US's Syrian raid sets Iraq on fire By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The United States raid on Syria on October 27, which led to the
killing of eight civilians, sent shockwaves throughout Iraq, mainly enraging
the Sunni community, former Ba'athists and tribal leaders who are pro-Syrian.
It came as such a surprise to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that he was
completely dumfounded at commenting. Here was the prime minister of Iraq, an
ally of Iran and a former resident of Syria, watching Syria being attacked from
his own territory - without his knowledge.
Maliki's relations with Damascus can be described as cordial at worse, warm at
best. They have never been excellent, but he categorically opposes any
destabilization of Syria, knowing that
the spillover into Iraq would be colossal.
Other politicians, like President Jalal Talabani, also were not informed
beforehand of the raid, which added insult to injury. Talabani, too, would have
said "no" since, unlike Maliki, he commands an excellent relationship with
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr was reportedly
Pressure was so high from disgruntled Iraqis that the Maliki government was
forced to change its originally silent attitude towards the raid, 24 hours
after US planes landed in the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal. Ali Dabbagh, the
government spokesman, explained, "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be
used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries." Assistant Foreign
Minister Labid Abbawi added, "We are trying to contain the fallout from the
incident. It is regrettable and we are sorry it happened."
A prominent Kurdish politician, Mahmud Othman, confirmed that the raid been
carried out without informing the central government in Baghdad. He feared,
however, that such action would only add to the anti-American sentiment in Iraq
and make it harder for Iraqi officials to sign the controversial Status of
Forces Agreement (SOFA) security agreement with the US government. This has
been debated for months by Washington and Baghdad.
Othman, who supports signing a deal with the US, said, "It [the raid] will be
used against the agreement and will give the Iranians reason to increase their
interference here against the agreement. Now neighboring countries have a good
reason to be concerned about the continued US presence in Iraq."
The SOFA, if signed, will replace the United Nations mandate - which expires at
the end of the year - under which the US currently operates in Iraq.
Shi'ite response Each party in Iraq has its own reasons for opposing the
raid, and the possibility of further US confrontation with Syria. Iraqi
Shi'ites, who were never too fond of the Americans, feel that the US action is
aimed at weakening a prime ally of Iran. They fear that this could be an
indicator that war with Iran - or at least a similar attack - could be on the
immediate horizon before President George W Bush leaves the White House.
Former US ambassador to the United Nations and prominent neo-conservative, John
Bolton, only added to their fears when he appeared on the popular Arabic talk
show Bi Saraha (Frankly) on the Saudi channel al-Arabiya this
week and warned that if sanctions did not work, war was coming with Iran. The
UN has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program,
while the US has imposed some on its own accord.
The Syria raid has electrified Iraq's Shi'ites, who are once again calling on
Maliki not to sign the SOFA, claiming it will be used against Iran since it
would give the US long-term access to Iraqi territory. This week, the call was
repeated by Shi'ite heavyweights Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (who is
originally Persian) and Muqtada.
Sunnis are furious, given their historic relations, both personal and
commercial, with the Syrians. While Iran always served as an umbrella for Iraqi
Shi'ites, Syria did the same for Iraqi Sunnis and they turned to it in need of
shelter and salvation after the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
Damascus has been very vocal in demanding the Sunnis' return to the political
process, requesting that they be given a greater role under Maliki through
rapprochement with the Iraqi Accordance Front and the Iraqi Islamic Party. It
also called for amending the de-Ba'athification laws, which targeted scores of
Sunnis, a political amnesty to get thousands of Sunnis out of Iraqi and US
jails, and opposed annexing Kirkuk (a town that Sunnis consider Arab Sunni) to
Of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, a majority are Sunnis. They were
treated well by the Syrians after their exodus in 2003. They do not want to go
back to Iraq, but might have to if relations sour within Syria. What makes the
Syrian-Iraqi link more sensitive is the overlap of powerful tribes between both
countries, both of which are strongly opposed to a US strike on Syria.
These tribes once formed the backbone of the anti-American movement in Iraq and
many of them have joined in the Awakening Councils, created in 2007 to combat
al-Qaeda in Iraq. They were persuaded to change sides through political
support, money and arms, dished out generously by the Americans. If they get
angry with the Americans and decide to abandon the Awakening Councils, this
could spell disaster for the US in Iraq
One of the tribes on the verge of an outburst against the Americans because of
the raid is the Bakara tribe, with an estimated 1 million people divided in
half between Syria and Iraq. The second important tribe is the Tai, with 25,000
members in Syria and a significant number in Iraq. Then comes al-Jabour, with
350,000 people, who are based mainly in Iraq and partially in Syria. The other
major strong tribe is the Shammar, which, like al-Bakara, is divided between
Syria and Iraq.
The politically weak tribes include the al-Sharabin (90,000 members) and the
al-Oudaidat, but which has more than 500,000 members living inside Syria. Other
tribes include the al-Ruwula and the Hassana of the Syrian desert; the Butainat
and the Abadah, near the ancient city of Palmyra; and the Fadan Walad and the
Fadan Kharsah of the Euphrates desert. All of these tribes are "kings of the
Syrian-Iraqi border" with more influence to get things done than the Syrians,
Iraqis and Americans combined. They are also categorically opposed to
confrontation with Syria through Iraqi soil and the Americans cannot but listen
to their objections, and take them into serious consideration.
Pressure from the Syria raid has forced the government to show some
intransigence with the Americans over the SOFA. Already, too many people are
frowning at Maliki for letting the Americans raid a neighboring Arab state from
his territory. He cannot be seen as cuddling up too close to the Americans, so
as not to upset the Iraqi street (both Sunni and Shi'ite) or the Iranians.
Now, Maliki wants to delete any reference in the draft SOFA to the possibility
of American troops staying until after 2011. According to the draft, the
Americans will withdraw from towns and villages by June 2009, and from all of
Iraq in 2011. Another demand over the draft regards the immunity of US soldiers
stationed in Iraq. The current draft says that a US committee will decide
whether a soldier has committed a crime on Iraqi soil, and judge him
accordingly. The amendment reads that a joint Iraqi-US committee should do the
task, not just an American one. Also, clause 9 of section 12 grants immunity
from Iraqi law to American soldiers, which Maliki wants changed.
And the Syrian response ...
The Syrians have resorted to several measures in response to what happened on
October 27, all of which could lead to much trouble in the region, unless the
US comes up with an apology (as requested by the Syrian government).
One symbolic step was to close down the American school in Damascus and the
American Culture Center. The school, particularly painful for Americans because
it is viewed as part of their cultural mission worldwide, was opened in 1956 by
special agreement between the Syrian Foreign Ministry and then-secretary of
state John Foster Dulles. Other more concrete steps include:
Suspension of the work of the Syrian-Iraqi security committees, which are
headed by the ministers of Interior of Syria and Iraq. This means no more
sharing of information on jihadis wanting to cross the border into Iraq, or
Suspension of diplomatic relations, which would lead to the recall of Syria's
newly appointed ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares. Fares, who hails from a
prominent tribe that overlaps Syria and Iraq and is a Ba'athist, was expected
to play a significant role in reconciliation between Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis,
due to the excellent relations he commands with both.
Additionally, his appointment had greatly legitimized the US-backed Maliki
regime in the eyes of ordinary Iraqi Sunnis. It was one thing when a country
like Bahrain or Jordan recognized the Maliki government; this is expected given
their strong relations to the United States. It is another when Syria - which
is at odds with the US and happens to still be Ba'athist, sends an ambassador
to Baghdad. Such a step does wonders to Maliki's image in the eyes of his
countrymen, and the opposite would logically greatly harm him.
Reduction of the number of troops stationed on the border of Iraq, which would
make it easier for foreign fighters to cross into Iraq. It is still unclear if
this means bringing down the sand walls, observation and control centers that
the Syrians created in 2005 and which are dotted all along the border to keep
cars, smugglers and terrorists from crossing. On Friday, the Syrian government,
however, denied it had reduced the number of troops stationed on the border.
The Syrians are still waiting to hear a logical and official explanation from
Washington, either from Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or Defense
Secretary Robert Gates. "Sources" in the US administration, along with press
reports, are saying that the man targeted in the attack was Abu Ghadiyah, a top
commander of al-Qaeda. The Syrians are crying foul play, saying that if
Ghadiyah was hiding in Syrian territory, they would have been the first to hunt
him down because his presence threatens the national security of Syria.
Had the Americans informed them that this person was hiding in a certain
location, they would have tracked him down, as in the case with many jihadis
who have been nailed thanks to joint cooperation between Syria, Iraq and the
United States. Abu Ghadiya, after all, is a young al-Qaeda operative (aged 30)
from Mosul in Iraq who is accused of working with former terrorist supremo Abu
Musab al-Zarkawi. Why would Syria, a secular regime that has fought Islamic
fundamentalists since the mid-1960s, be interested in harboring such a deadly
character, knowing perfectly well that he could create a lot of trouble within
Until a proper explanation comes out of the US, it is safe to assume that there
are people in the outgoing US administration who are angry with the moderate
behavior Syria has shown in the past seven months, and want it to change course
towards radicalization. Logic says that radicals cannot deal with moderates; it
makes them uneasy.
When Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, a radical, was confronted with Palestinian
Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat carrying a an olive branch, this
made the Israeli premier uneasy as he would have rather dealt with someone like
Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, another radical, who wanted confrontation
Likewise, the Americans were pleased at the rejectionist policies of Syria in
2003-2005, using them to push for more sanctions, confrontation and possibly
regime change in Syria. When Syria cooperated on Iraq and Lebanon, the radicals
in the US administration felt that they could no longer make proper arguments
against Syria. They were worried that the State Department was engaging the
Syrians over Iraq and indirect peace talks with Israel. To bring all of that to
a halt, they fabricated the Abu Ghadiyah story, attacked Syria, wanting Syria
to retaliate with more radicalization, which would lead to confrontation.
So far, the Syrian response has been symbolic, through protests by hundreds of
thousands of people on October 30, and closure of the American school, and
substantive, through the severing of diplomatic relations with Iraq, but not
with the United States - the Syrians are betting on Democratic Senator Barack
Obama as the next president.