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.
It’s difficult to argue against the claim that the administration, after creating great expectations of support, has essentially abandoned the rebels. Agreeing to admit more Syrians into the US, beyond being morally justified, would contribute to fighting the perception that Washington will be quick to abandon its foreign proxies when events turn sour.
The number of Syrians admitted to the United States of course pales in comparison to those hosted by Syria’s neighbors. But many EU Member States have also admitted far more Syrians than has Washington. For instance, France, which has accepted over three thousand Syrian refugees since 2011, agreed last month to an additional quota of five hundred Syrians. Germany has agreed to take in five thousand Syrian refugees from Lebanon.
Sweden, which has accepted at least 14,700 Syrians since 2012, has granted permanent residence to Syrian refugees, the only EU member state to do so. As the Washington Post's Lydia DePillis notes, “If a country with fewer than 10 million people can handle tens of thousands of refugees, surely the US can, too.” That the EU has taken in so many more Syrians than has the US, even though the US has both a greater obligation and interest in mitigating the ravages of the war, makes Washington's shortfall all the more shameful.
While State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is correct that "the preferred solution for the vast majority of refugees is to return home once it is safe," many, like Nizar Al-Halbi (not his real name), want nothing more than to get as far away from Syria as they can, never to return.
When we spoke over coffee this summer in Amman, Nizar told me that he was imprisoned by the Assad regime for raising money to assist Syrians whose homes were destroyed in the fighting, and was brutally tortured during his half-year prison stay. He said that his foremost priority was obtaining political asylum in the West for himself and his family. Although he would occasionally visit Damascus from Jordan, he said that he can never go back for good because of the horrific memories that continue to haunt him.
Nizar expressed how profoundly painful it is for him to see Westerners and others from “normal countries”, as he put it, come to the region and go as they please: “How can coming here be a vacation?” he asked rhetorically. He said that, should he obtain political asylum, he would leave the region and never return. Fortunately for Nizar, he and his family have since been granted asylum in the EU. Countless others are unlikely to encounter the same good luck.
In Congress, support for resettling Syrians in the US is hardly robust. Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project, which has pushed for domestic resettlement of Iraqi refugees, views obtaining Congressional support for resettlement of Syrians as a tough sell. Getting Congress’s buy-in would require strong advocacy and a mass of sympathetic lawmakers, yet Johnson doesn’t “see either of those necessary ingredients."
However, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), has pushed hard for resettlement of Syrians in the US. He has called for the granting of "humanitarian parole authority" to nearly six thousand Syrian nationals with approved immigrant visa petitions and families already living in America. In March, he and over seventy other members of Congress sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano advocating refugee assistance to Syrians attempting to reunite with family members in the US.
On Friday October 25, 2013, Brian de Vallance, Homeland Security's Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, replied to the letter, writing that the U.S. government has entered "discussions" with UNHCR and "other governments on expanded resettlement of particularly vulnerable Syrian refugees." Rep. Schiff reacted by noting that such "discussions without action" merely show a "lack of decision." "They evidently don't want to say yes and they don't want to say no," he said.
When I asked Rep. Schiff whether he believes allowing more Syrians to settle in the U.S. has any positive implications for U.S. national interests, he said that “the request that I made would apply to Syrians with family members in the United States, so it has a very direct impact on the United States interest in reuniting families. But it also allows the United States to show it has taken a very personal interest in the safety and well-being of the refugees and gives us ‘skin in the game’ in a way quite distinct from providing weapons.” He added that he hopes “to win the support of the White House—a likely prerequisite to success on this issue.”