Yet another devastating reality of the Iraq war:
It’s Monday night in a dingy club on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Two dozen girls are moving half-heartedly on the dance floor, lit up by flashing disco lights.
They are dessed in tight jeans, low-cut tops and knee-high boots, but the girls’ make-up can’t disguise the fact that most are in their mid-teens. It’s a strange sight in a conservative Muslim country, but this is the sex business, and it’s booming as a result of the war in Iraq.
Backstage, the manager sits in his leather chair, doing business. A Saudi client is quoted $500 for one of the girls. Eventually he beats it down to $300. Next door, in a dimly lit room, the next shift of girls arrives, taking off the black all-covering abayasthey wear outside and putting on lipstick and mascara.
To judge from the cars parked outside, the clients come from all over the Gulf region – many are young Saudi men escaping from an even more conservative moral climate. But the Syrian friend who has brought me here tells me that 95 per cent of the girls are Iraqi.
Most are unwilling to talk, but Zahra, an attractive girl with a bare midriff and tattoos, tells me she’s 16. She has been working in this club since fleeing to Syria from Baghdad after the war. She doesn’t like it, she says, “but what can we do? I hope things get better in Iraq, because I miss it. I want to go back, but I have to look after my sister”. Zahra points to a thin, pubescent girl with long black hair, who seems to be dancing quite happily. Aged 13, Nadia started in the club two months ago.
As the girls dance suggestively, allowing their breasts to brush against each other, one winks at a customer. But these girls are not just providing the floor show – they have paid to be here, and they need to pick up a client, or they’ll lose money. If successful, they’ll earn about $60, equivalent to a month’s wages in a factory.
There are more than a million Iraqi refugees in Syria, many are women whose husbands or fathers have been killed. Banned from working legally, they have few options outside the sex trade. No one knows how many end up as prostitutes, but Hana Ibrahim, founder of the Iraqi women’s group Women’s Will, puts the figure at 50,000.
Being here in Syria one immediately notices the vast number of Iraqi refugees and the resentment felt by many average Syrians towards them. Price for food and housing are rising and Iraqis are blamed. Of course, if you’re a US academic who helped draft Iraq’s constitution soon after the fall of Saddam, such issues are irrelevant:
In Iraq as in Israel and Palestine, three outcomes remain possible. In the first, our patience pays off, as ordinary people come to realize that continuing violence solves nothing and as new, realistic leaders emerge who reflect and encourage this sentiment. From prison, the Palestinian activist Marwan Barghouti has already tried to broker a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and he might seek to do it again. If he succeeds and Israel releases him, he could negotiate a serious deal with a coalition government led by Ehud Barak, newly returned as Labor Party leader, or Ami Ayalon, the dovish ex-admiral waiting in the wings. It is certainly worth expending our diplomatic capital to encourage such a result — even if it takes time. The cost of such patience is of course much higher in the case of Iraq, where the resources expended include not just American credibility but also American lives. But our responsibility is correspondingly greater as well.
A second prospect is that violence remains at a low or medium level for years, waxing or waning as it has for two decades in Israel and Palestine and for a shorter time in Iraq. Such violence gradually saps hopes for peace by confirming the parties’ worst fears about each other. Leaders who seek peace are discredited one by one. U.S. involvement may limit the scope of Israeli retaliation to Palestinian attacks, but it can also dilute the chances for progress by teaching the Palestinians that they can fall back on U.S. cover and the Israelis that we will not press them too hard to the table. We are past masters at this sort of crisis management in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; in Iraq, however, we cannot sustain such a role indefinitely.
The third possibility is that our impatience with the failure to make progress leads us to disengage. We know from recent experience what that means for the Middle East: declining hope and growing radicalism are making Gaza look like a smaller, poorer Baghdad, to the detriment of Palestinians, Israelis and our national interest. If we disengage in Iraq too, we will probably save American lives — and risk chaos that could make the present troubles there seem minor by comparison.
The New York Times still publishes such drivel because they believe in the power of the US to positively affect the region. Despite years of contributing to extreme violence in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, we are told to be patient…the Bush administration may succeed. Talk to anybody here in Syria about such ideas, and they’ll rightfully laugh. Most simply want freedom from “us”.