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WikiLeaks: 2007-09-13: 07DAMASCUS933: Syrian Visa Requirement on Iraqis: Postponed for Now, and Murky as Ever

by WikiLeaks. 07DAMASCUS933: September 13, 2007.

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 06:20 PM UT


Viewing cable 07DAMASCUS933, SYRIAN VISA REQUIREMENT ON IRAQIS: POSTPONED FOR

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
07DAMASCUS933 2007-09-13 15:40 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
VZCZCXRO6758
OO RUEHAG RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0933/01 2561540
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 131540Z SEP 07
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4170
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAM/AMEMBASSY AMMAN PRIORITY 7086
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5329
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD PRIORITY 0553
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 0172
RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT PRIORITY 4764
RUEHOT/AMEMBASSY OTTAWA PRIORITY 0184
RUEHRH/AMEMBASSY RIYADH PRIORITY 7885
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 0520
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 DAMASCUS 000933 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SIPDIS 
 
PARIS FOR JORDAN; LONDON FOR TSOU; NSC FOR GAVITO; 
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ELA, NEA/I, PRM/ANE 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/12/2017 
TAGS: PREF PHUM PREL SY IZ
SUBJECT: SYRIAN VISA REQUIREMENT ON IRAQIS: POSTPONED FOR 
NOW, AND MURKY AS EVER 
 
REF: A. DASMASCUS 905 
     B. DAMASCUS 683 
 
Classified By: Charge D'Affaires Michael H. Corbin for reason 1.4 b/d 
 
1.(U) SUMMARY.  UNHCR in Damascus confirmed Syrian press 
reports today that the SARG will postpone implementation of 
its new visa requirement for Iraqis at least until October 1, 
and UNHCR learned mid-day September 13 that this period will 
now extend until October 15.  UNHCR describes the delay as 
intended to allow time for Iraqis already at the border to 
resolve their cases (although we are unaware of a big back-up 
at the border.)  Prior to today's announcement, Syria-Iraq 
border crossings had been quiet since September 10, the 
original start date for a new Syrian visa requirement for 
Iraqis.  UNHCR reported seeing only five Iraqis cross the 
border at al-Tanf on 9/11, and an Iraqi contact in Damascus 
noted Syrian authorities were refusing entry to Iraqis at 
Damascus airport.  As has been the case since this issue 
arose ten days ago, the details of the Syrian policy remain 
unclear.  The SARG decision is attributed to growing unease 
over the expanding refugee population, though some contacts 
posit that the SARG's true intention may have been to jolt 
the international community into action, either in the form 
of direct assistance to Syria or invigorated efforts to 
handle the problem from within Iraq's borders.  The decision 
to delay implementation reflects SARG uncertainty over how to 
balance an increasingly difficult domestic problem against 
the regime's long-standing commitment to Arab causes and the 
desire for international approbation. END SUMMARY. 
 
3. (C) REFUGEE FLOW SLOWS TO A TRICKLE. Syria-Iraq border 
crossings have been virtually devoid of traffic since 
September 10, the announced start date for a new Syrian visa 
requirement for Iraqis seeking to enter the country. 
Officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for 
Refugees (UNHCR) office in Damascus report that, during a 
visit to al-Tanf on 9/11, they observed only five Iraqis 
enter Syria, each with a visa in hand. (Note: UNHCR is able 
to observe border movement at al-Tanf during daily visits to 
roughly 350 Palestinian refugees stranded on the border. End 
note.)  UNHCR was unable to determine how the visas were 
obtained, but surmised that they were issued in Baghdad.  The 
quiet along the border is in marked contrast to the level of 
activity earlier this week, when UNHCR noted lines of 100-300 
vehicles seeking entry into Syria before the deadline. 
Separately, the Syria-based representive of the Iraqi 
Assyrian Democratic Movement, Amanoail Khoshaba, who is 
active within the refugee population, claimed that Iraqis 
were also being turned away at the Damascus airport.  He 
cited one contact who, after stating his intention to travel 
to Iraq, was issued a transit permit valid for two-to-three 
days. 
 
4. (U) The details of the Syrian visa policy remain unclear. 
UNHCR notes that the SARG issued a decree -- yet to be made 
public -- requiring Iraqis to obtain visas from the Syrian 
embassy in Baghdad.  The SARG's stated intention is to limit 
issuance of visas to individuals meeting certain commercial, 
scientific, and educational criteria. UNHCR had also reported 
an exception for Iraqis involved in "transport."  It is not 
certain, however, if the Syrian embassy is sufficiently 
equipped to perform consular functions, or when/whether the 
SARG will boost its visa processing capabilities.  UNHCR 
officials note that the Syrian embassy in Baghdad is in a 
location of ongoing violence, citing Iraqis who say the area 
is too unsafe to risk appearing at the embassy.  UNHCR senior 
protection officer, Dietrun Gunther, noted earlier this week 
that the Iraqi government asked UNHCR to approach the SARG 
with a request to issue visas along the border, placing UNHCR 
in the unusual position of mediating between the country of 
origin and the neighboring host state.  As of 9/12, UNHCR had 
not raised the request with the SARG. 
 
5. (U) UNHCR has focused its efforts on ensuring the SARG 
does not forcibly remove Iraqis already in-country -- on 
 
DAMASCUS 00000933  002 OF 003 
 
 
which it reportedly has received assurances -- and that it 
affords protection to the most vulnerable categories of 
refugees.  UNHCR is referring families and at-risk groups to 
the immigration directorate within the Syrian Ministry of 
Interior (MOI) to supply residence permits.  Currently, the 
MOI is issuing one-month extensions enabling families with 
children to register in Syrian schools.  The Ministry of 
Education reportedly assured UNHCR that Iraqi children will 
be accepted in Syrian schools if they have the required 
documentation and their families may receive one-year 
extensions.  The SARG has not thus far responded to UNHCR 
requests to establish a humanitarian visa category for those 
fleeing violence and persecution. 
 
6. (C) There is no indication, as yet, of whether or how the 
SARG intends to use the visa requirement to better track the 
Iraqi population inside Syria.  Khoshaba noted no increase in 
activity among police or other security forces to check 
refugee documents in the Iraqi-dominated neighborhoods of 
Damascus.  Dr. Samir al-Taqi, think-tank director and 
confidante of the Syrian foreign minister, predicted that the 
SARG would use the visa rules to exert greater control over 
the refugees over time.  During their 9/11 visit to the 
border, UNHCR saw roughly 150 Iraqis depart Syria with 
expired residence permits; all planned to seek a visa to 
return.  We understand other Iraqis have been able to return 
to Iraq after tourism travel to Syria in advance of the 
beginning of Ramadan on September 13.  By September 13, the 
price of overland travel from Damascus to Baghdad reportedly 
had tripled, possibly due to the Ramadan season and the 
expectation of increased travel to Iraq to renew visas. 
UNHCR also reports that the SARG is issuing one-year visas to 
Iraqi taxi drivers, indicating possible Syrian expectation of 
continued refugee flows.  At the same time, UNHCR in Damascus 
noted a significant increase in requests for registration 
interviews.  As of Wednesday September 12, Gunther cited 1400 
appointment requests for this week, in comparison to 600 
total requests the week before. 
 
7.(C) WHAT WAS THE SARG THINKING?  Since the visa requirement 
was first publicized on September 3, most Embassy contacts 
have averred that the government was committed to 
implementing the policy, but many raised questions about how 
it would be implemented.  The SARG decision is attributed to 
growing nervousness over the ever-expanding Iraqi presence, 
now estimated by UNHCR at 1.3-1.5 million, though some assert 
that the number is considerably higher.  Khoshaba claims to 
have seen internal MOI figures in late spring estimating over 
2 million had crossed the border.  The economic burden of 
hosting so many refugees -- an addition of nearly ten percent 
to the population in Syria -- is generating much Syrian 
grumbling.  Spiralling real estate prices, rising food costs, 
increased crime and prostitution, and a summer of electricity 
cuts and water rationing are routinely attributed to the 
refugee presence.  Bitter jokes are common about the 
transformation of Damascus neighborhoods into little corners 
of Iraq.  Renewed SARG discussion of the need to lift fuel 
subsidies (septel) has become intertwined with the refugee 
debate, as many Syrians interpret the government's decision 
as a by-product of the cost of supporting the refugees. 
 
8. (C) Contacts have also noted SARG uneasiness about its 
relative lack of insight into the make-up and activities of 
the refugee population.  The security issues raised by the 
refugee presence appear to overlap with Iraqi government 
concerns, though we have heard conflicting assessments of 
whether Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki asked for the 
restrictions or simply acquiesced to the Syrian plan. 
Reuters correspondent, Khalid Oweis, told us a few days 
before the public announcement that Syria's assistant vice 
president, Muhammad Nassif Khayrbik, informed Maliki of the 
policy change during his August 20-22 visit to Damascus. 
Iraq's SCIRI representative in Damascus, Mohammad Said, 
protrayed it as a request from Maliki to prevent Sunni 
insurgent and extremist elements from leaving Iraq. The 
picture was further muddled by a press exchange on September 
 
DAMASCUS 00000933  003 OF 003 
 
 
7, in which the Iraqi government announced Syria's 
cancellation of the policy after contacts between Maliki's 
office and the SARG.  An unnamed Syrian foreign ministry 
source subsequently reiterated Syrian intentions to implement 
the restrictions on September 10. 
 
9. (C) WILL IT LAST?  Al-Watan, a quasi-independent, Syrian 
political daily known to very careful about getting clearance 
from the security services regarding its reporting on 
sensitive topics, reported September 13 that the SARG decided 
to delay implementation of the visa requirement until October 
1, in response to pleas from Iraq, UNHCR, and other NGOs. 
The article stressed, however, that the postponement did not 
indicate a change in government intentions to impose the visa 
requirement.  UNHCR in Damascus subsequently told us that it 
had been notified of the postponement by both the MOI and the 
ministry of foreign affairs and that the extension would be 
effective until October 15.  The postponement could 
precipitate a surge in border traffic, though UNHCR linked 
the decision to a desire to resolve the cases of Iraqis 
already located at the border. 
 
10. (C) Although our contacts are taking seriously the SARG's 
stated commitment to new visa regime, Gunther and others have 
speculated that its true intention may be to jolt the 
international community into action, either in the form of 
increased assistance to Syria or invigorated attempts to 
address the problem from within Iraq's borders. (Note: The 
SARG took similiar action in February 2007 to restrict Iraqis 
to a 15-day stay in Syria, only to rescind the measure two 
weeks later, reported in Ref B.)  Speaking to the BBC on 
September 10, Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Miqdad, 
dismissed U.S. contributions to support refugees, claiming 
that the money the United States has pledged thus far was 
merely "pocket change" in comparison to what the U.S. 
government was spending in Iraq. Miqdad also raised the 
spectre of moving Iraqi refugees to camps along the border, 
noting that the magnitude of the problem in Syria 
necessitated serious SARG consideration of this option. 
 
11. (C) COMMENT.  After years of offering an open door to 
refugees -- combined with earlier instances of announced 
changes to entry procedures that never fully materialized -- 
Syrian enforcement of the current restrictions generated 
genuine concern among Embassy contacts in Damascus.  Whether 
the SARG intends to enforce the restrictions over the longer 
term remains an open question.  The on-again, off-again 
character of this and prior Syrian attempts to impose greater 
control over the refugee flow highlights the conflicting 
forces at play within the SARG.  Domestic pressure to stem 
the refugee tide and its economic effects is offset by both 
practical and political considerations.  Practically, Syria 
does not appear equipped to process large numbers of visas in 
Baghdad.  Politically, the SARG has reaped some benefit with 
the international community from its generosity toward the 
refugees.  The SARG can claim tangible proof of its 
commitment to its Arab (and especially Sunni) brethren, in 
contrast to some of Iraq's other neighbors.  Damascus is also 
able to assert its increased relevance to discussions over 
the future of Iraq.  Sunni pressure to continue to allow this 
escape valve, coupled with international clamor, may trump 
security concerns as the SARG wrangles internally about how 
to deal with the Iraqi refugee situation.  At this point it 
is too early to say where the SARG will come out. 
CORBIN

 



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