The Cable

Oxfam: Syria might be worse than Darfur

Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser has a problem.

The Syrian civil war is causing the greatest humanitarian crisis on the planet, but he can't get Americans to donate.

"Most of our organizations have been getting very little response from the American public," Offenheiser recently told The Cable. "We wonder whether to some degree, the way this story has been narrated in the media is an issue."

When it comes to the scale of human suffering in Syria, the stats speak for themselves: In a country of 20.8 million inhabitants, nearly 7 million need humanitarian assistance, at least 80,000 have been killed, 4.25 million have been internally displaced and 1.6 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

This -- to Offenheiser -- is Darfur-level insanity.

In fact, it may be even worse.

"If you think about 7 million people compared to 2.5 million [deaths] in Darfur or 2.3 million [displaced] in Haiti, it's three times that in terms of scale, and yet the public response is just nil" said Offenheiser.

A peek inside Oxfam America's fundraising history puts the donation disparity in stark relief. It has only raised a paltry $140,000 from U.S. donors to support Oxfam International's $53 million fundraising goal. By comparison, Oxfam America raised close to $29 million for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, $4 million in a year for Darfur, and $3 million for the 2010 Pakistan floods.

Why are fewer Americans giving for Syria?

One theory points to the toxic politics of military intervention playing out across cable TV, the halls of Congress, and editorial pages in all 50 states.

"The discussion about red lines and chemical weapons and Islamic radicals may give the American public pause," Offenheiser said. "But the humanitarian crisis per se, and the fact that this is about women and children and lost families and lost livelihoods and a country that's going to have a hard time putting itself back together -- all of that's getting lost in some of the more inside baseball political discussions about policy and potential negotiating outcomes."

If recent polling is any indication, Americans are concerned about the crisis in Syria, but remain deeply skeptical about a U.S. military intervention.

On Monday, a CNN/ORC International poll found that 36 percent of Americans are "very concerned about the current situation in Syria," up seven percentage points from August, and 43 percent said they are somewhat concerned, leaving less than 20 percent "not concerned." 

A Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier this month found that Americans oppose a U.S. military intervention in the civil war, even if President Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons. Only 10 percent surveyed in the poll said the United States should intervene in the fighting. Sixty-one percent opposed military intervention. "Particularly given Afghanistan and the 10th anniversary of Iraq, there is just not an appetite for intervention," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said.

Has the thought of donating to a crisis that could become the next Iraq soured the public appetite for philanthropy?

For Oxfam America, it's a frustrating predicament, because it too opposes any further militarization of the conflict, but seeks desperately to convey the scale of human suffering.

"We know that Americans have big hearts," said Matt Herrick, a spokesman at Oxfam America. "We must do a better job of putting the focus on the millions in need of humanitarian assistance in and around Syria, and demanding an end to the bloodshed."

The Cable

New terror report tracks deterioration of Libya ahead of Benghazi attack

The State Department released its annual report on terrorism today, a sprawling tome of analysis on terror hotbeds around the world.

Natural highlights include Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the department says al Qaeda's core leadership "has been significantly degraded," and Iran, where its support for terrorism has "reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa."

The report also goes into some detail on Libya, where a U.S.-led intervention that ousted dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi has left the country radiating instability across North Africa and beyond.

Foggy Bottom identifies a perfect storm of factors that contributed to the deteriorating conditions in Libya prior to the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

"The prevalence of loose weapons, the continued ability of extra-governmental militias to act with impunity, the country's porous borders, and the lack of government capacity to apply the rule of law outside of Tripoli contributed to this insecurity," reads the report.

Those conditions won't exactly surprise readers who've been following events in Libya over the last year. But the report does give a backward-looking take on the situation prior to the Benghazi attack, and a forward-looking take on the efforts Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and his cabinet have undertaken to strengthen the country's national security institutions.

The report comes one day after the president of the General National Congress, Mohamed al-Magariaf, resigned his post in anticipation of a law that comes into effect next month prohibiting anyone who held a senior government position in the Qaddafi government from higher office.

Looking back, the report chronicles in succinct detail the string of terror incidents prior to the Benghazi attacks, which do not inspire a lot of confidence in the country's stability:

  • On February 6, gunmen allegedly killed five refugees in a Tripoli camp.
  • On May 22, assailants launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)'s building in Benghazi. The violent Islamist extremist group Brigades of Captive Omar Abdul Rahman claimed responsibility for the attack. The ICRC evacuated Benghazi in mid-July.
  • On June 4, approximately 200 armed fighters from the al-Awfea Brigade surrounded the international airport in Tripoli. The gunmen drove armed trucks onto the tarmac and surrounded several planes, which forced the airport to cancel all fights. The armed men were demanding the release of one of their military leaders who was being held by Tripoli's security forces.
  • On June 6, violent extremists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi with an improvised explosive device (IED). The group claimed that the attack was in retaliation for the assassination of Abu-Yahya al-Libi, the second highest ranking leader of al-Qa'ida.
  • On June 11, a convoy carrying the British Ambassador to Libya was attacked in Benghazi.
  • On June 12, assailants attacked the ICRC office in Misrata, wounding one.
  • In August, there was a series of attacks against security personnel and facilities, including the bombing of the Benghazi military intelligence offices on August 1, a car bombing near the Tripoli military police offices on August 4, and the explosion of three car bombs near the Interior Ministry and other security buildings in Tripoli on August 19, killing at least two. Libyan security officials arrested 32 members of an organized network loyal to Qadhafi.
  • On August 10, Army General Hadiya al-Feitouri was assassinated in Benghazi.
  • On August 20, a car belonging to an Egyptian diplomat was blown up near his home in Benghazi.
  • On September 11, terrorists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three staff members.

Looking ahead, it notes that despite these security challenges, it's something of a miracle that the Transitional National Council peacefully transferred power to a democratically elected parliament in the form of the General National Congress.

"Zeidan and his cabinet have prioritized efforts to strengthen and centralize national security institutions, integrate and disarm armed militias, and confront criminal and terrorist groups that have taken advantage of the security vacuum," reads the report. "This government has recognized that continued instability threatens Libya's democratic transition and economic future."

Despite giving broad support for Libya's fledgling government, the report lists a range of legacy issues reflective of years of Qaddafi's oppressive rule -- from the courts to the police force to the military.

"Any legislation seeking to limit the power of heavily-armed, extra-governmental militias has been difficult to enforce, and Libyan judges did not hear criminal cases for fear it could lead to revenge attacks against them," reads the report. "Police and military personnel and facilities were the frequent targets of attacks by pro-Qadhafi and violent Islamist extremist groups, who fiercely resisted any efforts by the government to exert its authority."

In short, this is a government that says all the right things, and in principle the State Department supports, but has yet to demonstrate an ability to root out dangerous militia groups within its borders.

Read the whole report here.