WASHINGTON - Syria has agreed to allow US interviewers into the country to screen Iraqi refugees for admission to the United States, clearing a major obstacle to the Bush administration's resettlement program, the State Department said yesterday.
The move follows a late October visit to Damascus by senior US envoys who received permission for Department of Homeland Security staff to travel to Syria to vet Iraqi refugees awaiting clearance to enter the United States, according to David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.
Syria, home to 1.2 million to 1.4 million Iraqi refugees, had for months refused to issue visas to the interviewers amid deepening tensions between Washington and Damascus over alleged Syrian support for extremists, interference in Lebanon, and suspect nuclear activity that appears to have prompted an Israeli air strike.
Welch made the announcement in congressional testimony, in which he also raised Washington's persistent concerns on the other issues, none of which he said had been resolved.
"Syria has committed to issue visas to DHS adjudicators, who, in the coming weeks, will be interviewing hundreds of Iraqis referred by UNHCR (The UN High Commissioner for Refugees) to the US Refugee Resettlement Program," he said in his prepared remarks.
"In this respect we do appreciate Syria's decision to renew cooperation with us on our programs to address this humanitarian issue," Welch told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
The recent trip to Damascus by James Foley, a career diplomat, and Lori Scialabba, a top immigration official with Homeland Security, was instrumental to securing the agreement, Welch said.
However, it was not immediately clear if the interviewers had already been granted the visas.
Refugee advocates welcomed the Syrian decision.
However, they said it was critical for the United States to keep up high-level engagement with Syria and other countries in the region that are sheltering more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled violence since the 2003 US-led invasion.
"This is obviously very good news," said Jacob Kurtzer, a congressional advocate for Refugees International. "We're very happy, but it really does draw attention to the need for a continuous high-level diplomatic presence in Syria and the rest of the region."