A primer to the Syrian War, the refugee crisis and how it affects the United States


After Monday’s Joint Committee hearing on the Syrian refugee crisis conducted by the House Budget and Senate Appropriations Committees, it immediately became clear that a massive bureaucracy of both state and private actors controlled the handling of all refugees entering the United States. Recently, the Syrian refugees rushing into Europe as well as the attacks in Paris amplified the conversation in the United States, and with amplification comes louder facts and louder falsehoods. This primer exists in an attempt to lay out the basics of the conflict and crisis in as unbiased a manner as possible; at most, it is a cursory, bare-bones overview of an evolving and complicated situation.

The Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War initially came out of the Arab Spring in 2011, a populist movement in which many nations in the Middle East attempted some form of revolution or revolt to overthrow oppressive governments. In Syria, what started as largely peaceful demonstrations by the populace eventually turned into sporadically violent clashes with the police. In April of that year, Bashar al-Assad and his government began to use military intervention to end the unrest.

This action only escalated the conflict, and by late July, the Free Syrian Army was formed. By November, it became a full-fledged civil war. Various nations began to take sides, with Iran, Russia and Iraq favoring the Assad regime and the United States and other Western nations generally favoring the FSA and rebel fighters. Kurdish fighters on the border of Northern Iraq and Syria also began to openly oppose Assad, but they acted as their own separate force without much assistance from the West. 

During the fighting, the Islamic State of Iraq, an extremist group with roots dating back to the early 2000s, radicalized some members of the rebel forces to and that force became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. ISIS opposes both the Assad Regime and the Western-backed rebels, and it has become a major terrorist power in the Middle East. They have killed thousands of civilians, including Westerners as well as Muslims and have oft-stated their designs to attack Western nations like the United States. Russia recently began a bombing campaign, allegedly to combat ISIS, but they have used the opportunity to bomb the moderate rebels opposing Assad, as well.

Millions of civilians in Syria have fled the country as the result of the conflict.

This is a gross oversimplification of what has happened in Syria, but it is the basic consensus of events upon which most sources agree.


Of the four million-plus Syrian refugees, not even including the 7.6 million refugees displaced within the country, so far only 29 currently reside in Missouri – St. Louis to be more specific. Over two million refugees currently reside in Turkey, another 1.1 million live in Lebanon and another million have fled to Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. Most of those refugees live in camps, and smaller nations (financially and population-wise) like Jordan and Lebanon are beginning to feel distinct strain on resources to care for them. Just under 180,000 Syrian refugees have made their way to Europe, a plurality of them into Hungary and Germany. However, refugees of other regions, such as Africa, the Balkans and the rest of the Middle East, have also begun streaming onto the continent, complicating the situation further.

President Barack Obama so far has pledged the United States to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year and a further 10,000 in 2016, though many more have applied.

Anna Crosslin, the President and CEO of the International Institute, noted at the Joint Committee Hearing yesterday that more than 50 percent of applicants in the pool of 130,000 are women and children. Of the 2,000 admitted to the United States, well over 50 percent are women and children, and less than two percent are single males within what is considered “combat age.”

Demographics of the refugees entering Europe however are disproportionately male, usually under 50. This article from the center-right leaning National Review details that men are typically the members of their family or those more physically fit to make a more arduous land journey to Europe. There they can claim political asylum. Others risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea, namely from Turkey to Greece. Crosslin noted that refugees who leave their secondary nation drop out of the chance to enter the United States.

How refugees get placed

After getting accepted as a refugee into the United States, Crosslin says national placement organizations work in conjunction with the State Department to place refugees in certain cities once congress approves an annual number of refugees. The national chapter works with organizations like hers on a case-by-case basis. They are assigned based on an availability of work, language abilities, as well as whether an existing refugee or migrant community can be found in that city, hence the large number of Bosnian refugees in St. Louis.

Once in their designated city, Crosslin says refugees receive a $1,100 stipend to pay for three months of food and rent. Her organization works with community charity organizations to help those who need more assistance beyond that amount of money or beyond the three month time frame. That assistance is also contingent on how much assistance is needed; she notes some refugees manage to bring their money with them. They also offer work skills and job placement services, assist getting children enrolled in school and provide other services.

The United States has taken in refugees from countries around the world in the past, but its largest populations come from Vietnam (many of them from South Vietnamese), the Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Myanmar. Crosslin said she remembered concerns about the harm refugees or subversive elements within them may bring during those crises, which stretch back to the 80s.

That question now brings us to the crux of the debate raging around the country.

Is the admitting process for refugees safe for Americans?

Those who have gone through the process and conduct the process have commented that the program for refugees to enter the United States is long, extensive and rigorous. It can take up to 18 to 24 months to process an individual or family. Background checks, health screenings and an arduous interview process are performed by both the United Nations and the United States. A 2011 report published by the Migration Policy Institute also noted that the process became even more selective after 9/11 as certain provisions in pieces of legislation created safeguards against allowing terrorists or those who aid them from entering the country.

“Post-9/11 legislation – particularly the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 and the REAL ID Act of 2005 – significantly expanded the grounds of inadmissability based on ‘terrorist activity,’” writes Donald Kerwin, the director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York. “Under current law, an individual is inadmissable if he or she committed ‘an act that the actor knows, or reasonably show know, affords material support’ to a terrorist organization or terrorist activity.”

Kerwin goes on to write those laws have kept opponents of various oppressive regimes, such as those of Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, as well those who fought against the governments of Sudan, Burma and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, from becoming eligible refugees and asylum-seekers.

Despite the fact that states cannot refuse to accept particular refugees because of the freedom to move from state to state within the U.S., over 30 governors said they would do their best to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states after the Paris attacks when concerns were raised that one or more of the attackers had a Syrian passport. This led to fears they could possibly be Syrian refugees or have used the refugee crisis as a cover to slip into Europe. Many of the identified attackers are confirmed to have been EU nationals, but those fears still linger.

The Director of the FBI James Comey noted in a November Congressional hearing that during the War in Iraq, several people of serious security concern slipped in with the Iraqi refugees, two of whom were arrested later on terrorism charges. He said the process had gotten more rigorous since then, but because of the lack of functioning government in Syria and the lack of American troop presence in the nation, holding the same checks on Syrian refugees would be more difficult.

“If we don’t know much about somebody, there won’t be anything in our data,” he said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, also voiced his doubt and distrust in the federal government after both perceived and real mismanagement on the part of the feds. That sentiment is shared by many other Americans. He also expressed concerns about the ability of the state, the federal government or even private charitable organizations to mitigate the possible radicalization of those refugees who have already settled into the United States. Schaefer noted a group of Bosnian Muslims (who were viewed as outsiders by the Bosnian community) from St. Louis who were charged with aiding a member of ISIS who left the United States to fight in Syria.

Ultimately, the Syrian refugee crisis asks Americans existential questions, not only about their role when dealing with international crises, but about the institutions in place to carry out the nation’s role as the vanguard of democracy, peace and tolerance. Can the United States fulfill its humanitarian mission while possibly risking the lives of its own people? Are we upholding that mission even if we decline to welcome refugees? Do the states have enough say in such a significant and controversial conversation? And perhaps most importantly, can American society live with the consequences if we choose incorrectly, whatever that choice may be?