The Cable

Big Losers of the Obama-Putin Flame War: Ordinary Syrians

When it comes to Syria, peacemakers and interventionists agree on one thing: The cancellation of talks between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin bodes poorly for ordinary people trapped in a horrific civil war.

On the eve of a cabinet-level meeting between Russia and the United States, the White House is taking heat from all sorts of Syria-minded activists for refusing to engage with the Kremlin at the highest levels. U.S. officials say prospects of producing any agreements with Putin were already slim; so why reward him with a photo-op? But activists say the costs of not engaging are too high.

"Lack of communication will make the situation on the ground worse, not better," Dan Layman, director of media relations at the Syrian Support Group, tells The Cable. Layman's group wants Obama to confront Putin on his stonewalling at the United Nations and delivery of helicopters, tanks and missiles to the Assad regime. He also wouldn't mind if Washington threw the rebels a missile or two. Better yet: a No Fly Zone.

But other activists want nothing do with weapons. They'd like both powers to pressure Syria into allowing aid groups broader access to the 6.8 million people the United Nations says are in need of humanitarian assistance in the region. Despite an agenda that's very different from the hawkish Syrian Support Group, the frustration is the same: We need Obama at the table.

"President Obama's failure to prioritize a meeting with President Putin to discuss peace in Syria was a reckless move," said Shannon Scribner, Oxfam America's humanitarian policy manager. "We encourage presidents Obama and Putin to drop the political theater and, instead, demonstrate leadership in search of ending the bloodshed in Syria."

But on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney poured cold water on the idea that a meeting between Putin and Obama would accomplish anything. "Summits of leaders tend to be designed around making progress on significant issues,"  Carney told reporters. "And we had not seen that progress sufficiently on a range of issues to merit a summit."

At her briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama's entire national security staff was on the same page. "There was unanimous support for the decision not to - within the National Security Council not to hold the summit," she said. "The point was made - and this is one the Secretary definitely agrees with - is that ... we were not at the point in our progress on a number of these issues where a summit at the presidential level was the most constructive step."

To Oxfam's Noah Gottschalk, that's simply unacceptable, given the need to bring the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime together for peace talks in Geneva. "Putin and Obama meeting wouldn't have solved everything, but it could've gotten the ball rolling towards meaningful talks," he said, calling from the Beirut international airport. "People in the region were hopeful. They saw it as important opportunity for high-level discussions. But what they got is a decision to put petty politics over the lives of Syrians." 

At the same time, administration officials reject the idea that only heads of state can somehow work toward a peace conference. Not only will Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel bring up Syria with their Washington counterparts in Washington on Friday, but lower-level officials will work toward peace talks as well. "Ambassador Ford is in Paris today and tomorrow," said Psaki at Thursday's press briefing. "He's meeting with members of the Syrian opposition to discuss the prospects of a Geneva conference. We remain committed to helping Syrians negotiate a political settlement along the lines of the June 2012 Geneva communique."

But for the activists, the protracted nature of the conflict is proof enough that the crisis calls for top-level engagement. "Sure, they're not going to forge an immediate solution, but right now, we're just going backwards," said Gottschalk.

The Cable

Exclusive: U.S. Will Now Let in Thousands of Syrian Refugees

With conditions continuing to deteriorate in Syria, the Obama administration is making a major policy shift by agreeing for the first time to allow thousands of new Syrian refugees into the United States, The Cable has learned.

The numbers are relatively small: just 2,000 refugees, compared to an estimated two million people who have fled Syria during the civil war. But it's a significant increase from the 90 or so Syrian refugees who have been permanently admitted to the U.S. in the last two years. And it's not entirely uncontroversial. The refugees, mostly women and children, will be screened for terrorist ties -- a process that could take a year or more to complete. 

Unlike previous efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to give temporary protected status to Syrians already in the United States, the State Department effort will bring in Syrians from overseas for permanent resettlement in America.

"Referrals will come within the next four months. We will need to interview people and perform security and medical checks," Kelly Clements, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, tells The Cable.

While aid workers welcome the decision to let in more refugees, concerns remain about the time it will take to process the applications and move them into the U.S. "It's 90 degrees now, but in a few months it's going to snow and people are going to be freezing," Noah Gottschalk, Oxfam America's senior humanitarian policy advisor, told The Cable. "They don't have many options and many are living in unfinished buildings, abandoned shopping malls, schools, mosques and parking garages." 

But the eligible refugees will have to wait out the cold. By Clements' own admission, given application processing times, "We're not likely to see Syrian refugees into those numbers before well into 2014."

Qualifying refugees include only the most vulnerable individuals -- likely women and children -- who were "exposed to everything from torture to gender-based violence to serious medical conditions" and have no intention of returning to Syria, Clements added.

Despite their vulnerable condition, even the youngest of children will be thoroughly vetted to ensure they do not pose a national security threat. It's not that they're worried about infants enlisting in al Qaeda. The worry is that terrorist relatives can more easily enter the United States, once they have relatives in America. "Refugees are subject to an intensive security screening process involving federal intelligence, law enforcement, defense, and homeland security agencies," a State Department official said. "The U.S. government makes every possible effort to uphold and enhance the security screening aspects of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Refugees are among the most carefully screened of individuals traveling to the United States."

In cases such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress and the White House have been wary about opening the floodgates to refugees too wide, citing concerns about terrorism. As a result, tens of thousands of refugees have been left waiting at the doors of American embassies there. Humanitarian groups are encouraging Washington to do more in Syria.

"It's a welcome move by the U.S. but they also need to do more to help the countries supporting refugees and support their infrastructure," said Gottschalk, who has recently visited the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. Another major resettlement country is Germany, which pledged to bring in 5,000 refugees in March 2012 on top of the several thousand Syrians it granteld asylum to in the last two years. However, unlike in the U.S., refugees to Germany are required to return after the fighting subsides. "We're very proud of the fact that the U.S. judges applicants on need and seek out the most needy cases," Erol Kekic, director of immigration at the Church World Service, tells The Cable.

The referrals come from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which has been identifying and tracking the millions of refugees flooding into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere since the two-year-old conflict began. Earlier this summer, the United Nations approached Washington about referring Syrian refugees to a group of 27 resettlement countries, including the United States. Now, Clements tells The Cable the U.S. will not only participate but "will encourage other resettlement countries to do the same."

It's yet to be seen if Congress will push back against the Obama administration's acceptance of the Syrian refugees. (Ordinarily, the U.S. only admits refugees after a conflict has gone on for five years or longer.) Though the State Department's refugee admission program is authorized by a presidential determination, it does involve consultation with Congress.

Of course, admitting 2,000 Syrians won't even begin to ease the suffering of Syria's refugees; the U.N. estimates that by the end of 2013, 3.5 million Syrians will have fled the country. It's also worth noting the 6.8 million Syrian people in need of humanitarian assistance. Clements emphasized that permanent resettlement is just one means by which the U.S. is contributing to the humanitarian relief effort. "We are exceedingly frustrated to be quite honest because we can't keep up with the humanitarian need especially inside Syria," Clements said. "We are expanding our support for humanitarian assistance through all sorts of angles, but we can't keep up."

This was post was revised to differentiate between the number of refugees versus asylum seekers the German government has agreed to accept.