U.S. will likely face pressure to become more involved in the migrant crisis
State Department spokesman says he expects U.S. to take in more migrants
Washington (CNN)It took a tragic photo of a drowned toddler on a Turkish beach to make the refugee torrent pouring into Europe a problem for America too.
Until now, the agony of the four million refugees who have fled Syria's civil war has been background noise in Washington -- even amid tales of some drowning on ill-fated voyages to safety across the Mediterranean have emerged.
But the heartbreaking photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who died along with his young brother and mother in an attempt to reach Greece, was splashed across U.S. front pages this week and sent the refugee exodus up the political agenda.
It also focused attention on the fact that the United States has so far only accepted 1,500 refugees from Syria. The process is complicated by a long security vetting procedure meant to ensure that only desperate refugees -- and not extremists from groups like ISIS -- reach American soil. The process is so onerous that it typically takes 18 months before a refugee designated for resettlement in the United States actually sets foot in the country.
Like all apparently insoluble challenges, what is being called Europe's worst humanitarian disaster since World War II is certain to end up on President Barack Obama's desk, amid calls for Washington to do more to resettle desperate refugees. State Department spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Friday that the United States expected that figure of 1,500 accepted refugees to double before the end of the year.
"I expect to see the U.S. will take in even more going forward," Kirby said.
But aid agencies and others say that is not enough -- especially since the Syrian exodus is being exacerbated by refugee flows from other conflicts and shattered states, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. Oxfam America is calling on the U.S to accept 70,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement and for the U.S. government and others to do more to resolve the underlying cause of the crisis: Syria's relentless civil war.
"It's tragic we had to see the images of that young boy in order for people to see the urgency of this and start to move on an issue that is not going away," said Shannon Scribner, Oxfam America's Humanitarian Policy Manager.
Another group, the International Rescue Committee, wants Washington to resettle 65,000 Syrian refugees before the end of next year, warning that the countries around Syria are being overwhelmed by the size of the humanitarian crisis.
"The U.S. has historically been the world leader in recognizing the moral obligation to resettle refugees," said IRC president and CEO David Milliband in a statement this week.
"But in the four years of the Syria crisis, there has been inertia rather than leadership," he said. "As the German government calmly says that it expects 800,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2015, it is vital for the U.S. to step up its response."
Ultimately, however, the refugee crisis will only be solved with the resolution of the underlying cause -- the dismembering of Syria by a vicious civil war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups.
"It is time for people to start talking about solutions to end the conflict. It will continue to grow in terms of human suffering until world leaders come together," said Scribner.
But there is little hope for peace soon. Previous U.S. efforts to end the conflict failed partly because of the desire of states like Russia and Iran to retain Assad as a geopolitical ally in the divided Middle East.
Obama said in 2011 that the time had come for Assad to leave, but he remains president, at least of the rump of territory still controlled by his Allawite minority sect.
Republican presidential hopefuls are blaming Obama for pulling back at the last minute in 2013 from a threat to attack Syrian government targets after its forces crossed his "red line" by using chemical weapons. They argue that he is overcompensating for the costly U.S. interventions in Iraq as part of a loose doctrine of avoiding more Middle East wars and say his neglect has allowed the Syria nightmare to get worse.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who has been running a campaign anchored on expelling illegal immigrants, said on MSNBC the situation was "so horrible" that Washington should probably accept more refugees.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Obama "has allowed these folks to be slaughtered."
"I frankly can't imagine as president of the United States how you could permit this to happen on this scale, and now we're seeing those results," he said this week at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. "And it's much different when you read about it. And when you see it, it becomes even more powerful."
It was that kind of attack that might have prompted Hillary Clinton to sense a potential general election vulnerability, given her role as Obama's former secretary of state. She pointed out Friday that she, along with other senior members of the Obama administration, had wanted to be more aggressive in identifying and training Syrian rebels when the conflict first broke out to fight Assad.
"I advocated for a more robust policy," Clinton said in an interview with MSNBC, and called on the "entire world" to come together to solve the crisis.
One of Clinton's Democratic rivals, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has been struggling to make an impact in the race, tried to outflank the former secretary of state on the refugee crisis on Friday, backing the IRC call for the U.S. to accept 65,000 refugees.
"Americans are a generous and compassionate people. But today our policies are falling short of those values. We must do more to support Syrian refugees -- and we must certainly welcome more than the proposed 5,000 to 8,000 refugees next year," he said.