As the world continues to wonder whether and when the so-called “Geneva 2” peace conference on Syria will take place, the Obama administration now views negotiations in Geneva as “ really the only way to end this conflict ,” in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry.
But given the slim chances of reaching a negotiated settlement anytime soon, the administration should recalibrate its Syria policy to reflect the enduring character of the conflict. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns acknowledged this in Geneva on September 30, when he stated that, “The hard truth is that the Syrian conflict is no longer just a humanitarian emergency – it is a protracted crisis. Our assistance should reflect the changing nature of the crisis.” Burns advocated increasing Washington’s support to governments hosting Syrian refugees, and urged “host countries to refrain from restricting or closing their borders, and to offer refuge to all those fleeing the conflict.”
For both strategic and moral reasons, the administration should do as Burns suggests, and more. Specifically, beyond just giving lectures and signing checks, Washington should also admit significantly more Syrian refugees to the United States.
In August, media reports indicated that the U.S. would admit two thousand Syrian refugees. In October, however, Larry Bartlett, director of Refugee Resettlement at the State Department, said that the US will share this two thousand number with several other countries. Bartlett recently told me that these reports that the US would admit two thousand Syrians were not accurate: "We said that UNHCR would refer two thousand Syrians to all resettlement countries by the end of 2013." In terms of how many of these two thousand refugees could or will be resettled in the US, "The United States does not establish specific quotas by nationality as some other resettlement countries do, but we normally accept more than half of UNHCR referrals worldwide," he said. Even this two thousand number, which would have been just a drop in the bucket, turned out to be too good to be true.
The five neighboring countries most affected refugee flows from Syria - Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon—together host about 97 percent of all UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees, pushing each of these countries to the limits of their capacity. Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq " are stretched to their limits ," António Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, said at UNHCR's annual Executive Committee meeting in Geneva. In Lebanon, for instance, the total number of refugees—registered and unregistered—is around 30 percent of the country’s total population. Jordan’s mushrooming Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees is now the kingdom’s fifth-largest city. Turkey has even demanded that the West take some of the Syrians it is hosting, going so far as to propose an airlift to fly them abroad. By the end of this year, UNHCR estimates that the Syrian refugee population will swell to 3.5 million.
A decision by Washington to take in larger numbers of Syrian refugees would signal to these and other countries hosting Syrians that the United States is willing to share in shouldering the refugee burden in a way that just writing checks cannot. Refusing to do so would makes U.S. calls, such as Burns’, for host countries to keep their borders open and offer refuge to Syrians smack of hypocrisy.
Despite being the leading international donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrians, the United States has admitted only a trickle of Syrian refugees since the conflict began in early-2011. Of the 69,930 refugees admitted for permanent resettlement to the US in FY2013, just thirty-six were from Syria, compared to, for example, 19,491 Iraqis and 661 Afghans. (In the past, Congress and the White House were reluctant to admit large numbers of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, citing terrorism-related concerns; nonetheless, the US has admitted many more Iraqis and Afghans than Syrians.) In FY2012, only thirty-one Syrians were admitted to the US. During FY2011, which encompassed the first half-year of the conflict, twenty-nine Syrians were admitted.
The Obama administration’s actions on Syria have also incurred a moral obligation for the United States to do more to help Syria’s refugees. After declaring that Assad had lost legitimacy and should step down, the administration declared the rebel Syrian National Coalition to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Soon, though, the administration pulled the rug out from under the rebels: efforts to provide higher-power weapons to the rebels stalled on the Hill, and Obama refused to enforce his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria by striking the regime. Today, the moderate opposition has been left “between Bashar al Assad’s militias and Iran and Hezbollah on the first side, and the extremist groups from ISIS and the other extremist groups who belong to al Qaeda on the other side,” as Louay Mokdad, spokesman for the Supreme Military Council (SMC) , recently told me .