The White House acknowledged Tuesday that the U.S., along with other nations across the Middle East and Europe, must do more to alleviate the worsening Syrian refugee crisis — but that admission highlights how the administration often has seemed several steps behind as Syria sunk into chaos, a fact Republican critics, fellow Democrats and international leaders have pointed to in recent days and weeks.
Obama administration officials said the State Department has begun a review of what steps the U.S. can take to aid in the crisis, which has seen more than 4 million Syrians flee their war-torn country after years of bloodshed.
Thus far the U.S. has taken in fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees, and the White House on Tuesday would not guarantee that more will be allowed onto American shores anytime in the immediate future. It also would not offer any kind of timeline for when the State Department would complete its review, nor could it say the president legally would be able to admit more refugees without consent from Congress.
Germany, by contrast, will take in at least 800,000 Syrian refugees just this year.
Amid the outstanding questions, the administration is stressing that it has provided more financial and humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees than any other country on earth.
But that type of assistance seems of little use to other world leaders who are grappling with one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory.
“Buying your way out of this is not satisfactory,” said Peter Sutherland, a United Nations official who oversees international migration.
The crisis — illustrated by chilling images last week of a dead child who washed up on a Turkish beach after his family tried to escape Syria and the sight of tens of thousands of migrants holed up in European train stations — has once again put the spotlight on the administration’s broader policy toward the region, which is now under renewed fire.
President Obama in 2012 famously warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons in his fight against insurgent rebels — a so-called “red line” that Mr. Assad blatantly crossed.
The U.S. ultimately did not intervene militarily, instead striking a deal that required Mr. Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpile.
Since then, the country has plunged deeper into chaos, with the radical Islamic terrorist group the Islamic State gaining a foothold across the country. The administration, meanwhile, has sought to ally itself with moderate rebels fighting both the Assad government and the Islamic State, but the situation on the ground has grown only more confused and violent over the past several years despite steady U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State forces.
Republican critics, including some 2016 GOP presidential contenders, now say the White House’s muddy policy toward Syria has led directly to the current crisis.
“I think that what’s happened is that he has created a huge vacuum,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said on “Fox News Sunday” earlier this week. “I think when the U.S. played a major role in the region, it would have been much easier to manage this situation.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a White House hopeful, lobbed similar criticism at the president last week, saying the president has been far too passive and has allowed “this Syrian situation to spiral out of control.”
“And now you have this crisis threatening Europe with hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from the horrifying conflict that’s going on there,” he told Fox News.
But Republicans aren’t the only ones urging the administration to radically rethink its policy.
In May, months before the refugee crisis reached its current peak, a group of 14 Senate Democrats sent a letter to the president, urging him to allow at least 65,000 Syrian migrants into the U.S.
It’s unclear, however, whether such a high number of refugees could legally settle in the U.S. without a specific act of Congress.
Democratic candidates for president, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, also are pressuring the administration to ramp up its response.
The State Department has indicated it will allow thousands more Syrian refugees into the U.S. next year, but powerful figures on both sides of the aisle say that the U.S. should do more right now.
“It is unacceptable that we, as a nation, would sit back and do nothing,” Mr. O’Malley said in an email to supporters last week.
Bringing in more refugees is under “active consideration” at the State Department, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday in the face of repeated questions about exactly what the administration will do going forward.
He also vowed that the U.S. will continue to play a “leading role” in managing the situation.
“We continue to be concerned about the vulnerable position of so many people who are fleeing violence in their home countries and the United States, and the way we play a leading role in confronting so many other thorny and difficult problems, are prepared to continue to play a leading role in trying to assist those organizations that are trying to meet the needs, the basic humanitarian needs” of the refugees, Mr. Earnest said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also have raised concerns that allowing a stream of Syrian refugees also could open the door for Islamic State terrorists to find their way into the U.S. Foreign officials, such as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, have expressed similar fears in recent days.
For its part, the administration acknowledges that, as it moves forward with changes to its Syrian refugee policy, keeping terrorists or potential terrorists out of the country must be a top priority.
“We also have to balance [bringing in refugees] against the proper vetting procedures to make sure that, particularly when we’re bringing in people from that part of the world, that we’re doing it safely and securely. The American people would expect that,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.