US embassy cable - 03DAMASCUS1684

TFIZO1:SYRIA CLOSES BORDER AND SAYS IT WILL SET UP

Identifier: 03DAMASCUS1684
Wikileaks: View 03DAMASCUS1684 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 2003-03-20 15:47:00
Classification: SECRET
Tags: KREF PGOV PHUM PREL IZ SY
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
O 201547Z MAR 03
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO AMEMBASSY AMMAN IMMEDIATE 
SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5510
USMISSION GENEVA IMMEDIATE 
INFO IRAQ COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 001684 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/20/2013 
TAGS: KREF, PGOV, PHUM, PREL, IZ, SY 
SUBJECT: TFIZO1:SYRIA CLOSES BORDER AND SAYS IT WILL SET UP 
 
REFUGEE CAMPS ON IRAQI SIDE OF THE BORDER 
 
CLASSIFIED BY: AMBASSADOR THEODORE H. KATTOUF FOR REASONS 1.5B/D 
 
1. (S) SUMMARY. SARG MINISTER OF LOCAL AFFAIRS CONVENED UN/IO 
REPS AT 23:00 ON MARCH 19 TO INFORM THEM THE BORDER WITH IRAQ 
HAD CLOSED, BUT THAT THE SARG AND THE SYRIAN RED CRESCENT 
WOULD SET UP THREE REFUGEE CAMPS IN IRAQI TERRITORY OR THE 
"NO MAN'S LAND BETWEEN THE TWO BORDERS."  HE STATED THAT THE 
SARG WOULD PROVIDE SECURITY FOR THE CAMPS (DIRECTLY 
CONTRADICTING STATEMENTS MADE BY DFM MU'ALLIM TO AMBASSADOR 
THE MORNING OF MARCH 19, SEE PARA 3), UPON WHICH UN REPS 
QUESTIONED THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF SENDING SYRIAN 
MILITARY/SECURITY ELEMENTS INTO IRAQ AT THIS TIME.  YASIN 
ASKED FOR RELIEF MATERIALS AND HELP DEVELOPING INFRASTRUCTURE 
AT THE CAMPS. HE SAID THE SARG IS WILLING TO ALLOW TCNS IF 
UNHCR WILL RECEIVE THEM AT ITS EL HOL REFUGEE CAMP. THE UN 
DOUBTS THE SARG/RED CRESCENT HAS THE CAPACITY TO RESPOND TO A 
REFUGEE CRISIS ALONE. THE UN/IO COMMUNITY WAS TAKEN BY 
SURPRISE BY THE SARG'S REVERSAL AND IS SCRAMBLING TO FIGURE 
OUT WHAT'S NEXT. THERE DOES NOT YET APPEAR TO BE A LARGE 
NUMBER OF REFUGEE SEEKERS AT THE BORDER. END SUMMARY. 
 
2. (C) AT 23:00 ON MARCH 19, SARG MINISTER OF LOCAL AFFAIRS 
SALAH YASIN CONVOKED REPRESENTATIVES FROM UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, 
IOM, AND ICRC TO CONVEY THE SARG'S POSITION ON REFUGEES AND 
HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE.  HE SAID: 
 
-- THE SARG, ALREADY BURDENED BY PALESTINIAN AND GOLAN 
REFUGEES, HAD CLOSED ITS BORDERS AND WOULD KEEP THEM CLOSED 
FOR THE DURATION OF HOSTILITIES. 
 
-- SYRIA IS COMMITTED TO PROVIDING HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE. 
WITH THE SYRIAN RED CRESCENT AND INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF 
RED CROSS/RED CRESCENT (IFRC) THE SARG WILL ESTABLISH THREE 
CAMPS 8-10 KILOMETERS INTO IRAQ NEAR THE THREE MAJOR BORDER 
CROSSINGS OF AL TANF (SOUTH), ABU KAMAL (CENTRAL), AND 
YAROBIAH (NORTH). 
 
-- THE SARG WOULD ENSURE THE SECURITY OF THE CAMPS (THIS 
DIRECTLY CONTRADICTED WHAT DFM MU'ALLIM TOLD AMBASSADOR THE 
MORNING OF MARCH 19, SEE PARA 3). 
 
-- THE SARG WOULD ALLOW TCNS INTO THE COUNTRY IF UNHCR WOULD 
RECEIVE THEM AT ITS EL HOL REFUGEE CAMP. 
 
-- THE SARG HOPED THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY WOULD PROVIDE 
SUPPLIES (TENTS, SHELTER FACILITIES, FOOD) AND ASSISTANCE 
DEVELOPING INFRASTRUCTURE (WATER, ELECTRICITY, SANITATION). 
 
-- NO GROUND HAD BEEN BROKEN ON ANY OF THE CAMPS, BUT THE 
SARG THOUGHT THEY COULD BE READY IN A WEEK AND HAVE A 
CAPACITY OF 100,000 IF ALL PARTIES COOPERATED. 
 
3. (S) CONFLICTING MESSAGES FROM SARG ON CROSS-BORDER RELIEF: 
CONTACTS WHO ATTENDED THE MEETING TOLD POLOFF ON MARCH 20 
THEY WERE ASTONISHED BY THE SARG'S ANNOUNCEMENT THAT IT WOULD 
SET UP CAMPS IN IRAQI TERRITORY. THEY IMMEDIATELY ASKED WHO 
WOULD BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SECURITY AND IF THE SARG HAD 
FULLY CONSIDERED THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF SUCH AN 
ACTION. YASIN REPLIED THAT SYRIAN "ELEMENTS" WOULD ENSURE 
SECURITY FOR THE CAMPS. (NOTE: THIS DIRECTLY CONTRADICTED 
WHAT SARG DFM WALID MU'ALLIM TOLD THE AMBASSADOR EARLIER THE 
SAME DAY: THAT SYRIA COULD NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE 
SECURITY OF ANY REFUGEES, SINCE IT WOULD NOT KNOW WHO THEY 
WERE; THAT SYRIAN MILITARY FORCES WOULD NOT LEAVE SYRIA AND 
THEIR PURPOSE WOULD BE TO PREVENT REFUGEES FROM ENTERING 
SYRIA; AND THAT ONLY HUMANITARIAN WORKERS, SYRIAN RED 
CRESCENT AND AFFILIATED UN/NGO, WOULD CROSS THE BORDER TO 
ASSIST THE REFUGEES AND PROVIDE SUPPLIES. END NOTE.) YASIN 
REPORTEDLY SIDESTEPPED THE QUESTION OF POLITICAL 
IMPLICATIONS, BUT BACKTRACKED ON THE EXACT LOCATION OF THE 
CAMPS, SAYING THAT THEY MIGHT BE LOCATED IN THE "NO MAN'S 
LAND" BETWEEN THE TWO BORDERS (WHICH THE UN DOES NOT BELIEVE 
LEGALLY EXISTS.) 
 
4. (C) RED CRESCENT IN CHARGE, NOT A GOOD THING: YASIN MADE 
IT CLEAR THAT THE RED CRESCENT (WITH THE SUPPORT OF THE IFRC) 
WOULD TAKE THE LEAD ON CROSS-BORDER REFUGEE RELIEF, A 
PROSPECT THAT EMBASSY INTERLOCUTORS CONTEMPLATED WITH 
SOMETHING AKIN TO DREAD. UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM, AND ICRC HAVE 
LONG EXPRESSED DOUBTS ABOUT THE RED CRESCENT'S CAPACITY TO 
DEAL WITH A REFUGEE CRISIS. UN STAFF AND RED CRESCENT 
PRESIDENT DR. ATTAR "HAVE NOT BEEN ON SPEAKING TERMS FOR 
MONTHS," SAID ONE UN REPRESENTATIVE. ANOTHER CONTACT SAID 
ATTAR, A PROMINENT AND WELL-CONNECTED BUSINESSMAN, HAD AN EGO 
IN INVERSE PROPORTION TO HIS EXPERIENCE OR ABILITIES. EVEN 
WITH THE EXPERTISE AND MATERIAL ASSISTANCE OF THE IFRC, MOST 
FELT THERE WAS NO WAY THAT THE RED CRESCENT WAS UP TO THE 
TASK. AN IOM OFFICIAL SAID, ONLY HALF-JOKINGLY, THAT THE ONLY 
WAY THE RED CRESCENT COULD HANDLE THE SITUATION WAS IF SYRIA 
DEPLOYED ITS ENTIRE ARMY TO ASSIST. 
 
5. (C) NO REFUGEES, BUT TCN'S POSSIBLE: YASIN CONFIRMED THAT 
NO/NO REFUGEES WOULD BE ALLOWED TO CROSS THE BORDER, BUT SAID 
THE SARG WOULD ALLOW TCNS TO ENTER SYRIA PROVIDED UNHCR WOULD 
RECEIVE THEM AT EL HOL. UNHCR, WHO MANAGES EL HOL AND IS NOT 
MANDATED TO TAKE CARE OF TCNS, AND UNICEF, WHO HAS DONE MOST 
OF THE CAMP'S INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT, WERE (INITIALLY, AT 
LEAST) OPPOSED TO THE IDEA OF ALLOWING TCNS AT EL HOL. IOM 
DOES NOT HAVE AN ALTERNATE SITE TO HOUSE THE 3,000 TCNS 
EXPECTED AND IS NOT EQUIPPED TO DEAL WITH THEM WITHOUT 
COOPERATION FROM UNHCR AND OTHER UN AGENCIES. 
 
6. (C) UN IN DISARRAY/NEXT STEPS: A GENUINELY SURPRISED UN/IO 
COMMUNITY, WHICH APPEARS NOT TO HAVE QUESTIONED THE SARG'S 
ASSURANCES THAT IT WOULD KEEP THE BORDERS OPEN DESPITE ITS 
LACK OF PREPARATION AND COMMUNICATION, IS NOW SCRAMBLING TO 
CLARIFY THE SARG'S POSITION AND REORGANIZE. 
 
-- UNHCR APPEARS TO BE HOLDING OUT HOPE THE SARG WILL REVERSE 
ITS POSITION AND HAS BEEN IN NON-STOP MEETINGS WITH SARG 
OFFICIALS. ON MARCH 20, THE MFA DENIED UNHCR PERMISSION TO 
SEND OBSERVERS TO THE BORDER CROSSINGS TO ASSESS THE 
SITUATION AND TOLD UNHCR TO WAIT UNTIL AN OFFICIAL SARG 
ANNOUNCEMENT RE REFUGEE/HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE WAS RELEASED 
(TO BE EXPECTED IN 2-3 DAYS). UNHCR IS OPPOSED TO, BUT STILL 
CONSIDERING, THE QUESTION OF TCNS AT EL HOL. 
 
-- ICRC HAS KICKED DECISION-MAKING UP TO GENEVA AND IS 
MEETING WITH THE (NEWLY ESTABLISHED) IFRC DELEGATION WHILE 
AWAITING THE RETURN OF THE SYRIAN RED CRESCENT PRESIDENT FROM 
GENEVA TO COORDINATE THE MOVEMENT'S POSITION. IN ANTICIPATING 
FUTURE COOPERATION WITH THE SARG, ICRC IS NOT HEARTENED BY 
THE FACT THAT AFTER MONTHS OF NEGOTIATING, IT HAS STILL NOT 
BEEN ABLE TO BRING NON-FOOD ITEMS FOR 20,000 INTO SYRIA FROM 
AQABA. 
 
-- IOM IS NEGOTIATING WITH UNHCR REGARDING THE TCN ISSUE AND 
IS SURREPTITIOUSLY SENDING STAFF TO THE BORDERS. 
 
-- WFP, WHICH HAD CONCENTRATED MUCH OF ITS PLANNING ON 
CROSS-BORDER FOOD DISTRIBUTION IS THE LEAST AFFECTED BY THE 
POLICY CHANGE AND IS SITTING TIGHT. 
 
7. (C) NO LARGE BACK-UP AT BORDER, YET: INFORMATION IS STILL 
SKETCHY ABOUT THE SITUATION AT THE BORDER, AS UN AGENCIES 
HAVE BEEN DENIED OFFICIAL PERMISSION TO TRAVEL THERE.  BUT 
ANECDOTAL REPORTS AND A SURVEY OF THE UN/IO COMMUNITY SUGGEST 
THERE ARE CURRENTLY NO MORE THAN 100-200 REFUGEE SEEKERS AT 
THE OFFICIAL IRAQI/SYRIAN BORDER CROSSINGS. 
 
8. (C) COMMENT: GIVEN LOCAL AFFAIRS MINISTER YASIN'S POSITION 
OUTSIDE INNER SARG DECISION-MAKING CIRCLES, WE DOUBT THAT HIS 
STATEMENT OF SARG INTENT TO PROVIDE SECURITY FOR CAMPS INSIDE 
IRAQ IS ACCURATE.  AMBASSADOR KATTOUF QUESTIONED DFM MU'ALLIM 
CLOSELY ON THIS POINT, AND MU'ALLIM WAS VERY CLEAR. HOWEVER, 
YASIN'S DISJOINTED PRESENTATION TO THE INTERNATIONAL RELIEF 
COMMUNITY IS TROUBLING, AND REFLECTS SARG DISARRY AS IT 
SCRAMBLES TO DEAL WITH THE US-LED ATTACK ON IRAQ. GIVEN THE 
LIMITED CAPABILITIES OF THE SYRIAN RED CRESCENT (DESPITE 
SIGNIFICANT ASSISTANCE FROM THE IFRC) IT IS DIFFICULT TO 
IMAGINE CAMPS BEING SET UP WITHOUT SIGNIFICANT NGO 
INVOLVEMENT. END COMMENT. 
 
 
KATTOUF 

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