Donald Trump said of the Syrian refugees: ‘They’re living in hell, and something has to be done.’ Photograph: Mark Humphrey/AP
Republican presidential frontrunner foists blame for humanitarian crisis on Barack Obama, calling his tough talk on Syria ‘a very artificial line in the sand’
Donald Trump – whose hardline position on immigration has upended the Republican race for president – has called on the US to take in more Syrian refugees, telling an interviewer: “I hate the concept of it, but on a humanitarian basis you have to.”
In an appearance on Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor on Tuesday night, the billionaire and presidential candidate said the US had a responsibility to do more for the millions of people who have fled Syria’s chaotic civil war since 2011.
“You know, it’s living in hell in Syria. There’s no question about it,” Trump said. “They’re living in hell, and something has to be done.”
The real estate mogul was quick to impute blame on Barack Obama, alluding to the president’s 2012 remark that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would be a “red line” that would change US “calculus” and prompt more active intervention.
“This was started by President Obama when he didn’t go in and do the job he should have when he drew the line in the sand, which turned out to be a very artificial line,” Trump said.
The US and Russia ultimately brokered a deal with Assad over his chemical weapons, and the threat of western military action was lifted until the US began airstrikes on jihadi groups in Syria in 2014.
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Trump did not directly answer whether he would have sought to remove Assad from what power he has left, saying “something should have happened” after evidence emerged that Assad had used sarin gas on civilians and rebels.
“Probably, in retrospect, they should have gone in and done something with Assad,” Trump said, adding that the US’s primary concern now should be the extremist group Islamic State.
“But you know, Assad is not our biggest problem because Assad and Isis are actually fighting,” he said. “So now what we’re doing is we’re fighting Isis and Isis wants to fight Assad. Some people could say: ‘Why don’t you just let them fight out and you take out the remnants?’”
Last week Trump was not as willing to say the US should accept more refugees, telling MSNBC: “We have so many problems, and the answer is, possibly, yes.”
On the subject of immigrants from countries closer to the US, Trump is less welcoming. He has published a plan that involves the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants and has vowed to construct a wall along the border with Mexico, although it will have “a big, very beautiful door”.
Of the 22 declared candidates for president who were asked about the current refugee crisis, only Democrat Martin O’Malley told the Guardian the US should accept 65,000 refugees, as 14 senators and aid groups have urged Washington. Some of the most prominent candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush, did not respond to inquiries on the topic.
Republican John Kasich said the responsibility “fundamentally falls on Europe”, an echo of the White House statement last week that “there is certainly capacity in Europe to deal with this problem”.
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The US has admitted approximately 1,500 refugees since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, about half of them in 2015. In contrast, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said Germany will take in 800,000 people this year, and more than 350,000 people have fled to Europe, many in sea journeys fraught with dangerous conditions, predatory smugglers and starvation.
Middle East countries have also struggled to accommodate the steady rush of migrants; Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have taken in millions of people in total.
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