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After airstrikes, refugee groups hope for new approach on Syria

Prominent human rights groups are hoping President Donald Trump's decision to launch airstrikes in Syria will rekindle a debate over humanitarian aid and a key policy of the administration: The decision to refuse Syrian refugees.

Following through on a campaign promise, Trump has attempted to block refugees from Syria for months in order to review vetting procedures. While the effort has been tied up in federal court, it remains a centerpiece of his national security policy.

But as Trump discussed in moving terms the chemical attack this week that killed dozens in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun — and used it to justify launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase late Thursday — some argue he is making a case for rethinking his own stance on refugees and other humanitarian efforts.

"It's our belief that the chemical weapon attack and the military engagement is just further evidence of the global humanitarian needs that need to be met," said Bill O'Keefe of Catholic Relief Services, which is based in Baltimore. "We should be increasing our humanitarian response, not decreasing it."

The administration's broad policy on Syria appeared to shift over the course of the week. Days before the airstrikes, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had indicated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's fate would be "decided by the Syrian people." And Trump had been far more vocal about confronting Islamic fighters in the country.

But Trump said during a press conference Wednesday that the chemical attack had "a big impact on me" and said "it's already happened that my attitude toward Syria...has changed very much." In explaining the airstrikes Thursday night, the president said that "no child of God should ever suffer such horror."

Some advocates viewed that apparent shift in tone as a positive development.

Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Maryland, said he was pleased to hear Trump expressing compassion for the Syrian people. The rescue group, which has field offices in Baltimore and Silver Spring, helps settle refugees.

"If the Trump administration understands the gravity of the situation...it should lend itself to reopening the refugee resettlement system," Chandrasekar said. "In order for the Trump administration to be consistent in their logic, they have to rethink their position."

There is little indication the White House agrees with that assessment. One of Trump's first executive orders limited travel from several predominantly Muslim nations and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely. A revised order, which has been put on hold by federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland, would halt Syrian and other refugees for 120 days.

The administration continues to defend the policy in court, saying it is critical for security that people entering the country undergo "extreme vetting" to ensure their intentions. Asked about the analysis from advocates, a White House spokesman referred to a briefing late Thursday.

National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters at that briefing that the refugee issue "wasn't discussed as any part of the deliberations" around the airstrikes.

Tillerson, who also spoke at the briefing, seemed to indicate the answer to the refugee crisis is to stabilize the underlying turmoil in Syria.

"There are local leaders who are ready to return — some who've left as refugees — that are ready to return to govern these areas and begin to provide a secure environment so refugees can begin to go home and begin the rebuilding process," Tillerson said.

Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, agreed with that assessment.

"The ultimate solution to the refugee issue is to restore peaceful conditions so that Syrians who were forced to leave can return to their homeland from local refugee camps," Harris said in a statement. "The best way to restore peaceful conditions is yet to be determined."

The years-long civil war in Syria and subsequent refugee crisis in Europe prompted the Obama administration in 2015 to lift the cap on the number of displaced Syrians the U.S. would accept to 10,000. Unlike in some parts of Europe, those refugees are heavily vetted before they arrive at the border and are paired with a service organization to help them settle here.

But the Obama administration's decision quickly became wrapped up in the presidential election, particularly after authorities said some of those involved in 2015 Paris attack had slipped back into Europe posing as refugees. Most of those attackers were actually European nationals but concern about terrorism from refugees stuck.

Polling has indicated that Americans have at best a lukewarm response to refugees. An Associated Press-GfK poll in July found 53 percent thought the U.S. should allow fewer than 10,000 Syrian refugees and only 11 percent believed the number should be increased.

Vice President Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, directed state agencies to halt the resettlement of Syrians in his state. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that effort, and 125 Syrians have become Hoosiers since October.

The U.S. has admitted nearly 2,300 Syrian refugees this year, though monthly totals have declined from 1,318 in January to 282 in March.

O'Keefe said his concern extends beyond the refugee program. He noted Trump's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins in October cuts billions in foreign aid — including for food assistance. While that is consistent with his campaign's promise to focus federal funding on "America first," it has met with bipartisan opposition from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"He has evolved in his thinking and perhaps even more important has evolved in his empathy for the Syrians," said Rep. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat who represents portions of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. That could influence the president's "thinking and approach on how we provide relief and support to these children, men and women who have been fleeing Syria," Brown said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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