Middle East

Tribal ties put pressure on Iraq as Syrian refugees stream in

Syrian refugees put in local school buildings
Image caption Many Syrian refugees have been crammed into local school buildings

Perched on top of an army Humvee on a road parallel with the Syrian border, an Iraqi gunner sits with a clear view of al-Boukamal, the city on the other side.

"They never stopped shelling the place last night," he tells me, as we wait for the next busload of Syrian refugees.

On the Iraqi side, in al-Qaim, army jeeps patrol the street; in contrast, on the Syrian side there is very little movement.

Iraqi soldiers say all they can see from time-to-time are occasional tractors farming the land, and men in traditional Arab robes driving around in motorcycles.

"They are the Free Syrian Army. We haven't spoken to them yet," said one Iraqi soldier standing guard opposite the Syrian meadow.

Ever since Syrian opposition fighters took over al-Boukamal, the city has been subjected to shelling by government forces.

And after the Iraqi government reluctantly agreed to open the border for Syrian refugees, more than 2,000 have come to Iraq through al-Qaim.

But the reception they got in Iraq sparked a showdown between the government in Baghdad and the tribes straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Facing the prospect of tribal fury, the government was first to blink.


Al-Qaim is at the western edge of Iraq, facing al-Boukamal on Syria's eastern edge.

Most of the refugees crossing over have relatives in Iraq, and intended to head straight to them until the situation back home improved.

Instead, they were crammed together in local schools and government buildings, and the army and police imposed strict restrictions on their movement.

"We came here to be with our families," one refugee told me angrily.

Some of them were so incensed at the treatment they said they would rather return to Syria.

"If they won't let us out of this prison, we will go back to al-Boukamal," said one toothless man with thick greying stubble.

The rage of the Syrian refugees confined to the sweltering playgrounds of schools was more than matched by that of their Iraqi relatives.

After Friday prayers, hundreds of Iraqis marched through al-Qaim to denounce their government's policy.

The Iraqi government says an unrestricted flow of refugees could pose a security risk, and that Iraq's 600km- (370 miles) long border with Syria has always been a favourite route for militants travelling both ways.

It has sent troop reinforcements to the border area, and is trying to assert control over as long a strip as possible, to guard against any infiltration.

It also wants to keep those crossing legally under its watchful eye.

But Baghdad is also keenly aware of the depth of the family bonds tying eastern Syria to western Iraq.

Iraqi fears

The Syrian desert stretches well into Iraq, dominating the landscape of the Iraqi province of Anbar.

Tribal ties also extend beyond the border, making eastern Syria and western Iraq organically entwined, and rendering the border almost an anomaly.

Hospitality in Anbar is a deeply entrenched tribal custom.

Even strangers travelling through the province can make use of guest houses belonging to tribal leaders for free.

And the Syrian refugees are certainly no strangers to Anbar.

"All of us here, we have uncles, and aunts and brothers and sisters in Iraq," one of them told me.

Image caption Iraq reluctantly agreed to open its border for Syrian refugees

"Our tribes stretch from al-Qaim all the way to Baghdad."

The authorities knew they could not keep the refugees trapped in schools without running into serious trouble with their Iraqi relatives.

On the same day of the march, a high-profile delegation from Baghdad arrived to sort out the problem.

It included the prime minister's security adviser and the finance minister, who is himself from Anbar.

A compromise was hammered out, under which refugees would be able to leave the schools provided they had relatives who could "sponsor" them, and provide written guarantees to the government.

The mechanisms to implement the agreement are still being debated by local authorities and the central government, but the incident highlights a wider divergence over the Syrian crisis.

As the Iraqi government watches with growing unease the gains made by the rebels in Syria, many in Iraq cannot wait for a final blow to President Bashar al-Assad's regime to be delivered.

Everyone here knows the end of Mr Assad's rule in Damascus could bring many barriers crashing down, including the border line cutting the Syrian desert into two.

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