Syria: A pariah becomes the Arab world’s lifeboat

What happens to a country when its population grows by more than 10% in three years? In Syria, which has absorbed more than a million Iraqi refugees, you can see cosmetic transformations. Iraqi-accented Arabic is heard constantly in the cafés and streets of Damascus. Real estate prices have skyrocketed. Food prices are rising. There’s even a neighborhood in the capital called Fallujah that’s popular with Iraqis.

The Iraqi-refugee issue is also changing Syria in deeper ways, altering the country’s image in the Middle East–and bolstering its leverage with the U.S. While the Bush Administration has accused it of supporting terrorism in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, Syria has established itself as the lifeboat of the Arab world. Having taken in 180,000 temporary Lebanese refugees fleeing the war with Israel last summer, Syria is the only Arab country that has been equally welcoming to all of Iraq’s religious sects, according to Syrian human-rights groups. Only Jordan–which has received 750,000 Iraqis but has stopped accepting more–comes close to matching Syria’s largesse. “The price of this disaster is being paid mainly by the refugees themselves and by two countries: Syria and Jordan,” says António Guterres, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees. “The international community can’t let [them] bear this burden alone.”

Syria wants more than bromides for its openness. The humanitarian crisis in Iraq could be the issue that brings Syria out of international isolation and into semi-respectability. Although the Bush Administration has long resisted diplomatic engagement with Syria, cracks are appearing. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has authorized the U.S. embassy in Damascus to talk with Syrian officials as long as their discussions are limited to the refugee crisis. Syrian officials say their willingness to take in so many refugees has helped stabilize the region. Now they want something in return: a softer U.S. line on Syrian involvement in Lebanon and more pressure on Israel to give back occupied land in the Golan Heights. “One million refugees is a huge number,” says Redwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. “It is a card that Syria can play with the U.S.”

Damascus may not have that card for long. Internally, the refugee issue poses long-term dilemmas for the Baathist regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The presence of so many needy Iraqis has exposed the government’s failure to make economic reforms. The Syrian government–dominated by a secular core of Alawite Muslims who rule a country that is 74% Sunni Muslim–may have to stop the influx as a measure of self-preservation. Assad is particularly concerned about extremists re-entering the country from Iraq, according to Syrian security analysts. “We used to call them the Afghan Arabs,” a security analyst says, referring to extremists who served with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. “Now we are worried about the Iraqi Syrians.”

The government has begun to limit the amount of time it allows Iraqis without residency status to stay in Syria, down from three months to two weeks. In mid-February, Syria shut its border with Iraq and wouldn’t let any Iraqis enter for three days. The border is back open, but the message to Iraq and the U.S. was clear: Stop taking Syrian help for granted. The U.S. still needs to prove to Syria that playing a constructive role in the Middle East can pay off too.

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