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    Middle East
     Nov 1, 2008
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 furious.

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.

Sunni response
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 Iraqi Kurdistan.

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.

Maliki's response
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 vice-versa.
  • 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 Syria?

    Conclusion
    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 with Israel.

    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.

    Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

    (Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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