A plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States came under intense scrutiny last month, with more than half the nation’s governors declaring they would ban refugees from their respective states.
In the wake of the deadly Paris attacks in November, governors from 31 states across the U.S. said they were opposed to resettling Syrian refugees in their states, although the final say on immigration issues falls to the federal government.
The Obama administration announced in September that it plans to accept 10,000 Syrians in 2016, part of increased efforts to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees heading to Europe.
Days after the attacks in France, which were allegedly organized and carried out by members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would impose additional security measures on refugees coming from Syria.
“The bill passed by the House was not intended to strengthen anything. It is intended to completely prevent the admission of refugees by recruiting the director of the FBI and the Secretary of Homeland Security to personally certify that a given individual represents no threat … on a case-by-case basis … you can’t do that,” former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said in an interview with Syria Deeply.
“It’s intended to block the program.”
Former Ambassador Crocker, who served in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, among other countries, said that the current uproar about Syrian refugees plays directly into ISIS’s hands.
“It validates their narrative that the West, led by America, is fundamentally anti-Muslim and anti-Arab,” he said. “We’re making their day.”
More than 300,000 people have died since violence began in Syria in 2011, and just under half of the country’s 22 million people have fled their homes. According to figures from the United Nations, Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, however, only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S.
Syria Deeply spoke with former Ambassador Crocker in Beirut to hear his thoughts on the United States’ refugee resettlement policy and the main American misunderstandings of the crisis in Syria.
Syria Deeply: What’s your view on the United States’ refugee resettlement policy?
Crocker: It is not America’s finest moment. We’ll just have to see, when things calm down a little, if Americans will take a second look at who we are as a people, what our values are – and frankly, what our national security interests are, because the current outcry against refugee resettlement is exactly what the Islamic State wants to see. It validates their narrative that the West, led by America, is fundamentally anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. So, we’re making their day – that’s what I mean about national security.
But national security should also mean national values. We are a nation of immigrants. Except for those of us who were here when the Mayflower landed or were brought here in chains, we’re all immigrants. And a lot of us are refugees. So this is, literally, about who we are. So I just hope this really unfortunate anti-refugee sentiment will pass because refugees are not the problem, they’re not the threat. If an enemy wanted to infiltrate operatives into the United States, about the last route they could choose would be refugees. It takes an extraordinarily long time to get authorized for resettlement and you go through more scrutiny as a refugee than any other class of immigrant. It’s really sad and really dangerous. Those who stand against refugee resettlement say they’re protecting the nation. They’re not. They’re putting the nation at greater risk by reinforcing the Islamic State narrative while doing absolutely nothing to keep it safer.
Syria Deeply: Opponents of the resettlement policy have said the vetting process isn’t thorough enough. Is that true?
Crocker: The bill passed by the House was not intended to strengthen anything. It is intended to completely prevent the admission of refugees by recruiting the director of the FBI and the Secretary of Homeland Security to personally certify that a given individual represents no threat … on a case-by-case basis … you can’t do that. It’s intended to block the program. And again, no vetting system is perfect, but there are more checks and controls on refugee admissions than on any other category of individuals seeking to move to the United States.
There are some things that we are doing to tighten these checks that I think are right. The visa waver program, for example … We should have done that a long time ago. Obviously in the wake of San Bernadino and Tashfeen Malik, we need to take another look at what the screening requirements are on fiancé visas. Whatever they were, I would bet you that they’re less stringent than they are for refugees. So let’s look at where the vulnerabilities really are, and not create new ones by targeting an entire population and, again, doing the Islamic State’s propaganda for them.
Syria Deeply: In an op-ed you published last month, you said the United States should take in 100,000 Syrian refugees. Is this something you still stand by?
Crocker: Absolutely. You know, I’ve been saying that for months. Again, 1,500 have been accepted into the United States, 30,000 into Canada, more than a million here in Lebanon … you know, we’re America, we’ve got to lead on this. And like so much now in the region and beyond, we’re just not leading.
Syria Deeply: What’s the most misunderstood issue in the United States when it comes to the Syrian crisis?
Crocker: The refugee issue, to me, is the most appalling American misunderstanding of the Syria crisis. Simply, who are the refugees, and why do they count on every level? Obviously the humanitarian is the most significant. This is an unimaginable human catastrophe to which much of the world, and certainly the United States, seems to be oblivious. And it has political repercussions. We all know what happened, in Palestinian camps in Lebanon, after 1967 and Black September in 1970, in which large refugee populations devoid of any economic prospects, hope and dignity were radicalized. We paid for that for 20 years. The Syrian refugee crisis is a real threat, but not in the way Americans talk about it. What is going to happen to these populations, displaced in Syria and neighboring countries? But also, what’s going to happen to these kids today and their kids down the line if we don’t get our arms around this? It’s a failure to understand the dynamics of a massive human tragedy and then move to correct it.
Beyond that, the almost unimaginable complexity within the Syrian conflict escapes most Americans, including many policymakers I think. We stayed out of the Lebanon conflict, rightly – but I don’t think we can stay out of this one. It is far too big and has ramifications well beyond the area it’s already descended upon, as we’ve seen in Paris. So, fundamentally, what I think American’s don’t understand is that we have to lead on this – politically, militarily and in humanitarian terms because if we don’t, no one will, and if no one will, what is already bad is just going to get worse. This will not fix itself. Without U.S. leadership what is already bad is just going to get worse.
Syria Deeply: What’s your take on the opposition talks in Riyadh? What are the chances for success? What are the obstacles? Is this group truly representative of the Syrian opposition on the ground?
Crocker: Well, sitting here talking to you in Beirut, I’m uncomfortably reminded of the Lebanese Civil War. I spent six years here, three as a political councilor at the embassy in Beirut, and three as ambassador subsequently, and I remember painfully all that we went through then to eventually end the war. There were conferences here – the Tayiff Conference in Saudi Arabia echoes a bit of what we’ve just seen this week in Riyadh. But do you know how things were actually ended? It ended because Syria dominated. The Syrian army moved through in 1990 and forced Michel Aoun out of the presidential palace. That’s what ended the war. It was a Syrian predominance of power and control. Well, there’s no Syria around today to exert that kind of control in Syria. So, I applaud the effort in Saudi Arabia, and I applaud the Saudi effort in bringing together a lot of people, some of whom they really don’t like, but my expectations are under control in how this will go. The Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are not there at all. Ahrar al-Sham are saying several different things, but are ambivalent at best about the process, and we’re still talking about simply getting into the room and who’ll be in it. And we already know, that in the best case scenario, and the opposition and government actually sit down in the same room, the best case, you still have the real heavyweights outside the room. And you also have, just like the Lebanese Civil War, we have a regional and international Cold War going on: Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S., Russia. Without some meetings of the minds there, it’s really hard to say either internally in Syria, regionally in the Middle East, or even internationally, it’s hard for me to say that the pieces are falling into place for an actual settlement.
It’s very important to pursue this, and to try to fuse the Vienna process and the Riyadh process together. But thinking back on Lebanon, looking at Iraq today, these complex conflicts have some dynamics in common, and I’m afraid the dynamics in the Syrian conflict are kind of like those in the Lebanon conflict in the early 1980s.
Top image: Former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon Ryan Crocker testifies before a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence full committee hearing on the Islamic State of Iraq, the Levant and other Islamic extremists, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)