Syrian Relations with Iraq - Better than Ever
I'm back. Sorry for the absence. Travels to Washington last week and bit of flue slowed me down. In D.C., I had the occasion to hobnob with Syrians of many stripes, opposition, pro-government and in between. This is what I learnt.
Syrian Relations with Iraq: Better than Ever
April 22, 2006
A little over a month ago, President Asad said that Syria's relations with Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum were better than anyone could have imagined even three months previously. Syria is quite upbeat about future relations with Iraq. This is not hard to believe as Syrian-Iraqi relations have traditionally been burdened by mistrust and suspicion. Ever since King Faisal took the Iraqi throne in the early 1920s, Iraqi leaders have dreamed of unifying the two countries. Unity dreams only led to bad relations between Arab countries. (This seems to be a lesson of 20th century Arab politics.)
Even during the thaw in Iraqi-Syrian relations during the last years of Saddam, relations between the two countries were not good. Distrust between the rival Bathist regimes, built up over three decades, could not be dispelled in a few short years. With an entirely new leadership in Iraq, the situation is now promising. New possibilities are opening up.
Syria is developing good relations with almost every segment and political faction in Iraq. Syria never had relations with the Shiites, who by and large, hated Syria for being Baathist. This February, Muqtada al-Sadr visited and fell in love with Syria. "He didn't want to leave Damascus," one leading official said with a laugh. Most recently, Jaafari has reached out to Damascus. Few Syrians are deceived that these friendships are anything more than tactical for the moment. It is quite clear that America’s sudden shift toward the Sunnis and its anti-Jaafari policy has motivated Shiites to look to Syria.
If Syria’s good relations with Shiite groups are new, its good relations with Sunni, Kurdish, and Christian Iraqis are not. Barzani, the Kurdish leader, has always been nice with Syria, because Syria extended him protection and refuge for decades when Saddam was persecuting his Kurds and other regional countries were doing the same.
Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq have been making their way to Syria from the outset of the war in 2003. Many came in search of safety; others sent their kids to school in Syria or send their families to hospital there. Many bought houses just in case. There are over 500,000 Iraqis in Syria.
Christian Iraqis have been the most inclined to look to Syria as a friendly country, offering protection and holding out the welcome mat when others would not. As many Iraqi Christians may now be living in Syria as in Iraq. Syria is the one country in the region that is not hemorrhaging Christians, because it has been solicitous of its minorities. But Iraqi Christians will never have any weight in Iraq again. Those that have yet to leave are undoubtedly thinking about decamping. Recently, Syria has announced that it will take in the Palestinian Iraqis who have been trapped along the border areas for lack of passports. Iraq can no longer offer them refuge either.
So long as Washington thrashes around in Iraq, making enemies of one group after another and remains incapable of offering protection to the weak, Syria can count on better relations with Iraqis.
Syria is usually depicted as a spoiler by the US and West. Certainly it played this role during the first months of the War. The description of Syria’s evolving Iraq policy that Abdulla Ta’i elaborated some months ago for Syria Comment, has been confirmed for me by Syrian officials intimately involved in aspects of the country’s Iraq policy.
Furthermore, it has been admitted to me that Syria “miscalculated at every step of the way.” First, it didn't believe that Saddam would fall so quickly, hence Syria encouraged the Jihad that Baghdad sought. Second, Syria reversed its policy of actively assisting the Jihadists over the border once Saddam had fallen and US pressure on Syria became intense. This is because Syria never guessed that Iraqi resistance to US occupation would pick up so swiftly or effectively. Third, Khaddam in 2004 began organizing the Iraqi tribal elements and Sunni Bathists in an attempt to use them to improve bilateral relations with the US. Syria looked at Iraq as a card that could be played to improve relations with the US, not as an end in itself. This was another mistake. Bremer was uninterested in bringing in the Sunnis into Iraqi politics; he disbanded the Army and Baath Party. The US had cut Syria off and was convinced it could solve the terrible sectarian and resistance problems without Syrian help. Rumsfeld and Cheney were adamant about this. The extension of Lahoud’s presidency in September 2004 and the Hariri murder on February 14, 2005 ended whatever efforts Foreign Secretary Powell could still make in trying to bring Syria in from the cold.
“Syria no longer sees Iraq as a means of improving bilateral relations with the US,” I was told. Syria has given up on relations with the US until there is a change of administration. No longer does it see Iraq as a means to improve relations with the US or as a card it can use. Rather, Syria is trying to convert its new relations in Iraq from tactical relationships into something more permanent. It has been working out broader economic plans with its neighbors, which could appeal to Iraqis. Syria is not content to be merely a US spoiler. Instead it is developing a vision of a future Iraq tying Syria together with Iran. It wants stability in Iraq so that new oil and gas pipelines can be built linking the Kirkuk fields to Banyas. In February, Iran and Syria concluded wide-ranging economic and trade agreements, including one to establish energy and transportation links between the two countries via Iraq. Iran is hoping to link up to these lines so it can build both West and East, making it less dependent on the Persian Gulf egress for its production. Egypt is building its gas line into Jordan, which will eventually extend up to Turkey and Europe. If the Iraq line joins this North-South route, Iraq and Iran can play a bigger role in selling to both Egypt and Turkey. This would build a seamless Middle East network of energy lines, giving Iran a greater role as producer, and Syria a greater role as transit nexus.
Turkey has recently become Syria’s biggest trading partner. This week, the Turko-Syrian free-trade pact, initialed two years ago, has been signed and passed through parliament. The relationship will grow quickly. More Turkish investors announced commitments to build in Syria than those of any other country. Iran is also starting up a car assembly plant in Syrian and has announced other investments.
None of this is good for US efforts to isolate Syria and impose a pax-Americana on the region. Both a Christian Science Monitor editorial and al-Jazeera.com quoted me this week suggesting that US interests will be in worse shape in the Middle East by the time it withdraws from Iraq, than when the War on Terror began after 9-11.
This is an anti-America alliance," says Joshua Landis, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and author of Syriacomment.com, who spent 2005 living in Damascus. "My guess is that the US will end up in a weaker position than it started. The war on terror has alienated the Muslim countries who now believe that America is the big bad ogre and specter of imperialism.Today, President Hu Jintao of China arrives in Saudi Arabia, where he is looking for wide ranging oil and gas deals, as well. China is the leading customer of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter. On the military front, the kingdom reportedly is interested buying modern Chinese-designed missiles, perhaps armed with Pakistani nuclear warheads, to counter-balance Iran. China, Russia, and India are throwing their weight behind the new anti-American alliances in the Middle East in the hope that they can wrest control over much of the region's oil from the US. They believe Iraq’s oil development rights, which are slipping from the grasp of the US, is up for grabs. Even, Saudi Arabia, Washington’s closest Arab ally, is seeking to diversify its friendships by looking East. None of this is good for Washington. It could prefigure a major shift in the balance of power in the Middle East.