Trump's Selective Empathy for Syrian War Victims

He has intervened to try to stop chemical attacks. But those fleeing the war zone are mostly not welcomed in the U.S.

Syrian children stand in front of their home at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq on February 12. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters )

Video footage of the impact of chemical-weapons attacks on Syrian civilians has twice moved President Trump into militarily striking regime targets. After the U.S. and its allies struck most recently, Trump tweeted Saturday:

The Trump administration has said its policy in Syria is limited to fighting ISIS, and strikes such as those carried out last week, and in April 2017, reflect in Mattis’s words “contrary impulses.” As Kori Schake wrote Monday in The Atlantic: “The one twist from standard realism is the president’s susceptibility to images of suffering. He indulges an occasional sentimentality to Do Something when randomly confronted by video of victims of chemical weapons attacks. It is not immediately apparent why that particular form of suffering merits action in his view when seemingly all other forms of brutality leave him unmoved.”

Indeed, more than 500,000 people have been killed since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011, though one can’t say for sure because the UN has stopped counting. The conflict has also flattened entire cities, and created more than 5 million refugees.

“I’ve seen refugees from Asia to Europe, Kosovo to Africa. I’ve never seen refugees as traumatized as coming out of Syria,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week on Capitol Hill. “It’s got to end.”

What has ended, or at least nearly so, is America’s granting admission to Syrian refugees for resettlement in the United States. In the past five months to the end of March—the most recent date for which State Department data are available— the U.S. admitted 44 Syrian refugees; over the same period a year ago, the U.S. admitted 6,000 Syrians. But since November, when the Trump administration imposed stricter screening protocols for Syrian refugees, the numbers being admitted to the U.S. have declined sharply: 11 refugees were allowed in from January 1 to March 31 (none were permitted entry in November and December).

When asked about the decline on Fox News Sunday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said that when she talked to refugees in camps in Jordan and Turkey, “not one of the many that I talked to ever said we want to go to America. They want to stay as close to Syria as they can so that when, God willing, this fighting stops and when there is finally stability and peace in that area, they want to go rejoin their family members.” But absent a clear path to bringing stability to Syria, it is unclear when—or even if—these refugees will ever go home.

Meanwhile the Trump administration’s broader policy on refugee intake means few of them will end up in the United States. Last fall, the Trump administration set the refugee cap—the maximum number of refugees to be admitted into the U.S.— at 45,000. That figure, as I wrote at the time, was the lowest refugee cap announced since President Reagan signed the Refugee Act in 1980. Since then, U.S. presidents have, on average, set a ceiling of 95,000 refugees per fiscal year. As I noted at the time, there’s no requirement to meet the set maximum.

[T]he U.S. can also choose to admit a number far lower than the cap, as occurred immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001. For the subsequent several years thereafter, the numbers of refugees admitted into the U.S. fell sharply despite the cap remaining unchanged. The goal of refugee resettlement groups once the new cap is announced, those I spoke to said, would be to push the administration to make sure that the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. is as close to the ceiling as possible.

That now looks almost impossible. The low numbers of Syrian refugees being admitted into the U.S. corresponds with the overall decline in the number of refugees being granted admission. At the current rate, the U.S. will have admitted about 20,000 refugees by the end of this fiscal year, September 30, 2018.

“Anyone who tells you that this administration is always incompetent, they’ve got another think coming,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, told me in a recent interview. “They are not being incompetent about this.”

While a presidential candidate, Trump said he wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees at all; one of his first acts upon becoming president was to ban the entry to the U.S. of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and suspend the program that allows refugees into the country. (Those decisions were challenged to varying degrees of success in courts.) Ultimately, the administration put in place more stringent screening protocols for Syrians, and people from 10 other countries, to come to the U.S.

Additionally, as Politico reported last month, the appointment of Andrew Veprek, who is seen as skeptical of the U.S. refugee program, as a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration added to the fears of refugee advocates that the administration is trying to weaken the resettlement program. While at the White House, Veprek, a foreign service officer, worked closely with Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser, who supports lower immigration to the U.S. Politico reported that Veprek shares those views.

A State Department official I spoke to told me on condition of anonymity that “there’s a fear they want to dismantle the program.” If the Trump administration dramatically reduces the intake of refugees over his term, “it won’t be easy for the next administration to put it back together,” the official told me.

I asked the U.S. State Department about the rates at which applications were being processed and whether the U.S. would increase the number of Syrian refugees entering the country, given that civilian protection was a stated reason for the recent U.S. missile strikes in Syria.

A State Department spokesperson said: “Processing time may be slower as we implement additional security vetting procedures; each refugee’s case is different.” The spokesperson added: “It is too early to determine what final [fiscal year] 2018 refugee admission numbers will be. The refugee admissions ceiling of 45,000 is not a quota but represents an upper limit of refugee admissions for this fiscal year.”

But, the spokesperson pointed out, the U.S. remains the largest single-country humanitarian donor in Syria, and had provided nearly $7.7 billion in humanitarian assistance for those displaced inside the country.

“Our funding also helps mitigate the effects of the crisis on governments and communities throughout the region that are straining to cope as they continue to generously host refugees from Syria,” the spokesperson said.

The overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees live in camps in neighboring countries. About 3.5 million live in Turkey, an additional 1 million in Lebanon, and 600,000 in Jordan. Many of these countries, already facing their own economic strains, are struggling to cope with the massive numbers of newcomers. But Miliband, who previously served as the U.K. foreign secretary, told me that it’s the rich countries like the U.S. that must set an example.

“The argument has got to be: These countries are bearing the greater share of responsibility. They need help to do so ... but it’s also important that countries like this [the U.S.] lead the way in showing responsibility themselves,” he said. “You stand in solidarity with the countries that are bearing the greater share of responsibility because that's where America’s moral standing comes from.”