Bassem Tellawi  /  AP file
Iraqi businessman Waed Jassem, second from left wearing a blue shirt, plays backgammon with one of his relatives in a cafe in Damascus, Syria, in this July 22 photo. This summer, Iraqis have flocked to Syria; the toppling of Saddam Hussein has made it easier to travel and do business.
updated 7/26/2004 5:32:29 PM ET 2004-07-26T21:32:29

Vacationing businessman Waed Jassem sits comfortably in a rundown, smoke-filled Damascus cafe, playing backgammon with other Iraqi visitors and praising Syria’s beaches and mountains, the warmth of its people, and, most especially, the calm.

“Security is something great,” he said, sitting back thoughtfully in his chair. “It is the thing that we miss most in Iraq.”

This summer, an estimated 250,000 Iraqis have flocked to Syria, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein making it easier for them to travel and do business.

Syria has been a prime destination, with its policy of issuing visas on demand to any Arab visitor and its history of personal and political ties with its neighbor. Some Iraqis come for business, but others are simply looking for relief from the violence in their own country.

Cars with Iraqi license plates are abundant in downtown Damascus. Hotels are full, and real estate agents say prices have gone up sharply to accommodate Iraqi visitors. Armed with a passport, hard to get under Saddam, scores of Iraqis are also heading to Syria to apply for visas at foreign embassies in Damascus.

‘Work is good’
Many initially went to the private beach resorts of Lattakia, Syria’s most modern seaport. By midsummer, though, tourists deemed the beaches too hot and headed to cooler, livelier Damascus and the mountains, leaving Lattakia to business travelers. Tartous, a nearby harbor town, was attracting Iraqi traders.

“Work is good,” says Yaarob al-Qaisi, a 42-year-old Iraqi industrialist who was counting his money in a Tartous hotel full of businessmen.

The collapse of Saddam’s regime has meant an end to tight border controls, and entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity. For almost a year now, al-Qaisi has been importing trucks and other construction vehicles from Germany to Iraq through Tartous. “I know dozens of other Iraqis doing the same,” he said.

Old suspicions fall away
It’s quite a contrast from the suspicions that characterized official Syrian-Iraqi relations for decades. Syria’s branch of the ruling Baath party broke with the Iraqi Baath in 1966 amid political infighting. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Syria was the only Arab country to support Persian Iran. Syria also joined the U.S. led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, though it vehemently opposed the latest war.

During the latest Iraq war, U.S. officials accused Syria of harboring fleeing members of the Iraqi Baath party and sending foreign fighters to Iraq. Syria denied the charges. Even today, the Iraqi interim government says Syria is not doing enough to stop infiltration of terrorists into Iraq.

Such political tensions seem to have little effect on people-to-people relations.

“The Syrian people are very hospitable and show solidarity with the Iraqi people. We feel comfortable in Syria,” said Faisal Elias, 27, who exports wood and Syrian-made soft drinks to Baghdad.

Elias has Syrian business partners and recently bought a house in a Damascus suburb. He and his wife, 24-year-old Raghad, plan to divide their time between Baghdad and Damascus. “This suits me. I feel free in Syria,” Raghad Elias said.

A long history of friendship
Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Syrian analyst and publisher of an online newsletter on Syria, said the Syrian and Iraqi people have historically been friendly. He noted important religious shrines in Syria, including Sayda Zeinab, visited by scores of Iraqi Shiite Muslims who come to pay homage to the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, Zeinab.

Iraqis opposed to Saddam long found a haven in Syria. During an official visit to Syria last week, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi thanked Syria for supporting and welcoming Iraqis “when we were struggling against the dictatorship in Iraq.”

More than half a million Iraqis fled to Syria ahead of the U.S.-led war that began in March 2003. Most of them stayed with friends or in rented homes until the war ended.

Jassem, the Iraqi businessman in the Damascus cafe, said he came with his wife to “escape the hot weather and security situation in Iraq.” He has visited relatives in Lattakia and Aleppo and enjoyed the country’s tourist attractions.

“Syrians are generous people. I don’t feel like a stranger here,” he said.

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