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    Middle East
     Aug 18, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Maliki seeks a lifeline in Syria
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is scheduled to arrive in Damascus for a two-day visit on Monday. This will be his first visit to the Syrian capital - where he lived as a refugee in the 1990s during the Saddam Hussein years - since becoming prime minister in April 2006.

Maliki is due to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari, Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Abrash, Vice President Farouk al-Shara and Foreign

Minister Walid al-Moualem. They are to discuss security and the political situation in Iraq.

Syria, which was reluctant at first to welcome the Iraqi leader, finally approved his visit, stressing that talks must deal with reconciliation, fair and balanced political representation of the Sunnis, amending the de-Ba'athification laws and articles in the Iraqi constitution that deal with federalism - a concept that the Syrians curtly refuse.

These were not conditions, the Syrians stated, but points of discussion. Moualem was quoted saying that his country "looks for finer political, security and economic relations with Iraq". The US has not commented on the visit, but if it produces results, then this is good news for the Bush White House.

After visiting Tehran this month, Maliki was scrutinized by President George W Bush, who said: "My message to him is, when we catch you playing a non-constructive role [with the Iranians], there will be a price to pay." This was in reference to Maliki's statement that Iran is playing a "positive and constructive" role in "providing security and fighting terrorism in Iraq".

Syria started to reconcile with the Maliki regime in late 2006. This came shortly after British prime minister Tony Blair sent an envoy to Damascus, telling the Syrians that it was in the international community's best interest that Syria recognizes - and supports - Maliki and the political system in Iraq.

Syria had tried before - during the era of prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (Maliki's predecessor) - and invited him to Damascus, but the visit was vetoed by the US administration. The US, in 2003-06, had blamed the Syrians for all of the worries in Iraq, claiming that Syria was keeping lax security on the border and helping - or turning a blind eye to - insurgents crossing the border to fight the Americans. Syria repeatedly denied the charges.

By 2006, and after the Iraqi Study Group report in the US, it was clear to the US that the violence was not produced, nor supported by, the Syrians. Syria, however, could help control it. Blair's envoy had been to Washington DC and met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who seconded the British approach towards Syria. Syria responded promptly. It sent Moualem to Baghdad, where he received a red carpet welcome from Maliki, and opened up an embassy in Iraq.

Shortly afterwards, it received Iraqi President Jalal Talabani - another former resident of Syria - for one week of talks in Damascus. It then welcomed the Sunni leader Harith al-Dari, followed by Interior Minister Jawad al-Boulani to discuss security on the 605-kilometer Syrian-Iraqi border.

There are millions of Iraqis, mainly Sunnis, who do not trust either Maliki or the political system of the post-Saddam era. It is one thing for them when pro-American regimes recognize this government, but completely something else when this recognition comes from a credible neighbor like Syria; a country still seen in the eyes of millions as the only remaining champion of Arab nationalism and anti-Americanism.

Syria actually helped legitimize Maliki in the eyes of Iraqi skeptics. In March 2007, Syria attended a security meeting in Iraq, then followed up by attending the Sharm al-Sheikh summit in Egypt, which resulted in the much-publicized meeting between Moualem and Rice. The two officials discussed Iraq.

Syria then appointed two liaison officers, one for security, and the other for the Iraqi community in Syria (estimated at nearly 2 million), along with a "hot line" between Syria and Iraq. It also agreed to observation points on the Syrian-Iraqi border and held a security meeting on Iraq in the Syrian capital this August.

The Syrian position is clear - and greatly resembles that of the US. Both countries are opposed to the carving up of Iraq. Both are opposed to civil war (the Syrians more so even than the Americans because this violence could "spill over" into Syria). And both are opposed to sectarian violence, de-Ba'athification as it stands, and the rule of militias.

Syria preached realism, however, claiming that there are limits to what it can do with regard to the border. During the era of Saddam, the former Iraqi leader used to send car bombs to Syria in the 1980s and the Syrians were unable to prevent that - even when their own security was at stake. It takes two sides to patrol the border, the Syrians say, and as long as cooperation is minimal from the American side, there is only so much Syria can do to monitor the Iraqi border.

Maliki, who was a guest of the Syrian government for many years, is expected to pay back the Syrians. He is expected to show the same degree of friendliness, warmth and gratitude shown by Talabani, who since coming to power has refused to criticize Syria or let his country be used for anti-Syrian propaganda.

So far, Maliki has not done that. He has repeatedly failed to deliver on any of the points raised by the Syrians - mainly reconciliation with the Sunnis, an end to militias and amendment of the controversial de-Ba'athification laws.

Recently, Maliki even "froze" Iraqi approval to restart the Kirkuk-Banias pipeline (obviously under orders from the Americans)

Continued 1 2 

Turks take no delight in Iraqi visit (Aug 10, '07)

Maliki out on his feet (Aug 4, '07)

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(24 hours to 23:59 pm ET, Aug 16, 2007)


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