Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Senators Thursday she has instructed the chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Damascus to engage the Syrian government on the issue of Iraqi refugees. The move is part of a broader effort by the Bush administration to help deal with the refugee problem.
Officials here dismiss suggestions that the decision by Rice signals a thaw in the frosty U.S.-Syrian relationship.
But they say it does reflect an increased focus by the Bush administration on the growing number of Iraqis who have either been displaced internally by the conflict or who have taken refuge in nearby states, mainly Jordan, Syria, Iran and Lebanon.
Rice disclosed the move at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in response to questioning from Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a leading critic of administration Iraq policy, who said the problem of displaced Iraqis is immense and getting worse:
"There is general agreement that around two million Iraqis have left that country, a third of the doctors at least, have left that country. And we could go through an entire agenda, inventory of demographics on this. But we also have to factor in, as you do, the realities of the security issue in Baghdad and other areas, in which we now know that ethnic cleansing is occurring."
Though Senator Hagel suggested that there was little the United States could do given a lack of dialogue with Iran and Syria, Secretary Rice said that unlike Iran the United States maintains diplomatic relations with Syria and that American charge d'affaires Michael Corbin has been told to take up the issue with the Damascus government:
"I have authorized our charge to talk with the Syrians. We have a charge there who does have discussions with the Syrians about a variety of things. But I have authorized him explicitly to talk to the Syrians about the issue of refugees."
Rice also said the United States is in close contact on the issue with Jordan, where the United Nations estimates that as many as 700 000 Iraqis are living.
A senior official here said the instructions to the U.S. envoy in Syria went out earlier this week in connection with the announcement of the creation of a new State Department task force on Iraqi refugees and the internally displaced.
The task force, headed by Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, is to report to Rice in a few weeks on how to better target U.S. refugee assistance, and also deal the problem of Iraqis put at risk because of their work for the U.S. government.
The Secretary of State is scheduled to discuss the issue next week in a meeting with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Gutierrez.
The Bush administration has come under criticism in Congress and elsewhere for admitting fewer that 500 Iraqi refugees since 2003.
The senior official who spoke to reporters said it was premature to discuss the admission of more Iraqis, but did not rule it out.
Under current legislation, the United States admits 70 000 officially-designated refugees each year.
Most of them are admitted through a system of regional allocations under which 5500 a year currently come from the Middle East.