This is a long, serious, and rather political entry – void of any entertaining anecdotes about my mishaps in Beirut or boondoggle asides about walks to the gym and/or the musicality of local mosques.
Josh Landis has a very carefully thought and very well written piece on Syria’s new visa requirements for Iraqi refugees and the two countries’ relationship going forward.
Here is the first part of his essay:
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.
Where I think Josh misses something is in his description of the Iraqi government’s response to this new policy:
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.Josh does not comment on what to me seems a very obvious irony. Dabbagh speaks for the Iraqi government, which should be, at least in an ideal world far removed from the realities of this region, looking out for the interests of its citizens.
Rather than criticizing the Syrians for tightening their borders, why does he not focus on the real issue: the fact that Iraq is so unsafe that its citizens would rather be anywhere but their home.
What kind of government prefers facilitating the flight of its citizens to making the changes necessary to persuade them to stay?
We started this war, not the Syrians. With the exception of Jordan, our allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, etc. – refuse to take in these innocent victims.
Criticizing Syria for saying “enough” to the expense and the domestic tensions caused by the million + Iraqis it houses (and the millions more who have passed through) is not merely unfair – it is unjust. As my elementary school P.E. teacher used to say: its time to face the music. We have made these refugees into the ‘huddled masses’ of Damascus and Amman, the ‘wretched refuse’ of divided Baghdad, and the ‘tempest-tossed’ blown about by the cold unwelcoming winds of the Gulf states.
Josh notes that
Some journalists are beginning to speculate that America will have to welcome many more Iraqis as refugees.
I hope we do.
(Josh’s essay includes much more than what I have cut and pasted here, and – whether you agree with him, or me, is very much worth reading.