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Cablegate: Embassy Damascus

VZCZCXYZ0001
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0405/01 1600401
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 080401Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5058
INFO RUCNNAF/NORTH AF NEA AND SOUTH ASIAN COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS DAMASCUS 000405

DEPARTMENT FOR ECA/A/E RLSWENSON; ECA/A/E/NEA DAIVES, LTALAMI;
NEA/PPD WDOUGLAS, PAGNEW; NEA/ELA

SENSITIVE, SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KPAO SY XF OEXC PGOV PREL
SUBJECT:ECA DECISION REQUESTED ON OPTIONS FOR CONTINUATION OF
FULBRIGHT U.S. STUDENT PROGRAM IN SYRIA


1. THIS IS AN ACTION REQUEST FOR ECA: PLEASE SEE PARAGRAPH 12.

2. [SBU] SUMMARY: The SARG has refused to regularize the 2007-2008
Fulbright U.S. student program in Syria, despite significant
pressure brought to bear by Post. American Fulbright students
remain in Syria on tourist visas and subject to the whims of Syrian
immigration officials. Recent developments highlight the uncertain
status of this program. Post seeks a decision from ECA on whether
to continue the program in the current environment or to pull out
the eight remaining students before the end of their grant periods
in September and December 2008. Post recommends the former approach
but notes this places the students at the mercy of the SARG. END
SUMMARY.

------------------
Timeline of Events
------------------

3. [U] Between March 2007 and February 2008, Post sent six
diplomatic notes to request permission for the ten 2007-2008
students to register at Damascus University and apply for residency
permits. The diplomatic notes were accompanied by the Charg's
direct personal intervention by phone and in person on behalf of the
Fulbright program, both with MFA officials and with the Deputy
Minister of Higher Education.

4. [U] The SARG did not respond to Post's request until an April
2008 diplomatic note from the MFA. This note stated that it was too
late in the academic year for students to register at Damascus
University. The MFA's response did not require the students to
leave Syria.

5. [SBU] In the meantime, the students have been able to remain in
Syria on temporary extensions of their tourist visas, or new tourist
visas obtained from the Syrian Embassy in Washington, DC. Two
students have already completed their grants and departed Syria
permanently. Post has kept the students informed of their
situation. At a May 14 meeting, the A/DCM warned them against
unneccessary travel and made clear the limits of the Embassy's
ability to assist when problems arise with immigration authorities.

----------------------
Trouble at the Borders
----------------------

6. [SBU] Despite the seeming non-objection of Syrian authorities to
the Fulbright students' continued presence in Syria, the students
have encountered problems when trying to reenter the country after
trips abroad. On May 2, 2008, immigration authorities at Damascus
International Airport initially refused re-entry to a Fulbright
student who inadvertently arrived back in the country on the
expiration date of her extended visa. She was allowed to enter on
an exceptional basis by the MFA.

7. [SBU] On May 18, 2008, a student with just a week left of his
grant was denied re-entry from Jordan to Syria despite possessing a
valid six-month, multiple entry visa. He was told his name was on a
list of foreign students who would not be allowed to re-enter Syria.
Unable to return to Syria, he flew back to the States from Amman on
May 22. (Note: Post was unable to confirm the existence of such a
list. End note.)

8. [SBU] Since the May 18 incident, another Fulbright student has
left the country and re-entered, two students extended their tourist
visas in Syria, and two students have received new tourist visas
from the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., all without incident.

-------
Options
-------

9. [SBU] Post proposes two options to address the problems
encounted to date:

-- Option 1: Post continues to press the SARG about ways to
regularize the program and informs the SARG that the students will
continue their research grants on tourist visas until the SARG
regularizes the program. Post reiterates to the students the risk
of being denied re-entry should they depart Syria for any reason and
stresses the inability of the Embassy to intervene on their behalf
with regard to immigration matters; and reminds them that other
problems may arise vis-`-vis the Syrian government.

-- Option 2: Post informs the SARG that because the SARG has not
regularized this part of the Fulbright program, the USG will end the
program of the eight remaining U.S. Fulbright students.

Given that the students do not face harassment from the Syrian
authorities and are successfully pursuing their research goals, Post

recommends option one, but notes this will place the students
continued stay in Syria entirely at the whim of Syrian authorities.
Recent developments have shown the Embassy no longer has the ability
to resolve immigration matters with the SARG on behalf of Fulbright
students. In addition, while we do not expect serious problems to
arise with Syrian authorities as long as the students remain within
Syria, the Embassy's ability to assist students if they do face
harassment would be equal to its ability to assist any American
tourist in Syria. For example, the SARG does not provide consular
notification of arrests of American citizens, and Embassy consular
access to Amcit prisoners is not generally granted.

----------------------------------
Status of the Program in 2008-2009
----------------------------------

10. [SBU] Given the constraints and frustrations experienced in
2007-2008, Post has already decided, with ECA's concurrence, to seek
affiliation for the ten students identified for grants in the
2008-2009 academic year as researchers with the Ministry of Culture
vice students affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education.
Post has had no problem in the past obtaining residency permits for
our Fulbright researchers through the Ministry of Culture. In this
way, if the Ministry of Culture approves, the 2008-2009 students
will be assured the right to apply for residency permits upon their
arrival in Syria and will not be forced to expend time, energy, and
money maintaining tourist visas. Their status as Fulbrighters in
Syria will be sanctioned by the SARG and Post will have recourse
should immigration status problems arise in the course of the year.
Should the Ministry refuse to approve all or any of the researchers'
projects and affiliation, grants will not be awarded.

------------------------------------------
COMMENT: Fulbright Foreign Student Program
------------------------------------------

11. [SBU] Post does not recommend a suspension of the Fulbright
Foreign Student Program under which Syrians travel to the United
States for MA studies. This program is a critical vehicle for the
promotion of mutual understanding and encouraging the development of
Syrian society through the experiences of young Syrians in the
Untied States.

--------------
Action Request
--------------

12. [U] Post seeks ECA's guidance on how to proceed with the
2007-2008 U.S. Fulbright student program in Syria as soon as
possible.

CORBIN

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