Iraq-Syria dispute jeopardizes progress on stability, trade

Iraq's accusation that Syria was behind the massive Baghdad bombing a month ago Saturday has pushed relations to a new low.

Ibrahim Usta/AP
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, left, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, second from left, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, second from right, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, right, are seen during their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday.

A month after massive bombs rocked two Iraqi ministries in Baghdad, Iraq's relations with Syria have plunged from a historic high to a new low over accusations that Damascus facilitated the attacks. At stake are Iraq's stability, increased trade for Syria, and cooperation on water issues amid sustained drought.

On Thursday, high-level delegations from both countries met in Turkey, which is seeking to mediate between the two neighbors.

The heart of the dispute, say Western officials in both capitals, is not simply responsibility for the bombings, which were the capital's deadliest in 18 months, but broader Iraqi concern that Syria is harboring ex-Baathists and allowing foreign militant networks to operate under its nose.

A day before the Aug. 19 explosions, Mr. Maliki made a rare state visit to Damascus, during which he reportedly asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to turn over 179 people allegedly involved in Iraqi violence. Mr. Assad refused.

Maliki is now using the bombings to press his case – and, senior Iraqi politicians say, divert attention from his government's own failure to prevent the attacks. Domestic security is a key element of his campaign to win reelection in next January's parliamentary election.

Damascus denies any responsibility, while US and even senior Iraqi politicians are skeptical that Maliki has evidence for his claims. Syrian officials and Mideast analysts say, moreover, that Syria has moved to stem the tide of militants crossing its border into Iraq.

"Syria has made notable efforts to secure its borders, mainly for its own reasons, but also because it is keen to improve ties with Iraq and the US," says Peter Harling, the director for Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon with the International Crisis Group. "It is highly unlikely it would sign off on such a spectacular attack on Maliki's credibility, literally hours after his state visit to Damascus topped a long series of promising, reciprocal gestures."

Officials in Damascus say that Iraqi evidence presented to them, which was limited to a taped confession from one of the bombers and obscure satellite photographs of sites in Syria where militants allegedly receive training, is wholly inconclusive. President Assad has said that if presented with convincing evidence, he will hand suspects over.

American officials have said the explosions look more like Iraqi homegrown attacks bearing the hallmark of Al Qaeda. But the Iraqi government is standing firm in its accusations.

On Monday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the evidence against Damascus "includes confessions, communications, financing, and logistic support by people living in Syria and who have relations with Al Qaeda."

Political, economic prosperity at stake

Ties between Syria and Iraq have been poor ever since Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979.

During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Syria backed Tehran, and following the US invasion in 2003, Syria granted shelter to many Baathists from the Saddam Hussein regime.

It also facilitated the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, allowing up to 100 militants to cross the border each month at the height of violence in 2006.

Following a visit to Baghdad by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji al-Otri in April, however, relations warmed significantly on the back of converging ambitions.

On the political front, analysts say Syria is now focused on calming Iraq to prevent the spread of violence into Syria and discourage separatist ambitions among its own minority Kurdish population, especially in light of an anticipated US troop withdrawal in 2011.

The two countries have also initiated – but not yet completed – a number of economic agreements that could transform Syria into the gateway for Iraqi reconstruction and trade, offering its moribund economy a financial lifeline. Damascus is hoping it can boost trade from $800 million per year to $2 billion in the near future.

"Syria is now pushing for stability because it wants a strong and united Iraq," says Syrian political analyst Thabet Salem, also noting the Syrian government's desire not to disturb a growing rapprochement with the US.

What Syria is doing to bolster Iraq's stability

Western diplomats in Damascus say that Syria has been making a concerted – if incomplete – effort to support Iraqi stability, pointing to steps that have brought the number of fighters crossing the border each month to fewer than 10.

The Syrian government says there are now close to 15,000 troops stationed along the border with Iraq, and that it has arrested more than 1,700 militants. Additionally, authorities in Damascus agreed to joint border-control measures with the US Army following the last US Central Command (CENTCOM) delegation visit to Damascus in August.

According to one senior Western diplomat, the Syrian government has also increased pressure on Iraqi Baathists living in Syria in recent months, telling some to leave and others to maintain a lower profile.

Indeed, just days before the spat between the two countries broke out, the Iraqi ambassador to Syria, Alaa al-Jawadi, said in an interview that Syrian authorities had been "positive" in responding to Iraqi security concerns.

"Both the governments are working seriously and practically to deal with all the issues," he declared.

Given the current tensions, however, critics of Syria say that Damascus needs to fully clamp down on fighter networks still emerging out of Syria in order to get relations back on track.

According to Harling, Syria is holding out for the completion of economic deals.

"The basic outline of the deal being negotiated between Syria and Iraq is improved security against economic incentives, which have yet to materialize," he says. "Consequently, turning a blind eye to some, presumably low-key insurgency-related activity [along Syria's border] may well remain a pressure point for Damascus" until the incentives materialize.

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