon to continually shift their own assessment of potential targets," he said. "It makes it less likely the U.S. strikes would be able to damage Assad's war machine as much as they would hope to, and more likely that collateral damage and civilian deaths would increase."

Internally, polls have shown many American citizens are not thrilled about the prospect of becoming involved in Syria. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found nearly 60 percent said they opposed missile strikes on Syria.

Like the American people, North Carolina's representatives in Washington aren't united on how to act.

In strikingly similar statements last week, Sen. Kay Hagan and Sen. Richard Burr expressed shock and outrage at the deaths of Syrian civilians.

"Without putting American troops on the ground, the atrocities in Syria require a strong response that will prevent them from happening again and ensure that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile does not fall into the hands of terrorists and further destabilize the Middle East," Hagan said.
In an Aug. 28 statement, Burr called military action "necessary."

"The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against civilians is morally repugnant and violates long-held standards of conduct," he said.

In a statement Thursday, Rep. Virginia Foxx said she was so far "unconvinced" at the need for U.S. involvement.

"Before any military action is pursued in Syria, there must be zero doubt that engaging the United States military and our resources is essential to America's national security interests," she said. "As debate over that question continues prior to the upcoming vote on authorization, I will be looking for the president to offer evidence to support his belief that America's national security is best served by initiating his proposed military involvement."

Syrians seek refuge

The U.N. estimates that 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, adding to the 2 million exiting for neighboring lands. At least 6.8 million citizens require humanitarian assistance, including half who are children.

Leonard Blevins of Boone, a disaster assistance response team leader for Samaritan's Purse, has been serving refugees in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq since Aug. 23.

Blevins said in an email interview last week that the influx of Syrians into Iraq began about Aug. 20 when border restrictions were eased, allowing them to cross.

"One refugee we spoke to claimed that some Islamic militants threatened to kill him, his wife and their six children, which caused the family to flee," Blevins said by email. "They hope to return to their home in Syria one day soon, but not until the situation in their country stabilizes."

Blevins said he has spent his time between two refugee camps: Erbil and Sulaymania. The Samaritan's Purse team, working with a local church, procured four tons of rice, four tons of sugar, two tons of lentils, two tons of chickpeas and 3,000 bottles of cooking oil for distribution last week.

Samaritan's Purse has had a presence in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq for more than five years, said Karina Petersen, media relations coordinator for the Boone-based Christian relief organization.

In addition to refugee relief, Samaritan's Purse provides medical support and services for disabled children there, she said. The agency originally started working through a local partner before deciding to apply for formal registration as a nongovernmental organization.

Blevins said the organization's message does not change when working among heavy Muslim populations.

"We never hide our identity as Christians," he said in an email. "Wherever we work in the world, we respect the laws and customs of the host community in sharing our faith with others. Right now, there is a great need, and they are thankful to receive help from Americans and others. We have not had any negative experiences."

With military action on the horizon, Samaritan's Purse representatives are praying for peace in Syria and an end to the residents' suffering.

"It's heartbreaking what these people have suffered and continue to go through," Blevins said. "They stayed in Syria as long as they could. Even though they have lost everything, the people remaining back in Syria are their major concern."