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How The Assad Regime Pushes Syrians Out, Fueling Refugee Surge


In some cases it seems the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is actually trying to push people out of the country, increasing the refugee surge. The Wall Street Journal's Sam Dagher has been reporting on that, and we reached him earlier today in Behrut. He explained some of the specific government actions that are driving the mass flight from Syria.

SAM DAGHER: First of all, the regime has not relented on its crackdown of anyone suspected of being opposed to Mr. Assad. They're still detaining people, torturing people, according to the reports we're getting. They're still besieging opposition areas, starving them of food, denying them medicine and also bombing them almost on a daily basis. And then there's also the constant threat of being drafted into the army. A lot of families are opting to leave instead of having, you know, their sons go into the Army.

CORNISH: So that's on the one hand. And then how are they making it easier for people to leave?

DAGHER: I mean, on the other hand, it's a lot easier now for Syrians to get passports both, you know, Syrians who are living in the country and those abroad. Before April of this year, it was very complicated for Syrians to get a passport. They needed all sorts of approvals from the security intelligence agencies. And then after Assad issued a decree in April of this year, all they have to do is pay either $200 if they're inside the country or $400 if they're abroad. Even those wanted by the regime can get a passport by paying, you know, the fee plus bribes. A lot of people told us that. And now, also, it's a lot easier to travel from Damascus to other countries, albeit, in some cases, through Behrut.

CORNISH: So you write that the regime is even finding ways to manipulate reconstruction projects to effectively force some people out. How does that work?

DAGHER: Sure. For instance, in the case of Homs - this is a city north of Damascus - the regime controls most of the city now. Only a fraction of families have been allowed back, and most of them have been Christians who are seen as basically not posing much of a threat to the regime. You have to remember the majority of the population in Syria is Sunni. And in a lot of these neighborhoods, you talk to regime officials, and they tell you, we are planning major reconstruction projects, and some of these projects could take five years to finish. And most people don't have faith that they'll be able to go back to their homes, so a lot of people are opting to leave.

CORNISH: A big question among diplomats working on the Syria conflict is whether Assad should be forced from power. And - does it seem like this refugee flight is, in a sense, strengthening his hand? Is there any chance that it could backfire?

DAGHER: I mean, it's a good question. It actually reminds me of something I heard from Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator. And he said, you know, watch; if I toppled, Europe is going to be awash with immigrants and refugees. So it's almost like, you know, a classic argument that a lot of these rulers in the region make. You know, we are the guarantee for any stability, for security in the region, and if you take us out, then you're going to have to deal with the consequences.

So for sure, you know, the regime officials keep making the point that ultimately, you know, these countries are going to come around, including the U.S., and deal with the regime because they have no option. But it could backfire. I mean, if more people are fleeing the country and this is becoming a big crisis, then obviously this could motivate Western powers to come up with a solution that could exclude Assad. But I think it's too early to see it going either way yet.

CORNISH: That's Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAGHER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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