Posted by Joshua on Sunday, February 4th, 2007
Syria has turned a major corner on its Iraq policy. Almost two years ago I wrote that the Iraq war and the flood of Iraqi refugees it would produce would spell the end of Syria's pan-Arab laws. The vast number of refugees coming out of Iraq, I conjectured, would force Syria to rescind its open policy of allowing fellow Arab nationals to enter the country without visas. The Baathist philosophy of pan-Arab nationalism has long been under-girded by the refusal to treat Arab visitors to Syria as foreigners on a par with visitors from non-Arab countries. On January 20, Damascus imposed a visa requirement on Iraqis entering the country and those already resident in Syria.
The new visas are good for 15 days, much like visas for non-Arab visitors. Iraqis were previously granted renewable three-month residency permits but Syria now issues two-week permits that can be renewed just once, upon presentation of documents including a rental contract. Otherwise, Iraqis must return home for a month before they can apply again. This change does not extend to non-Iraqi Arab visitors, but it is a first step. Following the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, Syria also imposed a visa regime of sorts on visitors to and from Lebanon, who must now pay a fee for crossing the border. Arabism, the central tent poll of the Baathist regime, is now being dismantled as Syria ends the free passage of Arab visitors across its borders.
Official Syrian sources on Sunday said the measures introduced by the Syrian government on the Iraqi newcomers were taken for security and economic purposes, adding that the Iraqis' residency in Syria was still under discussion. Stressing that Syria was "exerting all-out efforts to help the Iraqi people in their ordeal," the officials explained that Syria was overburdened by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
The cause of this reversal are many. First and foremost, The flood of Iraqi refugees, which is approaching one million, has overburdened the constrained Syrian economy and provoked an anti-Iraqi backlash among the Syrian population. Housing prices in greater Damascus have risen by 300% over the last three years, in part, due to refugee pressure. Food prices have also risen dramatically. Syrians complain about overcrowding at some schools in the Damascus area, which have reportedly admitted up to 28,000 Iraqi children. In areas where Iraqis have settled, residents say some classes have swollen from 30 pupils to 50. Most Syrians blame the rampant inflation in the economy of the Iraqis. Another worry is the dramatic rise in crime rates, which is blamed on Iraqis. Riots in Jaramana and other areas that have have become centers of refugee settlement are only one indication of the social pressures and economic hardship placed on the average Syrian by the influx of Iraqis.
The United States for the last three years has been demanding that Syria impose a visa regime on Arab visitors to the country in order to allow for back-ground checks and heightened security. Washington has asked Syria to build a counterpart to America's Home Land Security regime in order to stanch the flow of Muslim Jihadists headed for Iraq through Syria. Iraq and Washington have also demanded that Syria expel Iraqi Baathists residing in Syria, who they accuse of directing the Sunni resistance based in Anbar province. In some ways, Syria's crackdown of Iraqis is a perverse response to this pressure. Although it is not uniquely directed against Baathist Iraqis, it will allow Syria to claim that it does not protect them and has taken positive measures to restrict the open access of Iraqis to Syria.
Another reason for the refugee policy reversal is Syrian peevishness at being continually isolated by the US and Saudi Arabia. It is tired of being blamed for the lamentable level of violence in Iraq. Syria does not believe it is responsible for the steady deterioration of Iraq, rather, it sees itself as the victim of others misguided policies. Syrians believe they have been more generous than any other Iraqi neighbor in taking in Iraqi refugees and bearing the burden of Washington's failed policies. There is merit to Syrians' sense of frustration at being punished for their help. Refugees International president Kenneth H. Bacon wrote in a recent op-ed:
Syria is the last country in the Middle East to leave its borders open to Iraqi refugees. The United Nations estimates that 1.8 million Iraqis have sought refuge in the region, and Syria and Jordan host the largest concentration. It can't maintain its open-door policy without international support. Refugees already strain social services. Yet, the international response to the Iraqi refugee crisis has been dismal. Despite numbers that rival the displacement in Darfur, there has been scant media attention and even less political concern. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is doing little.
Unfortunately, the price of this spitting match between Syria, on the one hand, and the US and its allies, on the other, will be paid by the vulnerable refugees who do not deserve more suffering.
Leaders of the Iraqi government are furious at the new Syrian laws, even though they mimic the visa laws Jordan put in place following the hotel bombings in Amman in 2005. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have barred Iraqis altogether.
On Friday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the US- financed al-Hurra television that "thousands of Iraqis are being put in a difficult situation" in western neighbour Syria.
According to al-Dabbagh, Iraqis going to Syria to avoid the violence in their homeland are being given only 15-day entrance visas and some have to leave the country for at least 30 days before being allowed in again.
The UNHCR reported that the number of Iraqis registered with the organization was at more than 46,000 and increasing daily.
Official Syrian sources on Sunday said the measures introduced by the Syrian government on the Iraqi newcomers were taken for security and economic purposes, adding that the Iraqis' residency in Syria was still under discussion.
Stressing that Syria was "exerting all-out efforts to help the Iraqi people in their ordeal," the officials explained that Syria was overburdened by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Dabbagh called the situation disastrous for Iraqis in Syria, and added: "There is anger among Iraqis over the Syrian attitude and there is anger from Iraq." He called Syria's attitude harmful and hostile. He also alleged that half the militants who launch bomb attacks in Iraq come from Syria.
Assad Abboud in Baghdad reports: After Saturday's massive truck bomb in a Baghdad market, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh declared that half of the violence gripping the country was the work of outsiders infiltrating from Syria.
"I confirm that 50 percent of murders and bombings are by Arab extremists coming from Syria," Dabbagh said.
"They come from Syria, we have evidence to prove it. We have already proved it to our brothers in Syria.
"We want to tell all Arabs now that those who call themselves mujahedeen come from Syria, and murder our oppressed population."
Syria reacted angrily to Dabbagh's comments describing them as "contrary to reality and aimed at harming relations between Iraq and Syria that Damascus wants to strengthen and develop."
Syria recalled that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made a six-day visit just last month, the first by an Iraqi head of state in three decades, during which a series of agreements were signed.
"The deals that were struck have laid the basis for the development of relations," an official source said in Damascus. "The comments made by Ali al-Dabbagh are unjustifiable."
Whether or not Dabbagh's accusations are justifiable or not, it is clear that Syria has made a major reassessment of its Iraq policy. On the occasion of President Talabani's visit to Syria, during which Syria official changed its policy toward militias in Iraq, declaring that the violence there was largely the work of terrorists, Syria changed its course on Iraq.
It would seem that Damascus now believes that Iraq is headed for a meltdown. This is why it has begun to restrict refugees. They will only keep on coming, and the real exodus may looming in the future months. It would explain why Talabani was greeted so warmly in Damascus two weeks ago. Syria has decided that it must try to shore up the present Iraqi government whether the US remains hostile to Syria or not. In some respects, this change of course suggests that Syrian and US differences over Iraq have narrowed. This may be true in the narrow sense. Syria can see that there is no future course but to hope that the American surge can help the Iraqi government to survive. After all, with Washington committed to this course and refusing to bring either Iran or Syria into regional discussions on Iraq, there is very little choice. To undermine the present Iraqi government will only ensure that more Iraqi refugees come streaming into Syria.
All the same, Syria will not cut off its links to the Sunni leadership of the opposition in Iraq. Syria will continue to cover all bets on Iraq's future. It does not believe it can afford to alienate any group so long as the future of the country is in such doubt. If the US government is pessimistic about the outcome of its present policy, as demonstrated in the recent intelligence estimate on Iraq, the Syrian government is doubly pessimistic. This explains why President Bashar al-Assad met in Damascus last week with the head of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, Sheik Harith al-Dhari. Iraq's Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant against him in November, alleging al-Dhari instigated sectarian violence. Asad's meeting with Dhari infuriated the Iraqi government, especially as it came on the heels of Asad's meeting with Talabani, to whom he promised cooperation on security issues. We do not now the subject of their meeting. It may well be that Asad encouraged Dhari to work with the Iraqi government and to calm violence, but the fact that Asad was willing to meet with Dhari at all has become a source of irritation for the Iraqi government.
The meeting points out that even if Damascus is in the midst of a major policy change toward relations with Iraq, it will not put all its eggs in the Maliki basket.
This point was underlined by Ambassador Imad Mustapha in Washington during a recent interview with Helena Cobban, who has written it up at her site: Just World News
[Imad Mustapha] talked a little about his government's relations with many of the different parties and groups inside today's Iraq. He started by recalling how many of the politicians who emerged in the immediate post-Saddam era had had long ties with Syria, having spent a good portion of their previous years of exile in Damascus. "Seventeen of the 25 members of the Interim Governing Council established by Paul Bremer once carried Syrian diplomatic passports!" After the US invasion of Iraq, many of those Iraqi politicians had turned their back on Damascus to some degree– "But now, even those who disdained us for a while are coming back into a relationship with us."
Moustapha noted that Moqtada al-Sadr had a very good visit to Syria in early 2005, "and later, he became a kingmaker in the political system in Baghdad." He stressed that in his view, Sadr was very far from being any kind of an Iranian puppet.
He concluded by laying out his proposal for an all-party reconciliation process inside Iraq, to be parallelled by a regional process involving all Iraq's neighbors and the United States. "This wouldn't solve all the problems," he conceded. "But it would certainly change the regional dynamics."
Syria will continue to seek improved ties with as many parties as possible in Iraq. It is genuinely fearful of the consequences of a meltdown and the failure of Washington's mission to bolster the present government. It does not like America's presence in Iraq, but for the time being neither does it want the US to fail in keeping the government afloat. As Foreign Minister Muellem declared a few weeks ago, Syria does not want American troops to withdraw precipitously, although, it does want to be included in talks.
Syria's recent policy shift toward Iraq underlines how futile and self-destructive Washington's policy of excluding Syria has become. US prospects of stabilizing the situation in Iraq are not good, but without cooperating from Syria, they are surely worse than they have to be. Syria shares many of Washington's objectives in Iraq – not all, to be sure, but enough to make cooperation the only wise policy.
UNHCR offices in Damascus have been mobbed by Iraqis since the new visa requirement was imposed. The UNHCR registered very few of the Iraqis in Syria prior to the visa requirement because it could offer them no protection or value. Now that they will be forced to return to Iraq every 15 days, they need official refugee status to go elsewhere. Some journalists are beginning to speculate that America will have to welcome many more Iraqis as refugees. Carolyn Lochhead writes this:
When the South Vietnamese government collapsed, the United States initially accepted 130,000 Vietnamese, including 65,000 fearing their lives because of their collaboration with Americans. Many conferences later, 1.4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians had been admitted, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of an extensive report on the situation. "As it turns out, many of the people who are fleeing Iraq are fleeing because of their associations with the United States."
Newland said Syria and Jordan consider the refugees tourists or illegal immigrants, "which sort of implies that the problem will go away or that they would be perfectly within their rights to kick people out." The fear now is that both may close their borders. Jordan began restricting entry after Iraqis bombed three hotels in Amman in 2005. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have barred Iraqis.
"There's just no way a small country like Jordan can, unaided, absorb hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees," Newland said.
Despite terrorism concerns, some predict the United States eventually will admit several hundred thousand Iraqi refugees, as it has after most military conflicts.
UNHCR was only able to resettle 1,500 Iraqis in the past three years.
Read this story about Iraqis in Syria:
Iraqi refugees feel hounded by Syria crackdown
New two week permits of stay hurt Iraq’s 600,000 refugees in Syria, add further burden on exile community.
By Roueida Mabardi – Damascus – 2007-02-03
Hussein, like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis, fled to neighbouring Syria from the violence blighting daily life at home. But now that Damascus has tightened residency rules, he faces an uncertain future. "If I go back I'm dead," Hussein said…..
Here is an add I found on the web as I looked for photos of Iraqi refugees to include in the post. If this doesn't bring a tear to the eye, nothing will. The only surprise was that there were not more. The Iraqi refugees are being ignored by the West that continues to deny that there is a serious refugee problem that will endure long into the future. One must be thankful to the international organizations like the UNHCR, Refugees International, the IOM, and others that are struggling to bring attention and relief to the plight of Iraqi refugees. Unfortunately their warnings find a deaf ear in the major donor countries, whose governments are following Washington in the insistence that all will come right in Iraq in a year or two, even though their intelligence agencies are telling them otherwise.