Democrats who were quick to express support for the American air strikes in Syria followed up Friday with a warning that the Trump administration cannot hope to fully address the humanitarian disaster without reassessing its intolerance toward refugees.
“The President said that images of slaughtered Syrian children contributed to his decision to take military action,” said California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris. “That should also compel the Administration to rethink its misguided refugee policy and open our doors to the children and families fleeing ongoing violence and oppression in Syria and elsewhere.”
The Trump administration on Friday described his decision to launch a missile attack in Syria as the product of 72-hours of soul-searching that started with the horrific images of the almost 100 people, including children, who died when the Syrian government unleashed chemical weapons on its own people earlier in the week.
“He was very moved and found the event extremely tragic,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. “It was very disturbing and tragic and moving to him.”
While Democrats and some humanitarian organizations described similar reactions, they said that Trump’s reaction would be short-sighted if it did not account for the past seven years of horrific conflict. The Syrian civil war began in 2011, when the Syrian government brutally cracked down on protests calling for Assad’s removal from power.
It has since devolved into a standoff between Assad’s forces — backed by the Russian government — and rebel factions that have absorbed fighters from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Those foreign alliances have complicated the international response. Meanwhile, millions of refugees have fled the country or become trapped in the crossfire in their home communities.
The humanitarian organization Human Rights First drew attention to that history in its response, saying that the chemical weapons attack was just one “egregious and unlawful attack” in the long and deadly conflict.
“Any engagement in Syria should be founded in international and domestic law and must address the root of the conflict, as well as the human rights abuses that have been perpetrated against civilians,” said Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski. “It must also provide for the protection of the refugees created by this violence.”
Trump said Thursday that the images of the victims from this week’s chemical attack had fundamentally altered his view of the conflict.
“It was a slow and brutal death for so many,” he said Thursday night. “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
But Trump has not said whether his new outlook will cause him to reconsider his hard stance against refugees. As a candidate, Trump falsely claimed that there weren’t many women and children among Syrian refugees, and said, if any made it to the United States, he would send them back.
He followed the harsh rhetoric with action almost as soon as he assumed office. The Trump administration’s initial failed travel ban would have indefinitely stopped Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. A revised version, now tied up in the courts, would impose a 120-day ban.
Democrats on Friday — joined in a rare post-election public statement by Hillary Clinton — called out the administration for hypocrisy.
“I hope this administration will move forward in a way that is both strategic and consistent with our values,” Clinton said at a luncheon in Texas. “And I also hope that they will recognize that we cannot in one breath speak of protecting Syrian babies and in the next close America’s doors to them.”
The refugee issue was a sore point for Clinton, whom Trump attacked during the campaign for wanting to let refugees “pour in” to the country.
Other Democrats made similar statements.
“This incident underscores the brutality of the Assad regime and I hope it prompts President Trump to reconsider his position on accepting carefully vetted Syrian refugees who are trying to escape this kind of horror,” Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken said in a statement.
New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler went one step further
“The President’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis flies in the face of the moral decency he cites as the reason to launch a military strike against Assad,” Nadler said. “I hope President Trump develops the same sense of moral decency when dealing with the Syrian refugees fleeing from Assad’s brutality.”
Rep. Lois Frankel called the war in Syria the, “greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.”
“The targeted U.S. airstrikes in response to Assad’s brutal chemical attack must be followed by a long-term, comprehensive strategy aimed at protecting innocent civilians,” the Florida Democrat said. “The President should work with our allies, consult with Congress, and adopt a humane policy towards refugees fleeing the unspeakable violence.”
Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell called for a “comprehensive strategy,” with buy-in from Congress and international allies.
“The chemical attacks against Syrian civilians which we responded to this week are only the latest horrors perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad against his own country,” the Alabama Democrat said. “As we continue to debate federal policy on providing relief for refugees, it is important to remember the millions of Syrians who have faced years of terror, this week so horrible that our country responded with military action.”
Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee referred to Assad’s, “long history of killing innocent men, women and children.”
“Any military or diplomatic intervention has to be coupled with increased humanitarian support, including providing refuge for those victims of terror fleeing Assad’s brutal dictatorship,” he said.
— Rema Rahman contributed to this report.