Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, September 4th, 2007
Khaled Oweis, Reuters' correspondent in Damascus, has an excellent article on the new visa requirements Syria has imposed on Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria.
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Syria has imposed strict visa requirements on Iraqi nationals, officials said on Monday, cutting the only accessible escape route for thousands of refugees fleeing the upheaval in Iraq.
A government decree that takes effect on September 10 bars Iraqi passport holders from entering Syria except for businessmen and academics, a small minority of the 3,000-5,000 refugees who currently cross the border every day.
Jordan, the other main goal of Iraqi refugees, imposed its own visa requirements some two years ago.
"Syria has already received more than 1.5 million refugees and there could be no end in sight to what the Americans unleashed there. We simply can't cope any more," a Syrian official told Reuters.
The official gave no indication that Syria could force refugees already in the country to leave.
At Rawda cafe in the Syrian capital, a meeting point for refugees, Iraqis expressed frustration at the new regulations.
"All the roads in front of us are now blocked. Arab governments are making the lives of Iraqis even more miserable," said Fadel Ahmad, who came from Baghdad.
"Escaping to Syria has kept me and my family alive. What are people facing death and eviction from there homes in Iraq supposed to do now?" asked Wafa Mahdi, a former school teacher….
It is high time Syria got serious about restricting the flow of Iraqi refugees. It is painful to say this because Syria has been more than brotherly in allowing up to 8% of their population to become Iraqi. Most importantly, the plight of the Iraqis demands more international action and not less. All the same, so long as Syria acts as a safety valve for Iraqi refugees, the world will continue to turn its collective back on them. Clearly, Syria cannot host all the Iraqis compelled to seek a safe haven. Syria indicated in January that it was preparing to impose visa restrictions on Iraqis, but the world shrugged. A bit more money dribbled in. The US upped its quota from a few hundred to 7 thousand Iraqis a year, but these half measures indicated that no one was prepared to open their doors for Iraqis.
When Iraqi refugees first started showing up in Syria in large numbers, I wrote that if anything puts an end to pan-Arabism in Syria, it will be the flow of Iraqis. They would force Syria to revoke its open visa policy for fellow Arabs. The US demanded that Syria impose a visa requirement and background checks on all Arabs entering the country in 2005. Syria refused.
I can only say, I am surprised at how long it has taken. My father-in-law said to me this summer, when I asked if he thought Syria would stop the flow of Iraqis into Syria, "It will be very difficult for the government to stop them. It is a matter of principle. Many people take the matter of Arabism seriously." I guess Arabism helps explain why the borders have been open for so long, but the growing burden of supporting a large refugee population has finally forced the Syrian government to contravene its pan-Arab principles. Perhaps it didn't happen as the US imagined, but it can take credit for destroying Arabism through the invasion of Iraq.
Although President Bashar al-Assad stated in his reelection speech in July that he had no intention of cutting government subsidies, this turns out not to be true. Deputy P.M. Dardari has explained that mazout (gas oil) prices will go from 8 to 12 lira per liter. Electricity rates will also go up to reflect this. The new rate hikes have been delayed for further discussion, demonstrating that political opposition to the reduction of fuel subsidies remains strong, but the economic imperatives are compelling. Evidently Mazout in Turkey sells for something like 70 lira a liter. Syria has a long way to lift prices in five years of graduated pain for the consumer before smuggling can be stopped.
Here is a Reuters article by our man Oweis:
Syria will phase out massive fuel subsidies over five years to combat smuggling and prevent the budget deficit from sinking further into the red, a senior official said on Tuesday.
"The government will take the decision in the next few weeks and the subsidies will start to be removed before year's end," Abdallah al-Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, told Reuters in an interview.
"The government doesn't want to make profit on fuels, but the objective is to cover our costs in five years," he said.
The subsidies which cost 15% of gross domestic product have been a hallmark of Syria's Baathist government for decades. The move to abandon them could signal a shift in economic policy which has been criticized as too slow to adopt market mechanisms.
The lifting of fuel subsidies will help keep the budget deficit, which has risen in the last few years, stable at five% of gross domestic product in 2008 and in 2009, Dardari said.
Syria produces 380,000-400,000 barrels per day of crude oil but lack of refining capacity means it imports billions of dollars a year worth of fuel, especially gas oil used in transport and heating, which is sold at subsidized prices at the pump.
Dardari said the government has embarked on a public relations offensive to explain that the end of subsidies was in the national interest, especially as massive volumes of fuel were being smuggled to Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
A liter of gas oil costs the equivalent of 14 U.S. cents compared with $1.54 in Turkey for a roughly similar product, Dardari said. Petrol is sold by the Syrian government at 60 cents a liter after a sudden 20 percent rise in January 2006, which caused a public outcry in the tightly controlled country.
The smuggling is estimated to cost the government $800 million a year, according to economists. Dardari said smuggling to Lebanon alone cost Syria $300 million. "Tightening border security will not solve the problem. We have to adopt a fundamental solution. Economic growth will become unsustainable if we continue with this subsidies regime," Dardari said.
The Syria Report, written by Jihad Yaziji, has this to add:
Government to start lifting of subsidies in 2008
The debate on the gradual lifting of subsidies on oil by-products is gaining pace in the Syrian media following the Government's announcement that subsidies will be reduced starting 2008. Read
Electricity prices go up as Government tries to reduce subsidies cost and power shortages. The Ministry of Electricity has adopted a new pricing policy for the consumption of electricity that entered into effect at the beginning of this month. Read
Car market grew 13 percent in 2006. The number of vehicles that were imported in Syria in 2006 reached 145 932 according to a report published by the official Syrian Arab News Agency. Read
mideastwire.com, established by Nicholas Noe to translate Arabic press, has this to add.
On August 31, the state-controlled daily Al Thawrah reported: “Al-Thawrah learned from an informed government source that the proposals on subsidy redistribution, which are being discussed in media and popular circles, will not be implemented in the next days or weeks. The discussions and interactive dialogues over the proposals will continue until an adequate formula and an ideal solution pleasing all citizens, achieving balance, advancing the development process, and preserving the national resources to serve the hopes, aspirations, and interests of our people have been reached.
“The source said that the government is still committed to dialogue with citizens to learn their views on the best ways to proceed with this national step to serve the economic and social development and implement the tenth 5-year plan. The source said the dialogue will continue directly, through the media, and by means of questionnaires that will soon be distributed among various groups of citizens to collect the broadest possible views on this important subject.” – Al Thawrah, Syria
Tony Karon at "Rootless Cosmopolitan," writes August 31: Mearsheimer, Walt and the Erudite Hysteria of David Remnick. The publication of Mearshimer and Walt's book will cause a stir, just as the publication of their article did last year. The attacks have only begun.
A week ago, he wrote, "Asking the Wrong Questions on Iran" (Monday, August 20th, 2007) which raised a number of important questions.