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Friday, March 04, 2005 

Syria and Iraq - the thaw?

The Syrian Ba'ath ('renaissance') party and the Iraqi Ba'ath Party split in the 1960s. Syria saw Saddam as an expansionist. There was a transfer of supporters - some Syrians supported Saddam (including the Ba'ath Party's founder Michel Aflak, a Christian), and some Iraqis supported Hafez al-Assad. Saddam's Syrians joined him in Baghdad. The Iraqis who favoured Hafez were shot.

The crossover of supporters meant that the hardline facists ended up in Baghdad, while a more watered-down Ba'ath Party ended up in Syria.

Things reached a head in 1990. Syria supported the American-led Gulf War, they even sent troops. Meanwhile, Jordan's darling of the West King Hussein vehemently cosied up to Saddam.

Iraq and Syria cut off diplomatic relations and the border was firmly shut.

In 2002, Syria - which was on the UN Security Council - supported Resolution 1441 which sent Weapons Inspectors back into Iraq - and according to Bush and Blair, provided a legal justification for the war. A few months later Bashar Al-Assad visited Downing Street effectively giving the Arab seal of approval to the war.

In the run up to war, there were demonstrations on the streets of Damascus, but these were tightly controlled. The joke was that police outnumbered protestors. Military police also formed a shoulder-to-shoulder human shield for weeks outside the American Embassy (one of the biggest Embassies in the city) and along the road leading up to the embassy. Taxis could not even stop to let passengers out.

In the days before the war the Syrian mukhabaraat (intelligence) started turning people away who were entering towns on the road towards the border with Iraq. Why? Yes, they were probably worried about Jihadists. But I think they were more worried about Syrians seeing the preparations for war.

The Syrian Red Cresent (effectively an arm of the government) had been building refugee camps near the border capable of housing hundreds of thousands.

In the event these were barely used: maybe Iraqis thought they'd face a closed border as they had done for decades. But the situation in Jordan was very different.

To this day Syria and Jordan deny the camps existed.

The Syrian and American Forces admitted that Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay entered Syria - but were 'escorted' out within hours of crossing the border. Rumours suggest Saddam faced the same fate.

At first Syria refused to recognise the Occupying Authorities. But then in 2004 Syria hosted a regional meeting, which the members of the Iraqi Interim Government attended.

Syria's home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees in the world - about three-quarters of a million. Many of them Shia'a fleeing Saddam's persecution. The Saida Zaynab area in Southern Damascus is home to many of them.

So all eyes were on Syria in January. Internationally-verified 'free and fair' elections took place on Syrian soil - and that was essential to the success of the Iraqi elections.

I noticed your figure of three quarters of a million Iraqi refugees and wonder if it explains this article in which a Syrian official claimed, somewhat implausibly, that there had been an influx of 700K Iraqi refugees SINCE the start of the war in March 2003. But only 15K voted, so I can't believe this number is true.

What do you think?

You're right to be worried about such a claim. We normally hear strnage figures of Palestinian and Iraqi refugee numbers - but they're normally underestimates! The huge number of refugees creates tension in Syria - the feeling that refugees are getting Syrian housing and jobs.

But in this case it seems to be an overestimate. In the days before and during the war there was a trickle into Damascus.

So what about the camps near the border? Well the UNHCR says only about 10,000 Iraqis registered in Syria since the start of the war - but that includes not just everyone in the camps, but some of the Iraqis in Damascus who chose to register.

So what about these missing refugees? They may have been Iraqis who entered Syria and left again - that's quite likely: they could have entered Syria to get to their family in Lebanon or Jordan. Or they may have just gone back to Iraq.

The immigration office which issues exit visas was full to the brim in the weeks before the war.

So I'd take that 700k figure as meaning Iraqis who crossed the border into Syria at some point in the last two years!

You don't get a huge number like that without a bump. Every year thousands of Iranians come to Damascus to visit the holy sites. That pushes up local rental prices, and is really noticable. And that's just a few thousand.

The three-quarters of a million i referred have mostly been there for years, or even decades. Mainly Shia'a but also Christian and Turkamen.

The 15k figure isn't really a good guide: 15,000 Iraqis voted in Syria, but around the world only 250,000 voted and of course there are a lot more than a quarter of amillion Iraqis around the world.

Thanks! That explanation makes more sense to me.

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  • Written by sasa
  • From Damascus, Syria
  • From Damascus to London via Beirut. Based in and out of the central Damascene hamlet of Saroujah. News and feelings from the streets every day. I'm talking rubbish? Leave a comment. Welcome to the information democracy. See below for info about this site.
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