As the US withdrawal from Iraq become an increasingly firm prospect, the tussle is now quite predictably intensifying among the war-shattered country’s neighbors for influence over what remains of it.
One intriguing example of this is the very serious spat that erupted yesterday between largely Iranian-backed Iraqi PM, Nuri al-Maliki, and the government of Syria.
At issue are Maliki’s allegations that the extremely deadly bombings of last Wednesday were the work of Baathist networks whose leaders have been sheltered by Syria, and his demand that Syria hand them over to Iraq for trial. The Syrians deny that the wanted men, Mohammad Younis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan, are in their country, and point out that they have roundly condemned the bombings.
This new conflict between Baghdad and Damascus is serious– and its timing seems very surprising. Just last week, Maliki undertook a seemingly very successful and lovey-dovey visit to Damascus. He and his Syrian counterpart agreed to set up a “strategic cooperation council”. They agreed to ” establish a mechanism for high-level military dialogue” and pursue many joint economic opportunities.
And in a joint statement, they said,
- “The fraternal relationship between Syria and Iraq is characterized by strong social and pan-Arab ties, as well as common history, culture and neighboring relations of both countries.”
Well, so much for that “fraternal relationship”, eh?
What seems to have happened is that Baghdad’s relationship with Syria has gotten tangled up in the internal power struggle now going on inside the Iraqi regime over how closely it should align with Iran.
When I was in Damascus in June, several of the close-to-power people we talked with there were at pains to note two significant things about Iraq: (a) that the Syrian government considers stabilizing the regime there to be a high priority for them, and (b) that despite Damascus’s long and close strategic relationship with Iran, Syrians see their goals for Iraq as very different from, and sometimes clearly at odds with, those of Iran.
Damascus’s goal for Iraq, they said, is that Iraq should be stable, Arab, and basically secular. Iran’s goal, they allege, is that Iraq should be Shiite-dominated and basically follow Tehran’s theocratic model of governance regardless of whether this threatened the unity and stability of Iraq as a whole.
Damascus’s policy on all this is also influenced by the degree to which the Syrian government, which is basically secular and depends a lot for its internal stability on its pan-Arab credentials, feels it is getting support from other significant Arab powers, principally Saudi Arabia. When Syrian-Saudi relations are tense– as they were from 2005 until about three months ago– then the Syrian government feels less confident about risking a rupture with Tehran.
Right now, both Syria and Saudi Arabia probably feel they have a shared interest in minimizing the amount of influence Tehran can exercise over the Baghdad government– though I doubt if policymakers in either of those governments feel they can eliminate Iran’s influence completely, in the same way that Saddam Hussein was able to do, through the exercise of great internal repression, so long as he was in power…
That there is a huge internal tussle going on right now in the heart of the Iraqi regime is quite evident– though the actual line-ups and interests at work there are still extremely murky.
Last Wednesday’s bomb blast came six years to the day after the fateful August 19 bomb blast of 2003 that killed UN envoy Sergio Vieira De Mello and inaugurated a new period of considerable post-invasion political instability within the country. This year’s August 19 blast killed more than 100 people and left the finance and foreign ministry buildings pertaining to the Maliki government substantially wrecked.
Shortly after the blasts, the ethnically Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, voiced the serious allegation that they were the work of senior security officers within (other parts of) the regime. I find Juan Cole’s logic in claiming that the bombings were aimed at the blocs/parties in control of the targeted ministries to most likely be valid.
The education ministry was also targeted, though not I think as badly hit. It is controlled by a branch of Maliki’s own Daawa Party. The finance ministry has been in the hands of ISCI (whose leader Abdel-Aziz Hakim died in Iran earlier today.) Foreign affairs has, obviously, been largely run and staffed by ethnic Kurds.
I disagree, however, with Juan’s other main conclusion: that the bombings were likely the work of former Baathists, rather than Qaeda-related networks. I also think his allegation “Iraqi Sunni Arab resistance in exile in Syria… are running terrorist cells inside Iraq”, and that these networks were connected withe August 19 bombings, is a serious one that he does nothing whatsoever to authenticate or provide a source for.
But it is, certainly, murky. And all the more so because of the political developments that have been erupting within the coalition that’s been more or less “running” Iraq since 2007, under the different forms of tutelage provided by both the US military and the Iranian theocrats.
On Monday, Raed Jarrar had this fascinating analysis of what’s been going on.
In his view, it was Maliki who took the initiative in breaking his links with what Raed calls the “gang of four”: that is, the two Kurdish parties, ISCI, and the (Sunni) Islamic Accord Party. In his view, Maliki was doing this for these reasons:
- 1- Demographic cleansing: Al-Maliki is against partitioning Iraq now. The gang of 4 have been following and promoting a separatist agenda aimed at creating sectarian/ethnic/religious regions that are self governed instead of having a strong central government in Baghdad running the country. The gang of 4 have been supporting the cleansing campaigns directly and indirectly for years. Al-Maliki’s recent attempts to reverse ethnic and sectarian cleansing and remove all walls in Baghdad were faced by fierce criticism by the gang of four. Following last week’s organized attacks in Baghdad, Hoshyar Zibari (a kurdish separatist who happened to be Iraq’s minister of foreign affairs) claimed the reason behind the attacks is Al-Maliki’s plan to remove the partitioning walls!
2- Central government vs. regional powers: Al-Maliki is now for keeping and even increasing the powers of the central government. Mainly because he’s fighting for his own position’s authorities, and because he’s catering to the Iraqi public opinion that, according to numerous polls, favors a model where the central government runs a united and sovereign nation.
3- Ending foreign intervention(s): Al-Maliki’s support for a plan where ALL U.S. troops must leave Iraq has been against the gang of four’s interests. They realize that the U.S. is there protecting them and supporting their weak and unpopular regime, and more importantly, the US is fighting their fight against other Iraqis.
(Raed also expressed this important conclusion: “There is a lot of violence coming ahead, but this does not mean in anyway the US occupation should last for an extra day… There is nothing that the US can do to fix the situation other than leaving Iraq completely and stopping all forms of intervention in Iraq’s domestic issues.”)
The WaPo and NYT accounts of the political split inside the Baghdad regime both seem to attribute much more of the momentum for the split to the non-Maliki side than to him… But I tend to respect Raed Jarrar’s feel for intra-Iraqi politics more than I do that of any of those western journos.
And meanwhile, from Syria, came this analysis piece today from the always well-informed Sami Moubayed.
First of all, Moubayed lays out a very well argued refutation of the accusations of Syrian complicity in last week’s bombings. Then he asks,
- why blame Syria? Clearly, from the contradicting remarks of Iraqi ministers, Black Wednesday puts many top officials in very difficult positions. It proves just how weak and divided they are – exposing them before ordinary Iraqis who are furious at the rising death toll and want answers from their elected representatives.
… Nobody in Iraq wants to know who carried out the Wednesday attacks, because reality would expose dramatic mismanagement of government office. That in turn would drown many parliamentary hopefuls in January’s elections. It therefore suits all officials to cover up for their shortcomings by blaming Syria.
Nobody in the Iraqi government would dare blame Iran or Saudi Arabia, because of the financial and military clout these countries have in Iraq, along with their respective army of followers. Left standing is Syria, which happens to be Ba’athist and still has Iraqi fugitives on its territory.
In recalling their ambassador from Damascus, the Iraqis will have to deal with the aftershocks in their relationship with Syria. Iraq needs the Syrians much more than Damascus needs Baghdad. Iraq needs it for economic issues related to the pumping of oil and rebuilding of the war-torn country. It needs it to mediate explosive conflicts between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, whose leaders were all one-time residents of Damascus and still have excellent relations with the Syrians.
Iraq needs it to police the Syrian-Iraqi border, and to continue playing host to over 1 million Iraqi refugees based in Syria since 2003. Iraq needs Damascus to mediate talks between Maliki and both Ba’athists and Sunni tribes. It also needs the Syrians to legitimize the Maliki regime, or whatever succeeds it in January, in the eyes of ordinary Iraqi Sunnis who have historically looked towards Syria for shelter and support.
When Syria decided to open an embassy in Baghdad in late 2008, this greatly legitimized Maliki in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, who until then saw him as nothing but a sectarian clown who had nothing but animosity for the Sunni community and wanted to punish it collectively for having produced Saddam Hussein.
It is one thing when countries like Jordan or Egypt recognize Maliki and legitimize his administration, but a completely different matter when this is done by Syria, a country that remains dominated by a strong brand of Arab nationalism that is appealing to the Iraqi street.
In as much as the sending of an ambassador was symbolic for the Syrians, recalling him is equally symbolic, and will cause plenty of damage for the prime minister, who needs a broad constituency among Sunnis and Shi’ites in preparation for the elections.
Well, let’s see how this plays out.
I just wish we had some kind of leading body in the international community who could get the leaders of Iraq and all its neighbors into one room together and get them to agree on strict codes for non-intervention, nonviolence, and de-escalation of tensions among them.
But alas, we have no such body. After many years of systematic US downgrading of the role and efficacy of the UN, the UN is just a shadow of what it should be today. And the US itself is clearly incapable of playing a neutral, calming role like this.