The startling image of a drowned little boy has captured global attention to the plight of some 4 million refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria. As the world’s leaders gathered at the United Nations last week, one would have expected helping those refugees to be a priority for action.

Meetings were held and strong words were spoken. But as Russia dropped bombs on civilians and U.S.-trained groups, any meaningful action to address “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world” was also dropped.

Still, a chance remains to regain some of the momentum generated by those shocking images to act to help end the immediate suffering and begin moving toward a longer term political solution.

The onus is on Russia, but the United States and its allies have a key role to play. And as unhappy as they both looked in photos at the United Nations, it is significant that President Obama and Russian President Putin met and discussed some basic shared goals.

Looking forward, the United States and its allies must be flexible enough to open a path to a political settlement but strong enough to push back against further Russian military escalation. For example, the timeline for Assad’s resignation should be on the negotiating table, but attacks on civilians should not.

This is no easy balance, but one that will be essential to prevent another four plus years of suffering. Interestingly, Russia’s stepped up aggression may prove to be a misstep and create some openings. As Josh Rogin points out, Russia’s direct support for Assad opens it to prosecution for war crimes.

Regional powers like Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are becoming increasingly vocal about Russia’s stance. And as Thomas Friedman and others points out, Russia may have severely miscalculated as its actions alienate Sunni Muslims, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population across the Middle East.

Seemingly emboldened by Russia’s bombing, Iran is stepping up its own assistance and making its role in Syria more public. But in the aftermath of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal the United States has built up diplomatic ties that may be useful. As with Russia, the United States needs to strike a careful balance, but no opportunity to quell the fighting in Syria should be dismissed without careful consideration.

A more immediately achievable task, but one that would help gain leverage and good will toward a political agreement, is providing relief to those suffering from the Syria crisis. This involves increased aid, accepting refugees and taking measures to protect civilians.

The UN’s aid appeal for refugees remains only 38 percent fulfilled. The United States has led the world in aid with some $4.5 billion. Less positive is its acceptance of refugees, taking in only 1,600 in the past four years. Upping that number to 10,000 in the next year and perhaps tens of thousands in two years is welcome but remains inadequate and far below the numbers taken in for past refugee crises.

Beyond standing up to protect the besieged Yazidi community trapped on a mountain, the United States and international community has done far too little to protect civilians. The fact remains that the Assad regime is responsible for killing the majority of civilians in Syria. The UN Security Council has been slow to act, with Russia and China blocking four resolutions meant to address the suffering in Syria.

Losing patience, France has launched its own investigation into atrocities in Syria and is now championing a resolution that would monitor the use of indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs that are terrifying civilians in Syria.

As U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said at last week’s high-level meeting on refugees, “let us be clear, whatever we are doing is demonstrably not enough.” The need is urgent for the United States to immediately take steps to rally the international community to increase aid, help refugees and protect those Syrians still suffering at the hands of Assad.

Russia’s actions have greatly damaged any rhetorical momentum gained over the last week at the United Nations, but that momentum need not be completely lost. As questions are raised about U.S. policy on Syria, now is a chance to lead.

President Obama, Accept More Syrian Refugees

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After four years of war and living under the constant threat of mass atrocities and genocide, there are two things the Syrian people need: hope and compassion. We can offer that.

The United States has only accepted 1,600 Syrians in the past four years. And while President Obama has offered to increase that number to 10,000, the scale of the crisis demands a number ten times that.

Take action. Urge President Obama to increase the number of Syrian refugees accepted into the United States and work to make sure that relief efforts are fully funded.

 

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