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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
(Inter Press Service)