DAMASCUS — Syria’s decision to accept Iraqi refugees streaming into the country has brought the government of President Bashar Assad more power within Syria and the region, but at significant cost.
The ministry of interior in Syria estimates the total number of Iraqi refugees to be around 1.5 million.
The Syrian government has maintained an “open door” policy towards Iraqi refugees, unlike neighbouring Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who have been far less welcoming.
This appears to have earned Assad renewed political power within his country. That position, topping his strong stance against U.S. policy in Iraq, has won him support in the wider Arab world as well.
The new support seems to be holding so far despite the negative aspects of the refugee crisis such as homelessness, inflation, unemployment and a huge shift in the social dynamics in the country.
“The Syrian government is becoming more powerful because they are helping the Iraqis by allowing them refuge here in a way that other countries did not,” Hassan Maho, a 33-year- old jeweller told IPS. “Politically, the government of Bashar Assad now has more power than these other countries in the region.”
Mazen, a 31-year-old trader in downtown Damascus, believes Syria has gained from a failed U.S. policy in Iraq. “The American policy in Iraq is making Syria more powerful,” he told IPS. “Doesn’t the whole world see this?”
The Bush administration pressure on Bashar Assad by way of accusations of Syrian support to terrorism in Iraq has in fact only “strengthened Syria’s political hand in the region,” Mazen said.
In 2003 the Bush administration brought in the Syrian Accountability Act, which was passed by Congress, and has been renewed every year since 2004. The act outlaws commerce between the U.S. and Syria.
The Bush administration has recalled its ambassador to Syria, and marginalised Syria’s emissary in Washington. U.S. officials continue to say Damascus is supporting Iraqi insurgents.
Members of the Bush administration also regularly accuse Syria of interference in Lebanese affairs.
But Peter Harling, Damascus representative of the International Crisis Group said the Syrian government is unlikely to be aiding insurgents in Iraq.
“They (the Syrian government) have absolutely no interest in fuelling violence in Iraq because it is now threatening them,” he told IPS. – You might still have informal networks facilitating border crossings for militants, but the countries’ leaders feel extremely concerned with the situation in Iraq, and do not wish to do anything to increase the violence and chaos there.”
Harling believes that any political gains for the Syrian government have likely been outweighed by their negative consequences.
“Politically it (the U.S. occupation of Iraq) could have had a positive effect (for Syria) because one could argue that it is now easier for the Syrian government to justify postponing democratic reform,” Harling said. “But simultaneously, the growing civil war in Iraq has become such a threat to Syria, and the costs are so high that it is quite possible they’ve negated any benefits for the Syrian government.”
He added that “Syria is in a precarious situation because of the American occupation of Iraq, and it is probably safe to say that Syrian officials are all too aware of this.”
Many Syrians, however, have a different perspective.
“The government here dealt with the refugee crisis in a very good way,” Mahmoud Omeri who owns a communication business in the capital city told IPS. “When the government accepted the Iraqis here with an open door policy they increased the pressure on the Americans, because it showed the world the Syrian government cares more about the Iraqis than do the Americans.”
Kaldoon Safi, a business owner in downtown Damascus said the Syrian government had made refuge easier for fleeing Iraqis in order to gain support for their own political position in the region. “This way they have become more powerful in the Middle East at this time.”