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Obama Pledges Help to Jordan on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

March 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama traveled to Amman, Jordan, the first Arab country he has visited since the Arab Spring uprising two years ago. In a joint press conference with King Abdullah, Mr. Obama pledged to help Jordan with the growing Syrian refugee crisis. Judy Woodruff talks to Margaret Warner, reporting from Amman.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret has traveled with the president all week. She was in Amman when I spoke with her just a short time ago.

Margaret, hello.

Tell us, first of all — the administration seems very pleased about this breakthrough between Israel and Turkey. Tell us about President Obama’s role in making that happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, the White House, the administration has been working for over two years to try to heal this rift, but it really became important as the Syria conflict got more serious in the neighborhood, because in the absence of going in militarily, the president is trying to organize all the neighbors, as we know, in the region to assist with refugees, to assist with figuring out where the chemical weapons are, to try to figure out which Islamist forces might be gaining ground among the rebel forces.

It’s very complicated. And to have two of America’s three staunchest, best sort of security and intelligence allies in the region not speaking has been a huge, huge problem. So, John Kerry, when he went to Ankara on his maiden trip as secretary of state, talked to Erdogan.

And then the president when he got here at his very first meeting with Netanyahu Wednesday brought it up, and has been working at it, we’re told, each time they have met. So it was set up that they went to the airport. They had a trailer set up, and Netanyahu and Obama went in, and the call was made.

And we were all wondering — it took something like half-an-hour. And we wondered, why so long, why was the president there, why did he get on the phone. And what I’m told is that both Netanyahu and Erdogan required the president to be there, because for each one that gave him cover, that leader cover to do this sort of forced apology.

Erdogan could say President Obama has explained that it’s very, very important for to us at least cooperate on security intelligence. I need to do this for my friend Barack Obama, and Netanyahu could make the same case to the people who are criticizing him at home for apologizing to Erdogan.

So, that’s why Obama got on the call as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, you mentioned Syria.

When the president got to Jordan, he and King Abdullah held a joint press conference, news conference, and the president announced there that he is going to be asking Congress for more money to go to Jordan, to help them deal with all the refugees coming in from Syria.

Why is that important for the Obama administration?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, when I said there were two of the three allies in the region, the third most important ally there for the United States is Jordan, a tiny country, but punches above its weight.

Jordan security forces and intelligence forces are excellent. And I described in the earlier piece some of the role it’s playing. But King Abdullah’s on somewhat shaky ground, the economy is bad, and part of the problem is the refugees are a huge pressure point, as the king sort of eloquently said today.

Few of us saw the foreign minister this afternoon, who said it’s almost as if — he said it’s as if another eight or nine — the king said 10 percent has been added to our population. And the foreign minister said — I asked him actually the question that the king was asked, would you ever shut your doors? And he said, we just can’t do that.

But he said, I have to say my nightmare scenario is I get a call at 3:00 a.m. and I’m told there are 50,000 refugees at the border; what do we do?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, just to wrap up quickly, we know the bulk of the president’s time was spent in Israel trying to patch up relations there, but also calling for new thinking on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Have you picked up reaction yet to what the president was saying?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, in the public, especially on the left in Israel, there was great, great joy at what the president had to say about resolving the conflict.

But the reaction from people sort of in the political circles was a little more true to form. For example, Naftali Bennett, who is from the settler movement who did very well in the election and is now in the government, said we don’t need — a second Palestinian state, that isn’t new thinking. And he said very pointedly, people can’t be occupiers in their own land.

In other words, he was rejecting the idea that Israelis don’t have the right to live anywhere they want in the entire territory. Then, today, I talked to Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian very prominent, who is still a member of the PLO executive committee, and she said, we don’t need new language or new thinking. We need new will and courage by the United States.

And Palestinians were widespread in their disappointment with the trip, because they felt that the president had really embraced the Israeli kind of view of this conflict, and had not expressed a willingness to press for some freeze on settlements.

So, it doesn’t mean something may not happen. But you could see that new thinking is going to come hard in this region of a very old conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thank you very much, joining us from Amman.