U.S. to Send Top Refugee Official to Damascus

The State Department plans to send its top refugee official to Damascus in the coming weeks to discuss how best to deal with the estimated 500,000 to one million Iraqis who have sought safe haven in Syria, a Department spokesman confirmed here Thursday.

The trip by Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey would mark the highest-level meeting between the U.S. and Syria in two years, although U.S. officials were careful to stress that Sauerbrey will accompany a senior official from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“It would be a mission where you have a U.S. representative paired up with a UNHCR representative, so it’s not a bilateral mission,” stressed State Department spokesman Sean McCormick, who added that the trip will also include a visit to Jordan, which is currently home to some 700,000 Iraqi refugees.

Nonetheless, McCormick confirmed that Sauerbrey, a right-wing political appointee, will meet officials of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has been the target of a U.S. diplomatic boycott since the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Along with the government of French President Jacques Chirac, the administration of President George W. Bush has been the main champion of a UN investigation into the killing, which Washington has all but blamed on the Assad regime. The administration also pulled its ambassador out of Damascus after the assassination, leaving a chargé d’affaires to run its embassy there.

While officials here insisted that Sauerbrey’s mandate will be limited to discussion of refugee-related issues, the trip will no doubt add to growing speculation about the administration’s intentions toward Syria.

Just last weekend, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Washington, most recently in the person of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, strongly warned Israel against taking part in even “exploratory talks” with Damascus about Assad’s repeated offers since last July to negotiate a final peace agreement between the two nations.

Assad’s appeals have reportedly divided the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who, however, has deferred thus far to Washington’s opposition.

Earlier this week, however, Rice herself indicated an easing of Washington’s diplomatic boycott of Damascus when she announced that Washington will take part in a series of regional talks that will include both Syria and Iran over stabilizing Iraq.

Moreover, the second round of talks, tentatively scheduled for the first half of April, will take place at the ministerial level, putting her in close proximity to her Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, who, according to Haaretz, has been behind intensified efforts to persuade Israel of Damascus’ seriousness through third-party intermediaries.

Rice’s announcement was widely viewed, by supporters and opponents alike here, as a major victory for the administration’s “realist” faction, whose views were most prominently put forward in last December’s bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) report headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Realists, who have been opposed by neoconservative and other leading hawks, notably Vice President Dick Cheney, have long argued that U.S. engagement with both Syria and Iran was essential not only for any prospect of stabilizing Iraq and thus permitting the withdrawal of over-stretched U.S. forces there, but also for reducing tensions in Lebanon, where Damascus- and Tehran-supported Hezbollah has been locked in a prolonged stand-off with the U.S. and Saudi-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Indeed, Baker, who met with Muallem last fall at the United Nations, has argued that Damascus, if offered the right incentives, such as a peace accord with Israel resulting in the return of the Golan Heights, may be prepared to end its alliance with Iran, persuade Hamas, whose top leadership is based in the Syrian capital, to recognize Israel as a prelude to negotiations for a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and cut off arms supplies to Hezbollah.

As noted by the Haaretz report, the administration so far appears unconvinced, but this past week’s events, including the announcement of Sauerbrey’s trip, suggests that the realists have taken the initiative. According to one report in the Boston Globe Thursday, Cheney’s office was opposed to any outreach to Syria, even in the form of refugee assistance.

In that respect, the realists have also been aided by pressure from Congress which has been urging the administration to do far more about what has become the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.

As many as two million Iraqis have fled their country, and the current outflow is running at roughly 50,000 a month, according to UNHCR, which has described the current situation as the worst refugee crisis since the Palestinian exodus in 1948. That does not include the estimated 1.8 million Iraqis who have become internally displaced.

The largest number of Iraqis who fled abroad is in Syria which, until recently, offered Iraqis unrestricted access to the country. But the pressures created by such a massive inflow have overwhelmed Syria’s social services, particularly its education system, and 30 percent of Iraqi children currently living in the country are not attending school.

As a result, Damascus recently adopted new regulations under which all Iraqis wishing to enter Syria will be issued only a 15-day permit, after which they may apply for a three-month permit that may be renewed only once. Only businesspeople and students are exempt. Jordan has taken more draconian measures to restrict Iraqi immigration.

In January, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, made an appeal for 60 million dollars to deal with the Iraqi crisis that would include the resettlement of 20,000 Iraqi refugees currently in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere to third countries, including the U.S.

After Congressional hearings in January, the administration announced last month that it will accelerate the resettlement of about 7,000 Iraqis referred by UNHCR and contribute 18 million dollars to its appeal. Last year, Washington accepted only 202 Iraqi refugees.

During the hearings, several senators argued that Washington should do far more to alleviate the refugee situation, particularly given the vast sums it is contributing to the war effort in Iraq – an estimated 163 billion dollars in 2007 alone.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, one of three senators who visited Syria in December and who has strongly supported engagement with Damascus on a range of issues, suggested to Sauerbrey that dialogue and cooperation with Damascus on refugees could serve as an opening for a broader discussion.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.