Maliki sees the light in Damascus
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Damascus on Tuesday
for his second trip to the Syrian capital since becoming premier in 2006.
Relations with Damascus have been rapidly improving in recent months, after a
senior governmental delegation headed by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji
Otari visited Baghdad - the most senior official to do so since the downfall of
Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 - this summer.
The Syrians pledged to jump-start cooperation on all levels - economic,
political and cultural - and create a joint higher council with the Iraqis to
oversee the speedy implementation of treaties. Apart from economic engagement,
which the Iraqis badly need, the prime reason behind Maliki's visit was to
discuss greater security cooperation.
Syria shares a 605-kilometer border with Iraq, which has been the subject of
much debate with the United States administration
since 2003. The Americans blamed the Syrians of lax security, claiming that
Damascus was not exerting enough pressure to prevent jihadis from crossing the
border into Iraq.
The Syrian argument was "we are doing our share, but it takes two to tango",
arguing that security on the Iraqi-American side was weak. Saddam used to send
terrorists through those same borders, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and
they would then plant bombs in the heart of Damascus, inflicting heavy damage
on the Syrian government and public alike.
Then, as was the case in 2003-2006, no matter how hard the Syrians tried, 100%
control was impossible without Iraqi cooperation. Despite that, the Syrians
tried, creating a sand wall at one point along the border to keep cars from
crossing, along with control and observation centers dotted along the border to
monitor personnel. Similar centers have been set up by the Americans and Iraqis
on their side of the border, equipped with sophisticated monitoring devices and
technology - certainly more advanced than that of the Syrians.
The Syrians claim that the George W Bush administration knew only too well how
cooperative the Syrians had been in 2003-2008, but never admitted it, due to
the ongoing cold war raging between Damascus and Washington. That is now a
thing of the past and both sides agreed in Damascus that a greater mutual
effort would be exerted on the border to help Iraq normalize by the time the
Americans depart completely in 2012.
On another level, Maliki wanted the Syrians to help him police the former
hotbeds of the Sunni insurgency in al-Anbar province in Iraq. He realizes that
because of its excellent relationship with Iraqi tribes, and former Ba'athists,
Syria can use its considerable weight to get them to disarm, or at least tame
their behavior in the months to come and ahead of parliamentary elections in
Last year, Syria appointed an ambassador to Baghdad who hailed from the
overlapping Syrian-Iraqi tribes and who was a Ba'athist, testimony to how
influential he could be with the Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq. Maliki is
particularly worried about the Awakening Councils, which are made up of
approximately 170,000 Sunni tribesmen who were armed to the teeth by the Bush
White House in 2007 to help combat al-Qaeda.
Then, Maliki warned the US against the folly of creating a "state within a
state", claiming that once done with al-Qaeda, these armed groups would train
their guns on the Americans, and eventually the government of Maliki.
What made things worse is that since coming to power in January, US President
Barack Obama has clearly distanced himself from the Awakening Councils, leaving
it to Maliki to clean up the mess created by Bush. Maliki tried to disarm the
groups and cut off their funds, which only fueled an armed conflict between
them and the Iraqi army. Desperate to get rid of them, one way or another,
Maliki is relying on Syria's relationship with Iraqi tribes to help defuse the
crisis with the Iraqi government.
For years, many in the Bush White House claimed that there were limits to what
Syria could do in Iraq. They claimed that at best Syria could only control
pockets of the Sunni street, which has been opposed to the Americans since day
one, while the remainder of Iraqi Sunnis were under the firm control of Saudi
Arabia and the Shi'ites were in full under the control of Iran.
As long as the Syrians and Saudis remained at odds over Lebanon, very little
could be expected from the Syrians in Iraq. That argument no longer stands,
because not only have the Syrians and Saudis settled their differences over
Lebanon, early into the Obama presidency they proved that they could deliver
plenty of results in Iraq.
During the January provincial elections, the Syrians and Saudis used their
considerable influence to get Sunnis to vote in large numbers, even in
anti-Maliki districts like Tikrit, which is Saddam's hometown. This mass
participation in the political process helped bring stability and legitimize
Maliki in the eyes of ordinary Sunnis who for years had seen him as nothing but
a US stooge.
However, Syria has proven to the Americans and Maliki that it has an advantage
in Iraq that is lacking for both the Saudis and Iranians. It has influence in
Sunni districts, and similar influence in the Shi'ite community, through its
excellent relationship with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who last month wrapped up a
very successful visit to Syria.
The Saudis certainly do not have Muqtada's ear, and the Iranians have no such
influence with heavyweight Sunnis like Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi or
parliament speaker Iyad al-Samarrai. Additionally, the Syrians are close to the
Kurds, both Kurdistan President Massoud al-Barzani (who was recently re-elected
for a second term with a 70% majority), and with Iraqi President Jalal
Meaning, although Syria does not have absolute influence in Sunni parts of
Iraq, it has pockets of influence among the Shi'ites and Kurds, giving it the
upper hand over all of Iraq's neighbors. Maliki wants it to use that influence
to stabilize an explosive situation where Kurds are angry with the central
government in Baghdad, Sunnis are angry with the Kurdish one in northern Iraq
and Shi'ites are angry with both for trying to wreck the political system
controlled by them since 2003.
Maliki now has two important "files" on his desk in Baghdad: the oil-rich
region of Kirkuk; and the Sunni community, which he needs on his side to
shoulder security with him and to stabilize the country ahead of the
In January, the Sunnis were made to believe that Maliki had changed his
sectarian ways and was now speaking a language that sounded secular, promising
to deliver on matters that mattered to all Iraqis, like clean water, more
electricity, better schools and higher wages.
As a result, they voted for his list in the provincial elections. Maliki now
needs to put his words into action, and to stop provoking Sunnis via the
Awakening Councils. He needs time to do that, which the Syrians can win him,
with Iraqi Sunnis.
Likewise, he needs to gain more time to hammer out problems with the Kurds over
Kirkuk, a problem that is not on its way to being solved, due to Kurdish
insistence that they get Kirkuk as part of their semi-autonomous region. The
Syrians would never hear of it, and nor would the Iranians, the Turks and the
Saudis. But thanks to its old relations with heavyweights in the Kurdish
community, Syria can help manage the crisis so that it does not explode into
Most of those in power in Baghdad happen to be one-time residents of Syria.
Most of them were welcomed to Damascus during the long years of the Saddam era,
and still have plenty of affection for the Syrians for the hosts they played
for 30 years.
Although personal relations do not account for much in the complex world of
Middle East politics, they are a factor that cannot be ignored and which can be
invested in during difficult times.
Maliki spent quality time in Syria, and so did Talabani and Barzani. Those who
were not fugitives in Syria were residents of Iran, like Abdul Aziz Hakim of
the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and Maliki's predecessor and boss in the
Da'wa Party, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Both Syria and Iran can use their influence with all these players to bring
about real rapprochement in Iraq. Additionally, Syria today has good relations
with Iraqi Ba'athists who fell from grace in 2003 but who are still powerful in
the Iraqi underground.
During his earlier visit to Damascus, Maliki asked the Syrians to hand over
Iraqi Ba'athists. The Syrians refused, reminding him that when he was based in
Syria, they repeatedly turned down requests from Saddam to hand him over.
Maliki now realizes the folly of such a request, since these Ba'athists are
more useful in Syria, where they can help bring about reconciliation, than if
they were languishing in an Iraqi jail. He now sees Syria's influence among all
players in Iraq - primarily Ba'athists - as a blessing in disguise he will use
to bolster his own government in Baghdad.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.