President Barack Obama promised to seek an extra $200 million in aid to help Jordan cope with a flood of refugees from Syria that King Abdullah II said is straining his country’s economy and risks destabilizing the region.
Abdullah, at a news conference with Obama in Amman, said Jordan has absorbed 460,000 refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and that number may double by the end of the year.
Jordan “just can’t turn our back” on children and the wounded trying to escape fighting between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition, the king said. “Refugees will continue to come through and we will continue within our means to look after them the best we can.”
Obama said he’d work with the U.S. Congress, which is debating how to cut the budget and reduce the deficit, for the added aid to Jordan this year. He said the international community “needs to step up.”
The U.S. president is making the final stop of a four-day trip that included stops in Israel and the West Bank and has been dominated by efforts to restart the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and the turmoil in Syria.
Obama defended his decision to refrain from arming Syrian rebels and said the U.S. is working with other countries to consider the best approach. The U.S., he said, has led efforts to provide humanitarian aid and organize a “credible” political opposition to Assad’s government.
“I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism,” Obama said.
Abdullah said further fragmentation of Syria would have “disastrous consequences” for the region.
Jordan received more than $800 million from the U.S. last year, including $120 million in special assistance to offset costs related to Syrian refugees.
“This is really very difficult for them to absorb,” said Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser and now a counselor with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is just not sustainable. The whole issue of Syria needs to be addressed. No doubt King Abdullah wants to know what’s our strategy for dealing with Syria.”
Obama also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while in the region. He urged both of them to return to direct negotiations.
“Even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, may be engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement,” he said at a news conference in Ramallah with Abbas.
Abdullah said that while he is “delighted” with Obama’s outreach to Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks in his visit to Israel and the West Bank, more U.S. leadership is of “crucial importance” if there are to be any breakthroughs. He said Jordan would offer to host any new talks.
Regarding Iran, Obama said he would “continue to apply the pressure that we have, in a non-military way, to try to resolve the problem.” He stressed that the U.S. “will maintain every option” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.