"All the dirty funds are coming back to Syria," says Jihad Yazigi, editor in chief of The Syria Report, an online economic bulletin. "And you can thank these US sanctions."
In the current standoff, however, there is little margin for error, and the 41-year-old Assad is still relatively new at the game. It was the Palestinian refugee crisis, after all, that led to civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon, the latter of which was quelled by a Syrian intervention that paved the way for Syria's long and painful occupation of the country. Assad has to keep a wary eye on Aleppo, Damascus's rival city to the north, which has a growing Salafist movement. When the Grand Mufti of Syria died in 2004, Assad waited two years before replacing him with Sheik Ahmed Hassoun, who as the mufti in Aleppo had skillfully kept a lid on sectarian tensions. As Syria's exile population swells--in Aleppo as well as in Damascus--so does the prospect of confrontation.
If anything, says Laith Kubba, a former spokesman for the Iraqi government, the United States should thank the Syrian government for not turning its back on the Iraqis. "I would be happier to see Iraqi professionals staying in Jordan and Syria, preserving their skills," says Kubba, who is now a senior director at the National Endowment for Democracy. "Sending them back only consumes or wastes them in the civil war."
No one knows that better than Khulood Alzaidi, an aid worker who was forced to flee Iraq for Jordan in 2005 after receiving death threats slipped under the door of her home in the southern city of Kut. Poised and soft-spoken, the dark-skinned Alzaidi has kept the threatening letters as proof of her vulnerability. But her quest for asylum in the West is ensnared in a bramble of politics and red tape. She has no residency permit and has been picked up by security services and ordered to leave the country. Like her fellow émigrés, she dreads the prospect of being forcibly returned to the sectarian holocaust that is Iraq.
"I have nowhere to go," she says. "The Jordanians want us out, and the Americans won't take us in."
Unlike the vast majority of her fellow exiles, Alzaidi has met the man most closely associated with her plight. On November 17, 2003, the 27-year-old Shiite was one of a dozen or so Iraqi women who were guests of President George W. Bush at the White House. The event was held to honor the group's work on behalf of women in postwar Iraq, and was organized by Fern Holland, the feminist activist who less than a year later would be murdered by insurgents there.
On the day of Alzaidi's meeting with the President, she was ushered into the Oval Office along with the rest of the group, where they stood before a phalanx of reporters and a galaxy of flashing strobe lights. According to Alzaidi, Bush centered himself directly to her left. He assured the delegation that the United States would not abandon Iraq and that his decision to invade the country would be vindicated despite the chaos and rising death toll (by then, Iraq's sectarian violence had been escalating for several months).
"I saw the blood of Iraqis in his face," Alzaidi says from a friend's apartment. "This was the man who turned our lives upside down." Alzaidi says she nearly cried from rage, but restrained herself out of respect for the President.