Why Syria may not welcome fleeing Iraqi officials

Monday, Syria said it was encouraged by softer US rhetoric and wants to open a dialogue with Washington.

For senior members of Saddam Hussein's collapsed regime, Syria may seem the most favorable escape route to evade capture by coalition forces.

Yet decades of bitter hostility and mistrust between Damascus and Baghdad may backfire on key officials who are still hoping to flee Iraq.

"There's no love lost between the two regimes," says Patrick Seale, biographer of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He adds that it is "certainly not worth the risk" for Syria to provide a haven for Iraqi Baathists.

On Sunday, President Bush said there were "positive signs" that Syria was cooperating in denying sanctuary to former Iraqi leaders. And Monday, Syria's foreign minister said he was encouraged by Mr. Bush's remarks and was looking to open a dialogue with Washington.

Syria is run by a branch of the Baath Party, a pan-Arab socialist movement whose rival wing, until two weeks ago, had ruled Iraq for three decades. The two factions of the Baath Party broke off relations in the mid-1960s, sparking a lengthy campaign of bombings and assassinations in each other's capitals.

The rivalry centered on who claimed true leadership of the Baathist movement and was personified by the intense mutual dislike between Hussein and Mr. Assad, who ruled Syria from 1970 until his death in 2000. Where the wily and cautious Assad saw power as a means of furthering his pan-Arabist ideology, Hussein regarded the wielding of power as an end in itself.

Damascus lent its support to Tehran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and joined in ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. Meanwhile, Hussein armed and supported a Lebanese group fighting Syrian troops in Lebanon.

The first signs of a rapprochement came in 1997, when both countries agreed to open their borders to trade after 17 years. Commercial relations flourished, providing a welcome boost to Syria's ailing economy. In 2001, Syria and Iraq signed a free-trade agreement and announced that they had resolved their dispute over water sharing from the Euphrates River.

Despite reconciliation with Baghdad, however, Damascus continued to have good relations with Iraqi opposition figures.

"The relationship that developed was essentially a trade relationship not a political relationship, and it was largely driven by Syrian businessmen," Mr. Seale says.

Syria has now closed its border with Iraq except for a tightly controlled crossing leading into the Kurdish region of Iraq, according to diplomats in Damascus. And border restrictions were further tightened Saturday, banning Iraqis without visas.

Some figures connected to the former Iraqi regime are known to have been turned away, including Abu Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Front which carried out the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro. Mr. Abbas was captured by US troops in Baghdad last week.

Leading Syrian exiles also have been denied entry, including Amin Hafez, a former Syrian president who defected to Iraq after being deposed in a 1966 revolution which caused the split between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Baath Party. On Sunday, the Iraqi National Congress, a leading opposition group, announced that Jamal Sultan, Hussein's son-in-law, had surrendered and would return to Baghdad from Damascus.

A European diplomat in Damascus says Iraqi regime figures may attempt to use the contacts they developed with Syrian businessmen to escape Iraq.

"One has to suspect that even if the Syrians do not want these people in Syria, it may be difficult to prevent some from coming in," the diplomat says.

American intelligence reports suggest that Farouk Hijazi, former Iraqi ambassador to Tunisia and former senior intelligence operative, may have entered Syria and be seeking to escape to a third country via neighboring Lebanon. Mr. Hijazi is known to have departed Tunisia for Damascus, but the trail goes cold from there. US intelligence believes that Hijazi may have knowledge of Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons program. He has also been linked to terrorism, having allegedly met Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in Prague in April 2001. Hijazi also traveled to Afghanistan in 1998 to meet Osama bin Laden.

Lebanon, which is dominated politically by Syria, has also come under pressure from Washington not to shelter any figures from Hussein's regime. Vincent Battle, US ambassador in Beirut, is reported to have delivered a warning to Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But a Lebanese official denied anyone from Hussein's regime had entered the country.

"We'll see what happens if any do come in, but we don't have any information that anyone is here so far," the official says.

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