AMMAN, Jordan — President Barack Obama on Friday pledged $200 million in new aid to Jordan to help it handle a flood of refugees seeking shelter from the raging civil war in neighboring Syria.
Syria topped talks between Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who said at a joint press conference that the “humanitarian calamity” is straining the country’s already weak economy. No country has taken in more refugees than Jordan, a key U.S. ally in a turbulent region and the last stop on Obama’s trip to the Middle East.
Obama, who said he’d work with Congress to secure the money, said the U.S. would provide humanitarian assistance and basic services, “including education for Syrian children so far from home, whose lives have been upended.”
The number of Syrians crossing the border into Jordan has reached 460,000, or 10 percent of the country’s population – and estimates say it could double by the end of the year, Abdullah said. For the U.S., it’s the equivalent of 30 million refugees arriving across its borders, Abdullah said. A northern refugee camp, Zaatari, is now the fifth-largest city in the country.
The influx has created strains for a poor country that last summer had to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a loan to close a budget deficit created by rising oil prices. And it’s created domestic pressure for Abdullah.
But Jordan, which has a history of taking in refugees, will keep its borders open, the king said.
“How are you going to turn back women, children and the wounded?” he told a journalist. “This is something that we just can’t do. It’s not the Jordanian way.”
Jordanian officials fear the Syrian crisis for political reasons as well: As Assad’s regime deteriorates, and Islamists in Syria grow emboldened, the Islamic opposition in Jordan might become similarly emboldened.
A Jordanian journalist asked Obama whether as a “superpower” the U.S. couldn’t do more to end the conflict.
Obama has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster and the U.S. has supplied humanitarian and “non-lethal” assistance to the regime’s opponents. But Obama has resisted military intervention and said Friday the U.S. would face criticism whether it intervenes militarily or does not.
“We think our experience shows that when we lead, but we are also working with others, like the Jordanians, like the Turks, like other interested parties in the region, then the outcomes are better,” Obama said.
Still, Obama said, the U.S. shares Jordan’s worries about violence spilling over its border and is “committed to the security of Jordan.”
Obama’s visit comes two years after violent uprisings toppled leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and began the revolt in Syria, complicating matters for the monarchy. Abdullah has pledged political and economic reform. Obama’s visit, in part, served to bolster what Obama called “necessary political reforms.”
Obama hailed what he said was Abdullah’s commitment to “active citizenship, where citizens play a larger role in the future of this nation,” though some Jordanian opposition leaders have expressed skepticism over the government’s long-term commitment to democratic reform.
“The king is under pressure internally and politically with the Arab uprisings and calls for reform,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan and a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “He’s looking for assurances he’s on the right track and is taking the country on a path to reform.”
Obama and Abdullah held private talks before the press conference at a sprawling new presidential compound.
The monarch has long backed a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians and hailed Obama’s push Thursday to revive stalled peace talks.
“There is simply no other formula, no other alternative,” Abdullah said. He said he believed there was still time to make a stab at resolving the dispute but said the window is closing as Israel builds more settlements in areas the Palestinians consider theirs.
The unrest in the region has also slowed tourism, and with that in mind, Obama on Saturday will spend the last day of his trip touring Jordan’s best known destination, the ancient city of Petra.
“Weather permitting,” noted Obama, whose arrival in Jordan aboard Air Force One was delayed by a sandstorm in Israel.