x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Iraqi refugees fear expulsion from Syria

Damascus after the 'Black Wednesday' bombings and those who fled may be the ones to suffer.

Mohammad Jawad Faris, a member of the Union of Iraqi Liberation forces, at his Damascus office yesterday.
Mohammad Jawad Faris, a member of the Union of Iraqi Liberation forces, at his Damascus office yesterday.

Damascus // Sitting in his small, dark apartment in a suburb of Syria's ancient capital city, Abu Wasim has a new worry to add to his already long list of concerns. As an Iraqi refugee, he is increasingly alarmed by an escalating diplomatic row between Damascus and Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the continuing violence in their own country for the safety of Syria. However with relations between the neighbours in free fall over allegations that Damascus is sheltering the militants behind a recent Baghdad bombing, there are growing fears among refugees that they may be the ones to suffer. "We are watching what is happening and we are keeping our fingers crossed that we are not caught in the middle," said Mr Wasim, a 60-year-old former English teacher living with his family in Syria. He left Iraq in 2007 after his eldest son was murdered and has since suffered from clinical depression. "The Syrians have generously hosted us and we hope they will let us stay here. None of us wants to have to go back to Iraq, we don't want to have to face that, the war has not ended." Since the US-led invasion of 2003, Syria has kept its border open to a tide of Iraqi refugees. The policy - Syrian officials say 1.2 million Iraqis are currently present - has come at a significant cost, with already overstressed infrastructure struggling to cope with the burden. Hospitals and schools have been hit by rising demands for services while electricity grids, fuel, food and water supplies have been pushed, at times, beyond capacity. Housing costs, particularly in Damascus, have soared. According to an annual economic report issued this week by Bank Audi, damaging double-digit inflation levels in Syria could be cut by a large-scale return of Iraqis. Changing visa rules or refusing Iraqis permission to stay is a temptation the Syrian authorities have so far resisted. But Iraqi refugees have been on the lookout for signs this latest diplomatic crisis has exhausted Syria's patience. "There has been no change in the way we are treated here, we are still being made welcome," said Abu Khalid, an Iraqi refugee from Basra living in Sahnaiya, south of Damascus. He just renewed his residency permit and said the Syrian immigration officer had assured him that Iraqis would not be asked to leave. "We are concerned about this. My friends have to get their residency permissions renewed and we hope there will not be any problems. We hope we still have Syrian support." The political storm broke - unexpectedly and very publicly - after Iraq accused Syria of sheltering the insurgents behind the "Black Wednesday" bombings of August 19 that killed about 100 people and wounded 1,000 more in Baghdad. Despite Syria's condemnation of the blasts and vociferous denials of involvement, last week Iraq recalled its ambassador to Damascus in protest. The gesture was immediately echoed by Syria. Since then, Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has said "90 per cent" of foreign militants staging attacks in Iraq were funnelled through Syria. And he demanded that Iraqi exiles blamed for the bombing be handed over. The speed and timing of the crisis has raised numerous questions. The bombing happened a day after Mr al Maliki met the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, in Damascus, talks that concluded with the two setting up a joint strategic council to manage economic and security interests. Often strained in the past, Iraq-Syria relations appeared to be entering a new and positive phase. That was all demolished a few days later. "The victims of Black Wednesday were Iraqi civilians but, politically speaking, the real target might have been Syria and its relations with Iraq," said Mazen Bilal, a Syrian journalist and political commentator who described the crisis as "deep and real". "The problem is that in Iraq now there are too many groups fighting for power, there is a war among various intelligence services, there are many different agendas and there is no real government in control." Turkey has now stepped in and is attempting to diffuse tensions between Baghdad and Damascus. Unconfirmed details of the pre-bomb meeting between the Iraqi and Syrian premiers suggest that the crisis may, in part, have been fostered there. According to a number of Syrian and Iraqi sources, Mr al Maliki handed his Syrian counterpart a wanted list with the names of 100 suspected insurgents on it. Exactly the same list had been given to the Syrians in a meeting earlier that month with a US military delegation to Damascus. "When Maliki gave the Syrians the list, they told him they'd already seen it and asked if he was following Iraqi policies or just doing what the Americans told him to," said a Syrian analyst who asked not to be named. "Maliki left in a black mood." And there is an additional personal edge to the crisis. For more than a decade Mr al Maliki himself lived as a political exile in Damascus, as an opponent to Saddam Hussein. His vocal anti-Syrian remarks have been taken as a very direct slight by the country that once gave him safe refuge from persecution. While ordinary refugees fret about Syria changing its policy on allowing them to stay, Iraqi political groups, including those wanted by the Baghdad authorities, do not appear to share their concerns. Members of the Iraqi opposition supporting or involved in the insurgency say they are confident Syria will not betray them. "The Baathists in Syria accused of the bombing certainly did not do it," said Mohammad Faris, a Damascus-based member of the Union of Iraqi Liberation Forces, an insurgent alliance. Mr Faris has close ties to the Baathist wing being blamed for the bombing, led by Yunis al Ahmed. "Syria has said it will hand over anyone involved in the attacks if there is evidence and there is no such evidence," Mr Faris said. "I am sure Syria will not be asking any of the Iraqis here to leave. I think Syria will continue its support for the Iraqi people." psands@thenational.ae