Edition 35 Volume 8 - September 10, 2024


Anatomy of a botched sabotage -   Rime Allaf

The burden of proof has rarely gotten in the way of a rapid, indignant charge of guilt.

Enough is enough -   Safa A. Hussein

Syria-based Baath leaders have publicly stated they will use violent means to topple the Iraqi government.

Zero conflict with and among the neighbors -   Mustafa Kibaroglu

Turkey's relations with Syria and Iraq have a very important common denominator, water.

What next for Syria? -   David Schenker

To date, the administration has been generous in response to Syria's promises to improve its behavior.

Anatomy of a botched sabotage
 Rime Allaf

Years of accusations, recriminations and outright demonization have rendered most Syrians stoic and resilient about their reputation as radicals, rejectionists and rebels. None of these terms is meant to include even benign interpretations of leftist idealism.

Lately, a new moniker has joined the list of critical descriptions, with Syria now labeled a spoiler, a nasty agent making everything it touches turn awry and conjuring images of a perfect, trouble-free region that would be heaven on earth had it not been for the incorrigible Syrians.

It passes as analysis to point to the alleged common denominator to all the problems in the region as being Syria; when the latter uses the reverse side of the argument, pledging to help solve the problems of the region, it is accused of being too big for its boots and too confident of its capacity to influence--a line of reasoning that goes missing when it comes to apportioning blame following yet another atrocity.

While the burden of proof has rarely gotten in the way of a rapid, indignant charge of guilt, the novelty of automatically laying the blame on Syria seems to be wearing off with each additional facile attack. Some destiny-changing events, such as the spectacular assassination of Rafiq Hariri, quickly turned into a quasi-unanimous condemnation of Syria (or someone in Syria) based on the political scenarios playing out and on physical presence. It was, and remains, unproved, but for a lot of people it simply made sense.

The accusations following the August bombings in Baghdad, however, have been received in a much more hesitant tone even though numerous parties had already condemned Syria for having kept its borders open since the invasion of Iraq. Even the usually vocal pan-Arab (mostly Saudi) media has been hugely subdued in its reactions, going as far as reminding the Iraqi prime minister of Syria sheltering a good one and a half million Iraqi refugees, and of its paying a heavy price because of this humanitarian gesture.

Most Arab states have remained quiet for similar reasons, finding it beggars belief that the president of one country would allow such a crime to be commissioned while hosting the president of the other. A deterioration between Syria and Iraq would hurt both sides, emerging voices of reason lament, and serve no one. Rather than rush to judgment, the Arab League is advocating inter-Arab dialogue to keep inconveniently effective Turkish mediation out, but seems mostly tongue-tied itself.

Most importantly, the Iraqis themselves have been arguing about the suitability and veracity of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's announcements. Syria's perfectly pertinent points about having hosted people like Maliki himself during the Saddam Hussein years, albeit not entirely for altruistic reasons of humanitarian asylum, continue to put the focus on the burden of proof, especially as all the regimes in the region are only too knowledgeable about the value of "confessions" made so quickly, so publicly. Tellingly, the occupiers themselves have remained quiet, in a real change of attitude from the White House of Bush, Rumsfeld and co., who would have jumped with relish at yet another opportunity to threaten the Syrians.

Of all the demands made by the Iraqi prime minister, none is perhaps as indicative of possible ulterior motives as the call for an international tribunal to try suspects for the case, especially in the presence of a foreign occupation whose troops abound.

With so much commotion, it would be easy to forget that this degradation not only comes in the midst of a great improvement in Syrian-Iraqi ties, but also in Syrian-American relations (including, ironically, in the realm of Iraqi security), Syrian-Saudi relations (strengthened by a redefinition of mutual goals in Lebanon) and the progress made between Syria and the European Union on the Association Agreement.

Syria is supposed to have jeopardized all this, just for the evil satisfaction of killing so many Iraqis in the middle of an official visit by their prime minister to Damascus? In the highly unlikely affirmative, this would have certainly consisted of a clean break with recent policy and with the latest political developments.

There is an attempt to make a clean break and there is a sabotaging spoiler, but it is difficult to imagine Syria inflicting self-harm after such a long process of gradual rapprochement with neighbors and regional powers. Whoever choreographed the Maliki accusations (assuming they were not simply a knee-jerk reaction) has the entire region in his sights.

When a new strategy to secure the realm was proposed to the Israeli prime minister in 1996, it based itself on the need to contain, destabilize, and roll back the entities threatening Israel's hegemony. Iraq was duly secured, with many of these strategists having graced the Bush administration's design of the invasion of Iraq. But frustratingly for Israel, especially for the same prime minister who has come back to power 13 years after "A Clean Break" was initially sold and articulated to him, Syria has a nasty habit of slipping out of isolation (whether by determination or by sheer luck) and making itself a difficult target to secure, destabilize or roll back.

The problem is not merely one between Syria and Iraq, or Syria and another of its neighbors. There are real spoilers in the region with their eye on the bigger picture, for a longer term, determined to keep molding the region according to their unique needs. Maliki's accusations may have been ill-thought reactions, to which his own shaky political future contributed, but there is no doubt that inspiration found him, and that the regional spoilers never fail to be of service when the need arises. So far, it is reassuring to note that the attempted sabotage has failed, but Syria and Iraq have a lot of catching up to do.- Published 10/9/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

Enough is enough
 Safa A. Hussein

On the morning of April 8, 2024, Baghdad was in chaos. Rumors flew that American tanks were seen in parts of the city. Most soldiers and Baathist civilian militants usually deployed in the streets of Baghdad abandoned their posts. Yet small new groups of heavily armed civilians appeared in parts of Baghdad. When I stopped one of these groups in al-Mansoor neighborhood west of Baghdad, a young blond man with a Syrian accent identified the group as Murabiteen, a Quranic term that describes warriors committed to defending Islamic territory.

That was the first time I encountered so-called Arab volunteers who came to Iraq to "defend it against the American invasion". Several months later, a senior security official stated that remnants of these Arab volunteers were part of a growing security problem. Several hundred Syrian passports belonging to these individuals were seized by Iraqi authorities.

As the political process evolved in Iraq, so did Syrian intervention. Prior to recent improvements in security, more than 100 foreigners were lured to Iraq every month by al-Qaeda, of which approximately 80 percent transited through Syria. During the past six years, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed or injured in suicide attacks executed by these fighters. Interrogation of captured foreign recruits reveals that Syria tolerated their movement across its border.

The Syrians say it is difficult to control a 600 km-long border. That may be true. But it is also true that more than 80 percent of these al-Qaeda members enter Syria via Damascus airport, which is under tight security control. Moreover, reports about training camps for insurgent groups on Syrian territory are widespread.

Syria's patronage and support for the Baath party are another story. Most senior Iraqi Baath leaders reside in Syria. There are arrest warrants and red alerts pending against many of them due to their involvement in crimes and violence in Iraq. Because the Syrian authorities award privileges such as residence permits to Baath members, Iraqi migrants have an incentive to join the Baath party.

In addition to the formal Baath General Command of Armed Forces located in Damascus, Baathists maintain militant groups there such as the Muhammad Army, al-Rashideen Army and the Army of Men of the Naqshabandi Way. All these groups have publicly claimed responsibility for attacks against Iraqi civilian and government targets. They coordinate and sometimes cooperate with al-Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups. Recently, the Baathists formed the Liberation and Jihad Front as a framework for coordinating military operations with other terrorist groups. And Baath leaders have publicly stated that they will use violent means to topple the Iraqi government.

Iraq has made numerous attempts to resolve these issues through direct bilateral talks, meetings with neighboring countries and other multilateral talks. Iraqi negotiators complain about stubborn Syrian denials. During these talks, Syria has reduced the rate of flow of fighters into Iraq but has not stopped it.

Following the Iraq-US agreement on the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and last June's successful American diplomatic engagement with Syria, many Iraqis hoped that Syria would cease its destabilizing activities against Iraq and do more to control its borders. Yet reports continued to flow about Baathists planning coordinated attacks with insurgent groups to destabilize the Iraqi government. Some captured Baathists also pointed to plans in this direction. And intelligence reports indicated that suicide attacks would target vital and heavily populated areas in Baghdad.

So when the August 19 attacks that targeted the ministries of finance and foreign affairs occurred in Baghdad, the indications pointed to Syria with its record of harboring Baathists and tolerating the passage of suicide bombers to Iraq. A few days later, after similar truck-bombs and members of a related terrorist cell were captured, initial investigations supported the earlier intelligence reports.

When Iran and Turkey offered to mediate to reduce Iraqi-Syrian tensions, Baghdad's response was that Iraqis would talk directly with Syrians. Yet Iraq welcomes efforts by both countries to convince Syria to stop harboring terrorists and criminals.

Some observers think that Iraqi accusations against Syria are mistimed, for two reasons. Firstly, political campaigning for the January 2024 elections is about to begin and some political parties may not support the government's position for domestic political reasons. Secondly, they believe Syria is in the process of responding to western and Arab efforts to distance it from Tehran and don't wish to encourage measures that might disturb this process. This approach ignores the fact that Syria benefits from more than 500,000 Iranian tourists per annum and that by 2024 Iranian investment in Syria will reach $10 billion.

The Iraqi government response that requested a United Nations-led investigation of foreign involvement in destabilizing Iraq in a way echoes the people's cry: enough is enough.- Published 10/9/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.

Zero conflict with and among the neighbors
 Mustafa Kibaroglu

On August 31, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu rushed to Baghdad and Damascus to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He sought to ease the tension that suddenly erupted between Iraq and Syria due to accusations over responsibility for recent terrorist attacks in Baghdad that claimed the lives of more than a hundred people.

Davutoglu was not the only one who sought to mitigate the crisis. Other countries such as Iran and international organizations such as the Arab League also took swift steps to bring the crisis to a quick termination. However, it was the Turkish initiative that attracted the most attention.

Since the Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey in the November 2024 elections and further enhanced its position in government in the July 2024 elections, Turkey's foreign policy has started to show a considerable, yet unprecedented, degree of interest in the Arab-Israel conflict, resulting in a series of attempts to mediate between the parties.

These attempts were first received with a certain degree of suspicion as to their purpose and scope. Eventually, however, they came to be seen as making significant contributions to the betterment of relations between the parties, until Israel's Gaza offensive. Whether Turkey will continue this policy of active involvement in efforts to resolve the conflict between Israel and Arab countries after the showdown in Davos between Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres remains to be seen.

However, the visits paid by Davutoglu to Iraq and Syria immediately after the crisis broke out between the two countries elevated Turkey's involvement in Middle Eastern affairs to a new level and raised a number of questions in the minds of observers both inside and outside Turkey.

Does the initiative mean further Middle Easternization of Turkey's foreign policy? Is Turkey drifting away from Europe and its century-long westernization process? Is Turkey trying to expand the scope of its "zero conflict with the neighbors" policy, the brainchild of Davutoglu who is also a professor of international relations, to a more ambitious one such as "zero conflict among neighbors"?

Davutoglu's visit to both Baghdad and Damascus may have many explanations depending on which angle one approaches the issue from. Some are worth mentioning. First, the timing as well as the style of the visit fits the fundamental premises of Davutoglu's neighborhood policy (i.e., "zero conflict with neighbors") that he devised for Turkish foreign policy when he was chief advisor to the prime minister on foreign policy matters. This posits that Turkey and its neighbors will sooner or later need each other and therefore should have friendly relations.

This principle may sound overly optimistic and idealistic. But it is compatible with the "peace at home, peace in the world" principle of Turkish foreign policy laid out by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on very realistic terms at the foundation of the Republic in 1923 following the War of Liberation against occupying powers.

Second, Turkey's relations with Syria and Iraq have a very important common denominator, which is the effective and equitable use of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers both originating in Turkey and flowing down to the Gulf. Water has emerged as a high-priority political issue across the world for a number of reasons--from environmental degradation, pollution, climate change and population growth to urbanization.

"Water war" scenarios have dominated headlines in different parts of the world, none more so than in the Middle East. One such scenario forecasts conflict between Turkey and its two downstream riparians Syria and Iraq. This has not happened, even though Turkey and Syria came to the brink of a confrontation in 1998 over a totally different issue, the Syrian role in harboring the head of the PKK terrorist organization.

The fact that any hot confrontation or high tension stemming from the unsatisfied demands of parties over the use of water has not been seen yet in the region should not mislead observers into thinking that such an event is unlikely. Unless some old policies are purged and new ones introduced, it remains a real possibility.

Relying on support from the United States and Israel, the post-invasion governments in Iraq have been much more assertive from day one in their demands from Turkey, especially concerning the waters of the Tigris River. These demands, supported by international and national pressure groups, seem to have affected Turkey's plans to use the waters of the river for irrigation as well as hydropower generation projects such as the construction of the Ilisu Dam.

Beyond a political dimension at strategic and operational levels, Turkey's long-term policy of using this scarce resource rests on a variety of factors, including climatic and meteorological conditions and the social and cultural development of the country as well as manifold security issues. Turkey certainly wouldn't like to be seen as using water as a weapon, as some argue, in its relations with a country that is passing through so painstaking a process of state-building that is also extensively supported by the Turkish government and private sector.

Hence the inclusion of Syria, which also has powerful claims on the waters of the Euphrates River, into this picture may be thought to help counterbalance the rather assertive position of Iraq, which in turn harbors deep differences with Syria regarding the use of the waters of these rivers. It may not be mere coincidence that just a few days after Davutoglu's visit to Baghdad and Damascus, the Iraqi minister of water and natural resources and the Syrian minister of irrigation visited Ankara to meet with their Turkish counterpart to discuss the water issue.

These developments suggest that Davutoglu's mediation initiative between Iraq and Syria may aim, among other things, to secure Turkey the psychological edge in trilateral relations.- Published 10/9/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.

What next for Syria?
 David Schenker

Shortly after taking office, in a dramatic departure from Bush-era policy, President Barack Obama made good on his pledge to reestablish dialogue with Syria. In recent months, in an effort to build confidence and improve the relationship, the administration has dispatched seven delegations to Damascus, including multiple visits from its top Middle East diplomat and peace envoy and senior military officials.

Much of the discussion has focused on stabilizing Iraq, an area where Syria--the leading point of entry for al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents since 2024--could potentially make a significant contribution. Washington also sought Syrian assistance in bolstering the embattled government in Baghdad. The administration chose Iraq because it was assumed to be a topic of "mutual interest", a belief seemingly confirmed in June 2024 by Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa, who described Iraq as "a very strong opportunity to cooperate with this administration".

Three months later, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that Damascus is falling short. Not only are jihadis continuing to flow into Iraq via Syria, but the Assad regime appears to be actively working to undermine the stability of the Iraqi government. The recent carnage in Baghdad tells the story.

On August 25, Iraq withdrew its ambassador to Syria to protest the suicide bombings that killed nearly 100 Iraqis a week earlier. In his videotaped confession, the mastermind of the attacks admitted he planned them on orders from a man in Syria. Adding insult to injury, the attacks emanating from Syria came just one day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Damascus for talks with President Bashar al-Assad about border security.

Despite Syrian protestations to the contrary, the bombings were not an aberration. In mid-July--a month after the initial US-Syrian military talks about border security--several armed fighters with Syrian passports were arrested in Mosul, another Iraqi city beset by suicide attacks. At about the same time, Assad himself hosted anti-American Iraqi Shi'ite militia leader Muqtada Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has proven a significant impediment to efforts to stabilize Iraq.

Regardless of whether the latest attacks were perpetrated by al-Qaeda or Baathist insurgents, Damascus bears responsibility. For the past six years, the Assad regime has provided al-Qaeda carte blanche to attack neighboring states via its territory. The relationship between this terrorist organization and this terror-sponsoring state remains complicated. Likewise, even now Damascus continues to oppose extradition of Iraqi Baathists who are working to destabilize the government in Baghdad.

After half a year of its good-faith effort to forge a partnership with Damascus based on "mutual respect and mutual interest", the Obama administration has hit a wall. While Syrian officials routinely articulate a desire for improved relations with Washington, the Assad regime has yet to take steps necessary to make this possible. From Iraq to Lebanon to its ongoing support for Hamas, and despite Washington's conciliatory steps, Damascus remains intransigent.

Concerned that Iraqi-Syrian tensions could undermine efforts to rehabilitate Syria, Washington has yet to condemn Damascus for its role in the Baghdad bombings, preferring instead to describe the events as an "internal matter" between the governments. Based on the priority Washington ascribes to Iraq, however, a stronger US response is warranted.

To date, the administration has been rather generous in response to Syria's promises to improve its behavior. Based on Syria's pledge to cooperate with CENTCOM on border security issues, for example, this past June the Obama administration undertook to return an ambassador to Damascus, a seat vacant since 2024. In July, the administration likewise eased the process of granting export licenses to Syria's aviation industry, another conciliatory gesture designed to encourage better behavior.

Absent critical Syrian follow-through on Iraq, Washington may want to reevaluate its conciliatory approach. While the administration is unlikely to take dramatic steps anytime soon, it could deliver a powerful message to the Assad regime during the UN General Assembly in mid-September. Syrian officials have been advocating an Assad-Obama summit for months and are hoping to engineer a meet and greet on the sidelines of the New York meeting. Given the ongoing problems posed by Syria, Obama would be well advised to snub Assad in New York.

Despite the best of intentions, the Obama administration approach has not yet convinced Damascus to change its ways. While it may be premature to throw in the towel and resume the Bush-era policy of isolation, if Syria's current behavior in Iraq persists it should provoke a policy review that adds some sticks to the arsenal of carrots already deployed against Damascus. The recent suicide bombings in Baghdad suggest an absence of mutual US-Syrian interests in Iraq. Apparently, the Assad regime does not want a strong, democratic and stable Iraq. As the US starts to draw down its forces there, Washington's Syria policy should reflect this reality.- Published 10/9/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

David Schenker is the Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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