Since Election, Syria Has Stopped Issuing Permits for Jews to Travel

Syria has not granted travel permits to Syrian Jews for the past eight weeks, since the eve of Bill Clinton’s election victory, according to State Department officials and Jewish activists.

But Syrian Jews already holding permits have been permitted to travel abroad during this period, and those seeking to travel have been permitted to submit applications.

The Syrian policy permitting Jews to travel freely was announced in April through the State Department and White House. It followed decades in which the 4,000-member Syrian Jewish community was barred from travel abroad and was reportedly subjected to surveillance, intimidation and harassment from the secret police.

Since the shift in Syrian policy, 2,600 Jews have used their visas, generally traveling to Brooklyn’s large Syrian Jewish community. There are roughly 1,400 Jews remaining in Syria, of whom 400 do not intend to leave.

American Jewish advocacy groups first became aware that Syria was no longer issuing the exit permits some weeks ago. But they have been hesitant, and remain so, about making this into a public issue.

“We have been in touch with the State Department and White House, and have been assured that they are addressing the issue with the Syrians,” said Seymour Reich, who heads the Syrian Jewry task force of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The United States has raised the issue several times with the Syrians, reportedly at the ambassadorial level.

“They maintain there has been no change in the Syrian policy decision permitting Syrian Jews the right to travel like other Syrians,” said a State Department official in Washington.

“For our part, we continue to raise the issue with the Syrians. We consider the policy decision to allow Syrian Jews to travel abroad to be a positive one, and we hope and expect the Syrian government to continue to carry out its policy,” the official said in a telephone interview.

The Jewish community’s decision to keep a low profile on the issue is not only a reflection of the fact that the Bush administration is working on the problem.

Activists also feel that the Syrian retreat from its policy of free travel was designed to send a signal to President-elect Bill Clinton, who on the campaign trail had criticized the Bush administration for not taking a hard enough line on Syria for its involvement in terrorism.

“It has to be determined the best way to deal with this,” said one Jewish activist. The Jewish community, he said, is “engaged in various operations and activities to try different approaches to get the message to the Syrians about what is happening, ” including contacts with government officials and others.

One Washington analyst who follows the peace process explained that “the Syrians are looking to leverage their assets to the greatest extant possible and muster up their most compelling presentation to the new administration.”

Syrian President Hafez Assad “initially released the Jews to make nice to a president who has been defeated and is now leaving town, so he’s essentially trying to sell the Jews twice. Since there’s a new buyer, there’s an opportunity for a new sale,” said the analyst. “Assad is playing it both ways: He is pursuing peace and he is pursuing conflict. And Clinton will have to play it both ways: carrot and stick.”

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