Shortly after ordering U.S. airstrikes on the al-Shayrat military airfield, from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched his latest heinous chemical attack against innocent civilians, an uncharacteristically subdued President Trump stood in front of the American people and, for the first time, spoke of the human face to the Syrian conflict. As the president’s words transformed Syrians from faceless threats into “God’s children,” proponents of Syrian refugee resettlement wondered whether his apparently newfound sympathy would translate to a new policy on refugees. The answer remains unclear, but in the meantime the more important question is, should it?
Since 2012, when the Assad regime escalated its reign of terror, Syrians have desperately, if reluctantly, tried to escape their country with whatever remnants of their life they managed to salvage. Syrians have spoken of a living hell, where bombs rain from the sky unannounced and mothers are forced to watch helplessly as life is slowly and cruelly starved out of their children. It is within this horrifying context that Syrians are fleeing en masse, with over 5 million of them now refugees and over 6 million internally displaced within Syria.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume or even demand that Trump’s sympathetic reaction to the latest chemical attack could or should be the determining factor in his decision to let refugees into the United States. The argument for refugee resettlement cannot simply be a moral one; proponents of resettlement have to state their case comprehensively and unemotionally — and there is a strong case to be made — otherwise, their pleas and admonishments will continue to fall on deaf ears.
Trump’s election comes at a time in which terrorism is one of the top two concerns for Americans; his promise to defeat terrorism was a noticeably prominent theme in his inaugural address. If he is sincere when he says defeating ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, and eradicating terrorism are his top priorities, he must also realize the success of his counterterrorism policy is directly linked to the fate of the millions of Syrian refugees languishing in camps and urban centers with little to no access to education or economic prospects. The defeat of ISIS and the stability of the Middle East — and, for that matter, Europe — can only occur if the international community can find a sustainable solution to the ever-growing refugee crisis. The alternative, an increasingly unstable Middle East and an overextended Europe, bodes ill for the economic prosperity and security of the United States.
Trump’s policy has thus far been predicated on the assumption that allowing Syrian refugees into our country runs counter to his security goals, having stated throughout his campaign that we need to stop refugee resettlement until we figure out “what’s going on.” On April 9, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley explained that “it’s hard to know based on the vetting process.” When pressed as to whether she thinks Syrian children really pose a risk to the American people, Haley responded, “Syrian children have to come with Syrian adults.”
The president has stated that the freeze on the resettlement program is temporary and its continuation contingent on a review of the vetting procedures and associated security measures. That in itself is not an unreasonable position. But if the president is sincere, if this is not simply a “Muslim ban” in disguise, he should swiftly realize that the U.S. is in a far more luxurious position than our European and Arab partners. Very few refugees can show up at our borders or on our shores seeking asylum, and for Syrians it is nearly impossible. The truth is that the United States fully controls the resettlement process, and it is an intensely selective one — out of about 18,000 Syrian refugees admitted into the United States through resettlement since 2011, not one has been involved in a terrorist attack.
In addition to reviewing existing procedures, the president should also meet with representatives from the nine resettlement agencies operating in the United States as he determines the best way forward. He should also consider appointing a special representative for refugee resettlement to coordinate among the myriad players and kick-start a coherent process.
By virtue of our geography, it is unrealistic to think that the United States will receive huge numbers of refugees from Syria. However, a concentrated effort by the United States to come closer to equalizing the burden-sharing with our international partners is important, particularly the most vulnerable countries, such as Lebanon (where over one-fourth of the population are now Syrian refugees), Jordan and Turkey. This should include the United States allowing more refugees in, but it also means demanding that those countries that have not taken in any refugees (namely Gulf states) provide more resources to assist in the care and education of refugees in the region.
Lastly, and most importantly, the president should rethink his “ISIS-first” policy in Syria, and recognize that the refugee crisis is an unavoidable result of Assad’s war against the Syrian people. If the past is any indication, absent a decision to force Assad from power, preferably through a political process, the Syrian dictator will continue to utilize all conventional methods of attack to terrorize the Syrian population into submission.