Silvia Montenegro (CONICET/Universidad Nacional de Rosario - Argentina)
In June this year, on his return from a trip to the United States where he met Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Marcos Peña, the Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers of the centre-right government ruling Argentina since December 2015, stated that the country will receive 3,000 Syrians. This was officially announced as a commitment by Argentina to help solve the humanitarian crisis triggered by the conflict. However, the news was “read” by some sectors of society as a move by the current government to show its willingness to align itself with the United States. The first two presidents to visit Argentina just a few months after the new government’s inauguration, Barak Obama in March and François Hollande in February, had allegedly requested this cooperation. It is as yet unknown when or how this policy, which would significantly increase the percentage of Syrians received so far, will be implemented. After the announcement, the Diario Sirio Libanés published an article warning that this new migration policy had been established by the CIA and the MOSSAD, which may hereafter play a key role in selecting visa recipients, and that this would imply a decrease in the Syrian-Lebanese community’s involvement in the implementation of admission programmes.
In October 2014, the previous government headed by Cristina Kirchner had put into force the Syria Programme (Programa Siria), an initiative enabling access to a humanitarian visa for people of Syrian nationality and their families, as well as for people of Palestinian nationality who usually live in Syria or would have lived there receiving assistance by the UNRWA. Only 197 Syrians entered the country through this programme, another 286 entered after 2011 through several means, obtaining refugee status, and unofficial figures suggest a total 1,000 Syrians arriving over the last 5 years. In order to launch the Syria Programme, the former government appealed to the local existence of a large, organised Syrian-Lebanese community, with institutions scattered all over the country, declaring that from the beginning the Sunni-oriented Islamic Centre of the Argentine Republic (CIRA by its acronym in Spanish), the Federation of Argentine-Arab Entities (FEARAB by its acronym in Spanish) and San Jorge orthodox church would assist in implementing the programme.
Regardless of the policies executed by the previous government or the current government’s plans as regards permitting the arrival of 3,000 Syrians, what I am interested in stressing is that the Syrian-Lebanese community’s perception of refugees has as its backdrop the way in which the conflict is understood at the local level. That most community organisations support the Syrian government and reject the classification of the conflict as a “civil war” is partly true, but there are nuances among positions and arguments should be seen in the light of the community’s inner diversity. Not all actors, organisations and mouthpieces participate in the same way; some merely call events for the Peace in Syria, others prefer not to speak up, there are even different views within some entities or a gap between the discourse by some representatives and those they are supposed to represent. We could not reflect such complexity here, but we can emphasise that a significant portion of the community is visibly active and takes a public stance. Which are the broad arguments underlying the nuances? Some support Bashar al-Assad as they consider him a leader who resists in the face of aggression, others put forward the “lesser evil” doctrine, meaning that it is better to have him rather than those who might take power should he be overthrown. Therefore, in demonstrations and events since the conflict began it is common to see pictures of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad together with Syrian flags and other nationalist symbols. Some religious communities and their leaders, such as Shiite and 'Alawi Muslims, agree on the position of other entities making up the larger space of Arab organisations, such as the Federation of Arab Entities (also because over the last years it has been led by Shiite Muslims), or with institutions such as the non-religiously-oriented Syrian Cultural Association, some of whose leaders support the Qawmi Suri party, and which takes specific actions to help the Syrians received so far. Beyond diversity, these sectors agree that it is a conflict organised by foreign powers, by countries that have historically antagonised Syria and that make up an alliance today (France, Britain and the United States), supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Thus, the notions of imperialism and colonialism are part of these arguments. The actors fighting in the armed struggle within Syrian territory are characterised based on the national army/terrorist dichotomy. Another argument relates to how the diaspora imagines the Syrian nation —as a secular country previously characterised by the peaceful coexistence of various religions and expressions of Islam. Moreover, the role of Syria in the context of the Middle East is another aspect seen as the target of external attacks; the aim is to subdue the only party maintaining a frontal opposition to Israel, which used to act as a guardian of Palestinian resistance and, hence, of the great Arab causes. Another point of almost unanimous agreement is the view on the future of the crisis, where extensive optimism prevails concerning a definition in favor of the Syrian government. With or without a transition or a change in government, Syria is expected to succeed in repelling what is merely seen as foreign interference.
Leftist parties, which in Argentina tend to support demonstrations and events in favor of the “Arab causes”, have adopted since the beginning of the conflict a distant attitude from these more actively engaged Arab community organisations. The socialist left making up the Left Front (Frente de Izquierda), for instance, has held public rallies burning pictures of Bashar al-Assad, with speakers labeling the Syrian president as genocidal and dictatorial, denouncing his covenant with the United States, Europe and Russia in order to stay indefinitely in power and to suffocate the rebellion of the Syrian people, spreading this position among university militancy spaces. In May this year, a delegation of the Left Front met with the Argentine Foreign Office to claim greater flexibility for the Syria Programme, requesting that the certificate of good conduct requirement for visa applicants be eliminated and that the Argentine government commit itself to receiving 100,000 Syrians who, from the viewpoint of these leftist organisations, are fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship.
Clearly, refugee policies and actions fall under the realm of readings of the conflict by local actors, and the government’s announcement is already giving rise to new debates and side-taking.