Syria: The Promised Land?
It's not. But the interesting SyriaComment blog which is run by academic/Syria expert Joshua Landis posted a Chicago Tribune report Fearful Iraqis seek haven in Syria which highlights Syria's role as a magnet to Iraqi refugees:
Three-month visas are routinely issued to Iraqis, and so are multiple extensions. Iraqis cannot receive work permits, but they can receive free health care and schooling.
"It's a shifting population--people come and people go--but it's amazing that Syria has been able to absorb them all," said a Western diplomat who has watched the war.
Even Human Rights Watch, which criticizes Syria's treatment of reform advocates, has praised the country's openness. In recent weeks in particular, Syria has shown empathy for Palestinian refugees as well.
"Middle East governments should follow Syria's example in accepting refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Iraq," the organization said in a statement.
Syria is run by an autocratic regime, like many Arab countries, but it offers comforts to those in search of a peaceful way station. Battling economic woes, Syria still supports a broad middle class. Restaurants and cafes in Damascus are full. Streets are lively. Mosques and churches are open to the newcomers. And Syrians generally listen sympathetically to those in need from Iraq.
For the war-weary, the road to Damascus is cheap. One-way flights to Damascus cost $240, about half the price of a flight to Amman, Jordan. Taxi rides cost $30; bus trips are $15. But getting to Damascus by land has become another battle in the war. The main highway is a crapshoot, drivers said.
Robbers are a constant problem, and so are shootings on the highway. Fathy said he hits the gas pedal on the Iraqi highway and stops for no one.
"Everyday you hear stories. Lots of people are kidnapped on that road. Most people are staying for a little bit and then trying to decide what to do next," Fathy said.
Ahmed Kareem is a 34-year-old engineer who rode a bus this month from his home in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. The bus was stopped about a hour from Baghdad. Three men were forced from the bus and were shot dead, he believes, by Iraqi soldiers.
"I saw it," he said. "We didn't know what was happening or why."
"I wanted Saddam gone, but I thought things were going to be good," Kareem added. "I am so sad. My parents--they're 74 and 64 years old--they're sad. I love my country. My country means so much to me. And it is in so much trouble."
Where does he hope to live?
"I want to move everyone to Cairo," he said.
An emigre's fears
Laith Arawa left Mosul nearly two years ago. He first went to Amman, but he couldn't survive. The government gives nothing to Iraqis, he said, no health care or education. So he made his way to Damascus last year.
"I don't want to go back. The minute I see an American soldier, I feel something bad will happen," the 32-year-old said. "And the Iraqis? They aren't even trained properly." Khamed Suwadi, a doctor who was opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, has been living in Damascus, on and off, for years.
"Two months ago, a friend of mine in Baghdad was kidnapped. They paid a ransom for him, but who knows what can happen," Suwadi said. "You just don't know who is going to kill you there or why."
And in case you've missed it, Landis also posted last week's story in the New York Times'As Death Stalks Iraq, Middle-Class Exodus Begins reporting that:
In the latest indication of the crushing hardships weighing on the lives of Iraqis, increasing portions of the middle class seem to be doing everything they can to leave the country. In the last 10 months, the state has issued new passports to 1.85 million Iraqis, 7 percent of the population and a quarter of the country's estimated middle class.
The school system offers another clue: Since 2004, the Ministry of Education has issued 39,554 letters permitting parents to take their children's academic records abroad. The number of such letters issued in 2005 was double that in 2004, according to the director of the ministry's examination department. Iraqi officials and international organizations put the number of Iraqis in Jordan at close to a million. Syrian cities also have growing Iraqi populations.
Since the bombing of a shrine in Samarra in February touched off a sectarian rampage, crime and killing have spread further through Iraqi society, paralyzing neighborhoods and smashing families. Now, on the brink of a new, permanent government, Iraqis are expressing the darkest view of their future in three years. ''We're like sheep at a slaughter farm,'' said a businessman, who is arranging a move to Jordan. ''We are just waiting for our time.'' The Samarra bombing produced a new kind of sectarian violence. Gangs of Shiites in Baghdad pulled Sunni Arabs out of houses and mosques and killed them in a spree that prompted retaliatory attacks and displaced 14,500 families in three months, according to the Ministry for Migration.
Most frightening, many middle-class Iraqis say, was how little the government did to stop the violence. That failure boded ominously for the future, leaving them feeling that the government was incapable of protecting them and more darkly, that perhaps it helped in the killing. Shiite-dominated government forces have been accused of carrying out sectarian killings.
''Now I am isolated,'' said Monkath Abdul Razzaq, a middle-class Sunni Arab, who decided to leave after the bombing. ''I have no government. I have no protection from the government. Anyone can come to my house, take me, kill me and throw me in the trash.''
Traces of the leaving are sprinkled throughout daily life. Mr. Abdul Razzaq, who will move his family to Syria next month, where he has already rented an apartment, said a fistfight broke out while he waited for five hours in a packed passport office to fill out applications for his two young sons. In Salheyah, a commercial district in central Baghdad, bus companies that specialize in Syria and Jordan say ticket sales have surged.
And then there is Lawrence Kaplan reporting in the New Republic about THE PLIGHT OF IRAQI CHRISTIANS.
After Iraq's Baathists seized power in 1968, they celebrated by stringing Jews up in a Baghdad square. With the remnant of Iraq's Jewish population having long since fled the country, Christians have become today's victims of choice. Sunni, Shia, and Kurd may agree on little else, but all have made sport of brutalizing their Christian neighbors, hundreds of whom have been slaughtered since the U.S. invasion. As a result, Iraq's ancient Christian community, now numbering roughly 800,000 and consisting mostly of Eastern rite Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Orthodox Christians, dwindles by the day. According to Iraqi estimates, between 40,000 and 100,000 have fled since 2004, many following their own road to Damascus across the Syrian border or to Jordan, while many more have been displaced within Iraq. As for the country that loosed the furies against them, the United States refuses to provide Iraqi Christians protection of any kind.
From his synod in Baghdad, the most prominent Christian clergyman in Iraq, Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel Delly, denies the obvious. "There is no persecution of Christians," the septuagenarian archbishop insists. "All Iraqis have problems." The fiction has become canonical among Iraqi Christian leaders, who maintain it to avoid inciting their tormentors. Many members of Iraq's clergy, for example, dismiss as gross exaggeration reports that tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq.
But, however much the clergy may deny it, Iraqi Christians suffer for their faith. Along with kidnappings and assassinations, church bombings--beginning with the destruction of five churches in August 2004--have become a staple of Christian life in Iraq.To disguise their faith, Christian women, particularly in Iraq's south, tuck their hair under hijabs, while fewer and fewer attend church, performing Mass in homes and sometimes, like their ancient Christian ancestors, in crypts instead. Even the Kurds, so often depicted as saints in Iraq's morality tale, have taken to pummeling Christians; the Kurdish religious affairs minister said last year that "those who turn to Christianity pose a threat to society." Commenting on a recent pogrom against Christian students in Mosul, Yonadam Kanna, the only Christian elected to Iraq's new parliament, says, "The fanatics blame us for doing nothing. They blame us for being Christian."
So...Let's see... We "liberated" Iraq in order to transform it into a model of political and economic freedom that could bring about similar changes in neighboring Syria which was (at one point) targeted for "regime change" by the Bush Administration. And now... members of Iraq's middle class and Christian communities, the most westernized, educated and professional segments of Iraq's population are fleeing to... Syria? All of which gives a new meaning to "Mission Accomplished."
Read also my Measuring the Arab World: Check the Christian Barometer.
And finally think about Jordan which has also been forced to absorb thousands of refugees from Iraq, and if the situation deterioates in the West Bank, would also have to cope with a large new wave of Palestinian refugees. A ticking demographic/political bomb which is bound to explode sooner or later. Yep. The Bushies have succeeded in challenging the status-quo in the region.