Seeking crucial help for a key Middle Eastern ally, U.S. President Barack Obama announced late Friday that he will ask Congress to approve a new round of financial aid for Jordan, which is struggling to manage the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the civil war in Syria.
Jordan is a key Arab ally and stabilizing force in a region where tensions run hot. Its fragile economy is being stretched thin by the substantial costs of accommodating refugees from next-door Syria. Nearly 600,000 Syrians, about one-tenth of the Jordanian population, have crossed the border and sought refuge in Jordan.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has estimated that it will cost the government of King Abdullah II about $900 million to host the refugees this year alone.
Obama said he will seek $1 billion in loan guarantees for Jordan, using the full faith and credit of the United States to help make it easier for Jordan to borrow money. The new guarantee would be on top of a $1.25 billion loan guarantee Congress approved last year, the first one ever for Jordan.
Co-signer on loans
Under a loan guarantee, the U.S. essentially acts like a co-signer on loans and would be responsible for repaying the principal and interest should Jordan default.
Obama also will seek a new, five-year funding agreement for Jordan. Administration officials did not immediately say what level of funding would be sought, saying that detail remained to be worked out. An existing five-year funding agreement with Jordan expires in September.
Both the loan guarantees and the funding agreement require approval from Congress.
Obama said the crisis in Syria requires a political solution that won't come in the short term, but added that unspecified intermediate steps must be taken to further pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to step aside.
Obama commented before a meeting with Abdullah that was to be followed by a working dinner at the sprawling Sunnylands estate in Southern California. Officials said the venue was chosen so the leaders could have a more relaxed atmosphere for their talks, their first since meeting at the White House last April.
Obama said he would strategize with Abdullah on how they can "effectively change the calculus inside the country" to produce a Syria that ends the killing and is respectful of all groups.
Abdullah expressed his deep gratitude for U.S. efforts to help his country and to end the war in Syria.
Influx of refugees
Jordan's economy is struggling in part because of the influx of the nearly 600,000 refugees seeking an escape from the day-to-day death and destruction from Syria's civil war, which began in 2011. The refugees have overwhelmed Jordan, a country of 6 million people, straining its health care and education systems and other resources.
Jordanians fear the spillover violence from Syria. They also fear that the refugees could create a regional base for extremists and terrorists.
Obama was spending the rest of the long Presidents Day weekend at Sunnyland, with a return to Washington scheduled for Monday.