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ARAB AFFAIRS - Aug 20 - Iraq And Syria Begin To Rebuild Old Ties.

Iraqi PM Nouri Al Maleki, accompanied by a high-level delegation, pays an important visit to Damascus. The visit was regarded by both sides as a milestone in the relationship between the two long-time rivals in the Arab world. The timing of the visit was significant. It came only a few days after a senior US military delegation held talks in Damascus on border control between Syria and Iraq. Al Maleki's visit received extensive media coverage for it represented a strategic shift in both US policy towards Syria and regional politics. For decades, and precisely since the establishment of the Baghdad Pact in 1955, Syrian-Iraqi relations have been fraught with fear and suspicion. The case has never been as clear as it appeared under the US occupation, when the new Iraqi regime persistently accused Syria of trying to undermine its power and legitimacy. Since day one of the US invasion, Syria resisted the strategic shift, which made the US a Middle Eastern player. Syria's position was not based on any sort of sympathy with the former regime of Saddam Hussain. It was rather determined by pragmatic provisions directly related to its security dilemma. For more than three decades relations between the two wings of the ruling Ba'ath party in Damascus and Baghdad have been shaped by mistrust and antagonism. The two countries had been involved in numerous attempts to unseat one another. In terms of regional alignment, the two governments had also taken opposite sides. Syria supported Iran in the eight-year war against Iraq, whereas Iraq backed the anti-Syrian Lebanese elements throughout the 1980s. The only common feature between the two regimes was, however, their utmost pragmatism. As a result and from 1997, Syria and Iraq came to see one another as potential allies. The late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad started cautiously, but steadily, developing relations with the regime of Saddam Hussain. Rapprochement between the two countries was hastened by the ascendance of President Bashar Al Assad to power in 2000. In the following years, Syria tried to develop its political and economic ties with Iraq; but was careful not to provoke the US. The September 11 attacks provided Syria with a mixed fortune to proceed in a quid pro quo policy. Damascus supplied Washington with valuable information on extremists; in return Washington turned a blind eye to the smuggling of Iraqi oil through Syria. This tacit understanding did not last long as the Taliban regime crumbled in Afghanistan and Iraq became the focus of US policy. From a political and strategic perspective, Syria charged that the war against Iraq was planned to serve Israel's interests. A perception that could not be easily dismissed taking into account that the war was advocated by Israel's friends in Washington. In a region that is still very much dominated by a delicate balance of power, Syria feared that a US-backed government in Baghdad would almost certainly place it in between two hostile powers: Israel and a pro-US Iraq. Syria was also concerned about the possible disintegration of Iraq and the likelihood of it affecting its own Kurdish minority. In addition, the war was seen in Damascus as an attempt to reshape the political map of the region in a way that suits Israel's interests. Under the Bush administration, Syria felt that there was little incentive to pursue a different foreign policy approach towards Iraq. Whatever steps it had taken, for example efforts to secure its borders with Iraq, had been barely acknowledged by Washington. Moreover, developments in the region appeared to be also bolstering Syria's position against the US pressure, from Hamas' victory in Palestine, US troubles in Iraq, Iran's confrontational stance vis-a-vis the West, and Hezbollah's victory over Israel during the July 2006 war. Under such conditions, Syria's approach focused mainly on gaining time and weathering the storm until Bush was gone. Bush has now gone and the region seems to have entered a more relaxing mode. Since he took office last January, US President Barack Obama has sent several positive signals towards Syria. Damascus has responded in a likewise manner. Iraq is regarded now as one of the key foreign policy issues where co-operation between the two sides is very possible and equally beneficial. Within this context one must understand Al Maleki's visit to Syria. The Iraqi premier came to Damascus in order to make sure that a US-Syrian understanding on Iraq would not leave him out in the cold.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Aug 22, 2009
Previous Article:TURKEY - Aug 11 - Turkey Offers Water For Iraqi Crackdown On Kurdish Rebels.
Next Article:ARAB ISRAEL RELATIONS - Aug 18 - Israel Puts Brake On West Bank Settlements.

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