Obama promises more aid to Jordan

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 14, 2014 

— President Barack Obama reassured King Abdullah II Friday that the United States stands ready to help Jordan cope with the destitute refugees pouring in from nearby Syria even as he acknowledges enormous frustration with that nation’s ongoing civil war.

Obama pledged to renew a five-year aid package set to expire in September that has been providing $660 million a year, and provide another $1 billion in loan guarantees to Jordan.

“The people of Jordan have been very generous” in taking in Syrian refugees, Obama told reporters at the start of a meeting with Abdullah. “It puts a great strain on the resources of Jordan.”

While announcing the continued financial support, Obama said the two would press for a political solution to the crisis in Syria that drives the refugees into Jordan. “Both of us recognize that you can’t just treat the symptoms,” Obama said.

The king referred to the generous support of the United States. "The leadership the United States has shown has been critical," he said.

The United States is the largest donor to Syrian refugees, spending $1.7 billion so far, including millions of dollars to Jordan, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Of the 2.4 million Syrian refugees registered in the region, nearly 600,000 have fled to Jordan, a country with just over 6 million people, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Senior administration officials traveling with Obama said the two leaders discussed U.S. efforts to push other nations to provide assistance and the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Obama and Abdullah met behind closed doors at a tony retreat in the desert near Palm Springs Friday night to discuss the continuing problems in Syria and the contentious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Neither issue – two of Obama’s national security priorities – can be accomplished without the support of Jordan, a key Middle East player and a longtime U.S. ally.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the two nations have a “remarkable and durable partnership” on military, intelligence and diplomatic issues. “We rely on the king of Jordan and he relies on us,” he said.

The Friday night talk capped off days of meetings for Abdullah, who this week visited with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and leaders on Capitol Hill including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Syria has topped the agenda in every meeting.

Obama has tried to pivot to other areas of the globe, but the ongoing problems in the Middle East keep drawing his attention back. Next month, he will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on a visit to that country.

Obama hosted Abdullah for dinner at Sunnylands, the estate of the late publisher and diplomat Walter Annenberg that has been dubbed “Camp David West.” Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last June at the compound that has long hosted presidents.

Last year, about 1,000 protestors greeted the Chinese leader. Friday’s gathering was expected to be more low-key, with only a handful of activists gathering to oppose the Middle East peace plan. Abdullah, who studied in the United States and Europe, speaks flawless English and is a frequent visitor here, often meeting with film, technology and business leaders and once even touring Northern California on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He met earlier in the day with California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The United States hopes Abdullah will help sell a contentious deal between the Palestinians and Israelis on his travels throughout the Middle East, even though some in his own country _ where half are of Palestinian origin _ are skeptical. Kerry has been working for months on a potential agreement that will outline U.S. proposals for a two-state solution in the Middle East.

But Abdullah, experts say, came to the United States primarily to ask for additional aid to care for Syrian refugees.

USAID estimates it will cost Jordan $900 million this year to house the refugees. That will put a further strain on the nation’s economy, which is already facing a $3.2 billion budget deficit.

“They are poor and needy refugees,” said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They are in desperate need of basic services.”

The United States currently has a five-year agreement to provide Jordan $660 million a year, which includes $360 million in economic support and $300 million in military financing. Senior administration officials would not say how much the new aid package would total.

While visiting Jordan last year, Obama pledged $200 million in aid to Jordan, which has seen a strain in services, including water, electricity, hospitals and schools, from the influx of Syrian refugees.

Congress authorized a $1.25 billion loan guarantee for Jordan last year, essentially making the U.S. responsible for repaying the money should Jordan default, and included up to $150 million in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014 to Jordan for security along its border with Syria.

Obama acknowledged this week in a news conference that despite two rounds of talks negotiators are “far from achieving” a resolution to the crisis. But he said international pressure on Syria to account for and relinquish its chemical weapons has started to achieve some progress.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01

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