With nearly half a million Syrian refugees spilling over Jordan’s border as a result of the two-year civil war, and with the prospect of seeing that number rise to one million refugees over the next year, President Obama announced Friday that he is working with Congress to provide an additional $200 million in aid to Jordan this year.
“I want to thank Jordan for their compassion toward their Syrian neighbors,” Obama said in a press conference with Jordanian King Abdullah II, during the last leg of his Middle East tour. Obama reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to ensuring Jordan’s safety during a time of great upheaval in the region, and called on the international community to “help shoulder this burden.”
“How are you going to turn back women, children, the wounded,” Abdullah asked. “It’s not the Jordanian way.”
Jordan currently hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, totaling more than 460,000, according to Abdullah–or roughly 10% of Jordan’s population. Abdullah equated this with an influx of 30 million refugees crossing America’s borders, with the possibility of rising to 60 million. He stressed the economic strain the refugee crisis has placed on his kingdom.
“Jordan has always been a safe haven. Unfortunately, refugees will continue to come to Jordan. The problem is the burden it’s having on Jordan,” Abdullah said, citing a cost of $550 million per year and perhaps as much as $1 billion. “It’s creating social problems and security problems, [and] this is why we’re asking for help,” Abdullah said. “We can’t turn them away.”
The United States has promised direct support to the military wing of the Syrian opposition forces eager to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, including food and medical supplies but not weapons. President Obama has repeatedly stated that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a “game changer.” The United States and the United Nations are investigating a claim by the Syrian government that opposition forces used chemical weapons in an attack in Aleppo Tuesday–a claim Obama said he was “deeply skeptical” about during a Wednesday press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks,” Obama said. “We know that there are those are in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapons stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government capabilities, I think, would question those claims.”
As the first Arab leader to call for Assad to step down 16 months ago, Abdullah fielded a question Friday about whether his country would offer Assad asylum.
“The question of asylum is something that Assad has to answer himself,” Abdullah said. “It’s beyond my pay grade at this stage. If it ever came up, it would be something we would discuss at the level of the international community.”
While both Abdullah and Obama agree Assad must relinquish power, Obama voiced uncertainty about the stability in Syria should Assad’s departure create a power vacuum.
“I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism,” Obama said.
“Something has been broken in Syria, and it’s not going to be put back together perfectly immediately, even after Assad leaves,” Obama said, framing Assad’s departure as a definite rather than possible occurrence. “But we can begin the process of moving it in a better direction, and having a cohesive opposition is critical to that.”