Jasmine Roman writes for The National:
One of the propaganda campaigns of the Assad government tries to convince Syrians that they don't need the rest of the world, and they can survive with the austerity policies that are engulfing the country. People are left trapped, a constant reminder that they are the ones who suffer because of the strengthening sanctions.
As the violence spiralled out of control last month, reaching Damascus's city centre, several embassies closed their
missions or temporarily suspended activities citing concern for the safety of their staff. The decision made sense, in a way, since the Syrian government did not respond to requests for more security measures to protect their premises.
But whether the closures were based on security reasons, or were designed to exert more political pressure on the regime, the result was that Syrians have been further isolated. Travel limitations are the most obvious example. The process of applying for a visa to visit another country has become more costly and more risky. It can involve several trips across borders to visit embassies in Amman or Beirut.
The main road to Jordan has become dangerous with frequent assaults and the destruction of the bridge on the Deraa motorway that connects Damascus to Amman. Many Syrian men have reported that they have been turned back at the border for no specific reason. Travelling to Beirut is a bit safer for now, but also involves uncertainties because the roads can be blocked at any time.
It would be much less painful for Syrians if the embassies opened their visa centres in Damascus, but is it feasible? Admittedly, visa applications have to be judged by senior embassy staff, but those decisions could be made overseas. Reopening offices that could receive applications would also give jobs back to local staff who have found themselves unemployed.
"I have to think many times before making any trip now," one friend told me. She used to make frequent trips abroad but now has to consider the expense, waste of time and the risks involved.
There has been some limited reprieve. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security recently announced that it would provide temporary protective status for Syrians who are already in the country. The protective status is based on the fact that Syrian expatriates are unable to safely return to their homes.
There is a downside to this too. It reinforces class distinctions by being limited to Syrians who can afford to be in the United States. And conceivably the announcement might expose expatriates' families to being targeted by Syrian intelligence and security forces.
Most of the airlines began to stop flights to Syria last summer. Since then, the daily flights by Turkish Airlines were considered as practically the only connection with Europe and farther afield. But following the shuttering of the Turkish embassy, the Turkish national carrier announced that it would cease all flights, a decision that went into effect on Sunday. Syrians who are left with almost no travel options now regret that they used to complain about the lengthy delays and long layovers while connecting to other flights via Istanbul.
Travel agencies in Damascus have reported that Royal Jordanian had adopted a unique measure: only Syrians who were born in the capital were being allowed to book tickets out of the country. That unfair practice might vary based on the wasta of the passengers, or indeed may have been repudiated by Royal Jordanian already.
For other airlines, a separate visit to Jordan or Lebanon is necessary just to get a transit visa. Some countries in the Gulf have made it increasingly hard for Syrians to get visas at all.
As for visitors arriving in Syria, tourism has been one of the industries that has been severely affected by the unrest. Many travel agencies have closed and others keep their doors open while losing money. "We don't have any work and zero profit," one agent told me. "We will soon close down but we are trying to save the office's reputation as long as we can run it."
There has been an increasingly sinister note to all of this. Last week, the government issued a declaration that prohibited men between 18 and 42 from leaving the country unless they obtained clearance from the military conscription department. There have been rumours since that the government withdrew the decree shortly thereafter.
In the Syrian context, this would give security services a tracking device and a further lever of control over Syrian men. And, of course, the practice would give rise to nepotism and bribery.
"We are suffocating, we are buried alive," one young man told me, holding his hands at his throat in a choking motion. "We have gone through sudden unemployment, high living expenses and now travel restrictions."
As the constraints are intensifying, the sense of isolation is increasing. Ultimately this might encourage more creative solutions from within to escape the system of control. For how long can President Bashar Al Assad persuade the Syrian people that they have to live in this isolation?
Syrians have been here before. A couple of decades ago, travelling to the US or Europe was beyond most Syrians' dreams. Can we really go back to those days when Syrians were routinely denied visas because of our nationality? For how long can we believe the story that the world is working to save Syrians while we live under these conditions?