How would airstrikes impact Syria's humanitarian crisis?

A resident of Syria's Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, pushes a trolley loaded with a box of goods distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on July 17, 2014. RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama's impending decision over whether to launch military strikes in Syria to stop the spread of Islamic extremists is clearly complicated. The U.S. is no friend to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but in its efforts to stop the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the administration may choose to tacitly assist the Assad regime.

The political and security considerations in Syria are complex and troubling enough for the U.S. But as the administration weighs its options, it must also consider the devastatingly bleak humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Improving security in Syria goes "hand in hand" with improving the living conditions there, Khaled Erksoussi, humanitarian diplomacy coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told CBS News. Both are necessary, he said, to bring about the political solutions that are needed to stabilize the country and the region.

"If you don't enhance people's situations, provide them with their needs, they will not go back to their villages, or their country," he said.

After more than three years of conflict, nearly 200,000 people have been killed in Syria. There are about 10.8 million people in Syria who need humanitarian assistance -- around half of the country's population. That figure includes 241,000 people in besieged communities that have been cut off from aid workers. Major urban centers have been obliterated, and health and educational infrastructure has been destroyed.

Syria's neighbors, meanwhile, are hosting millions of refugees.

"No matter how much you talk about how they should go back, while there is no tangible support or perception of safety, why would they go back?" Erksoussi said.

The profound upheaval of Syria's population isn't just a problem for the Syrians. The U.S. may want to help stabilize the region, but the humanitarian crisis leaves the outcome of Syria's conflict uncertain.

"You stop the war today, and it would be a big open question of exactly what happens next," Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told CBS News. "Syria itself, internally, is going to be a different creature going into the future, and we don't know what that's going to be."

The international community has responded to the crisis so far with unprecedented support. Last year, the United Nations launched its largest ever humanitarian appeal in response to the crisis. The United States has been the single largest donor to the cause, providing more than $2 billion in aid so far.

Ultimately, the people of Syria will need to find a political resolution to end the conflict and the humanitarian suffering. Some argue U.S. airstrikes could help advance that aim.

A change in U.S. tactics "creates a fresh opportunity to revisit how to resolve the Syrian crisis, which was basically political one and has to end with some political deal," Paul Salem, a vice president at The Middle East Institute, told CBS News.

However, in the short-term and medium-term, it's unclear how air strikes would impact the humanitarian cause in Syria, in part because it's hard to predict how ISIS would react. While both the Assad regime and ISIS are responsible for committing atrocities against civilians and humanitarian workers, the Assad regime "at least responds to regular power politics," Salem said.

For instance, Assad agreed to give up chemical weapons after the U.S. threatened to use force against him. By comparison, ISIS believes "they're on a 'mission from God,' as it were," Salem said.

U.S. airstrikes would likely be pinpointed and away from population centers, so the U.S. may not impact the humanitarian crisis directly. However, "the question would be what would follow," Salem said. "How would [ISIS] react? Where might they seek retribution?"

U.N. investigators have already expressed concern that a U.S. bombing campaign could put at risk children who have been forced to join Islamic training camps in Syria, Reuters reports.

"We are aware of the presence of children in training camps, we think this decision by the United States must respect the laws of war and we concerned about presence of children," Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, said in a news briefing.

In the longer term, Salem and Morrison both said, airstrikes could potentially keep ISIS from extending its reach. That would keep them from committing more atrocities or creating more displacement.

"When [ISIS] comes their way, tens of thousands of civilians get out of the way," Salem said. "If it has the effect of containing ISIS and keeping them put... that could have a positive effect."

Additionally, should the U.S. engage over Northern Syrian air space, it could deter the Syrian government from dropping barrel bombs over disputed areas, Salem noted, by creating an undeclared no-fly zone. The Assad regime has killed hundreds of civilians this year with missile and barrel bomb attacks, the U.N. reported this week.

Looking further down the road, it's unclear whether air strike campaign could change the dialogue with Assad's allies, such as the Iranians and the Russians.

Currently, "the Russians are not exactly out there pleading with him to change his ways," Morrison noted. Assad's brutal barrel bombing is "cast as a matter of regime survival." Yet if the U.S. were to go after ISIS, it would be "beneficial to his security and to his international standing," and that could potentially encourage more dialogue.

Still, Morrison said he's skeptical U.S. air strikes will enable more engagement, particularly given the United States' tense relationship with Russia.

"I'm not sure of any ability to move ahead on these fronts," he said.

If anything, Morrison said air strikes could at least bring more attention to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. More than $5 billion is still needed just to meet the most urgent needs in Syria this year, according to the U.N.

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