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Syria and Iraq

Since 1963, when the Baath Party came to power in Syria and became a rival of the Iraqi Baath Party, relations between these two states have been marked by political intrigue, attempts at subversion, assassinations, and concerted propaganda campaigns by each against the other. Since both Syria and Iraq are ruled by the ostensibly pan-Arab Baath Party, the conflict has been over which "true Baath Party" was to dominate the whole movement. Both states considered themselves vulnerable to attack because the border between them is little more than a line drawn across a vast, open, thinly populated desert.

Since the creation of the Baath Party in Syria by Michel Aflaq and the subsequent rise of the Iraqi Baath Party, Iraq and Syria have struggled for ideological and political supremacy as the true representative of Baath doctrine. Part of that struggle has involved sheltering of party operatives considered hostile by the other, including Aflaq himself, who received exile in Iraq until he moved to Paris for medical treatment and died in 1989. Many Syrians view Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's demand on Syria to return several former Iraqi official against this backdrop.

In 1975 a dispute over rights to the waters of the Euphrates River--a waterway essential to both countries--took Syria and Iraq to the verge of war. Syria limited the water flowing out of its newly completed Euphrates (Tabaqah) Dam, thereby slowing the flow into Iraq. For two months both countries hurled invective at each other, and Syrian troops massed along the Iraqi border. Only Saudi Arabian mediation induced Syria to release more water from its Tabaqah reservoir "as a gesture of goodwill."

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, both sides committed frequent acts of terrorism and subversion. Syria routinely blamed Iraqi agents for a multitude of internal ills. Disaffected army officers who had left either country served as prized sources of intelligence and propaganda. Tensions between Damascus and Baghdad have been exacerbated by Syria's support, including weapons shipments, to Iran in the Gulf War. Just as damaging to Iraq was the 1982 cutoff of the pipeline which runs through Syria and through which Iraq pumped oil to Mediterranean ports.

Although Syria wanted Iraq weakened and neutralized, it did not envision the installation in Baghdad of a pro-Iranian fundamentalist Shia regime. As the beleaguered Iraqi regime lost ground to advancing Iranian forces, Assad stated in October 1986 that Syria could not accept the occupation of Iraqi land by anyone. Subsequently, Syrian and Iraqi officials met to explore the possibility of restoring relations. Assad's statement may have prompted the temporary kidnapping, the following day, of the Syrian chargé d'affaires in Tehran. Later in October, Assad met in Damascus with Iranian minister of the Revolutionary Guards Muhsin Rafiq-Dost to repair Syrian-Iranian relations. Rafiq-Dost stated that the Syrians had announced their resolute support of Iran until the downfall of the Iraqi regime and the "liberation of Iraq." However, Syria did not affirm the Iranian statement, and by the late 1980s, Syrian support for Iran appeared to be qualified.

Though it voted in favor of UNSCR 1441 in 2002, Syria was against coalition military action in Iraq in 2003. However, the Syrian Government accepted UNSCR 1483 (after being absent for the actual vote), which lifted sanctions on Iraq and established a framework to assist the Iraqi people in determining their political future and rebuilding their economy. Syria also voted for UNSCR 1511, which called for greater international involvement in Iraq and addressed the transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition.

Since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian Government sought to exploit anti-Western Islamic extremists to lessen US influence in the region, while ruthlessly cracking down on any groups that might represent a threat to the minority and largely secular Syrian Allewite regime. As then-FM Shara stated in 2003, "Syria's interest is to see the invaders defeated in Iraq." Though US and Western pressure helped convince Syria to take some steps to crack down on these movements, Syria continued to turn a blind eye to chosen facilitator networks. Syria made a calculation to ignore, and at times support, foreign fighters in order to keep Coalition forces bogged down so that the US could not set its sights on "regime change" in Damascus.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 hundreds of former Iraqi officials left Baghdad and chose Syria as their destination, not necessarily out of political or ideological affinity, but because of previously established ties to Syrian regime insiders and because Syria remained open to them. Two prominent former Iraqi officials, former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri (the famous "King of Clubs" among most-wanted Iraqi officials) and former advisor to Saddam's Executive Council Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmad, reportedly arrived with "suitcases of cash" and a desire to establish a resistance unit in Syria.

Former advisor to Saddam's Executive Council Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmad established ties to Syrian government officials by virtue of his reported role as a middleman for Saddam's sons and Syrian business contacts. He arrived in Damascus in 2003, established ties to Syrian officials, and opened office that promoted the insurgency. But al-Ahmad proved less adept than al-Duri at mobilizing support for the Baathist-led insurgency inside Iraq. Some sources maintain al-Ahmad opposed efforts to establish ties between Iraqi Baathists and al-Qaeda-linked groups. Ahmad's operation became known as the "political wing" of the exiled Iraqi Baath Party, according to Oweiss, while al-Duri's was referred to as the leader of the "military wing."

Yunis al-Ahmad would eventually contest al-Duri's claims as the Baath Party exile leader after Saddam's execution in December 2006, Ibrahim reports. The al-Duri and al-Ahmad rivalry reportedly reflected differences over whether to ally with al-Qaeda linked groups, control over finances, and al-Duri's indifference to Syrian efforts to restrain former Iraqi regime elements (FRE) activities in Syria after Syrian-Iraqi ties began to improve in 2007.

Syria allowed the two organizations to continue operating in Damascus, but security services began keeping closer tabs on both when the rivalry reportedly escalated, according Oweiss. Before, the Syrians appeared to allow both offices to operate more freely; after the rivalry intensified, Syrians put them on a much shorter leash. By mid-2007, al-Ahmad's group was, with Syrian encouragement, openly calling for reconciliation with the Iraqi Government. That didn't mean al-Ahmad was ready to face trial or return money, but it marked a significant shift in the group's outlook and put it at odds with al-Duri.

Since the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq on June 28, 2004, Syria extended qualified support to the Iraqi Government and pledged to cooperate in the areas of border security, repatriation of Iraqi assets, and eventual restoration of formal diplomatic relations.

When State Department spokesman Sean McCormack briefed the press 02 November 2005, ne noted that "Syria as a transit point. They have, obviously a long border with Iraq that has longstanding smuggling routes and it is the belief of our military commanders as well as the Iraqi Government that there is a quite serious problem with foreign fighters coming in to Iraq via Syria in order to kill Iraqis. And in terms of the relative problem of controlling the borders and foreign fighters coming in across various borders, our military commanders on the ground as well as the Iraqis have identified the Syrian border as the biggest problem, their greatest concern. So that is why we have been -- we and the Iraqis -- the Iraqis themselves have spoken out on this -- have been insistent that Syria control that border. And I think the fact that Syria, immediately after their troop withdrawal, was able to, in a very effective and quick manner, able to completely close down the border with Lebanon, that they certainly have the capability to better control the border with Syria -- with Iraq."

In 2006, former Iraqi MP Mishan Jaburi arrived in Syria after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity and indicted for theft of money to provide food to guards protecting the oil pipelines around Kirkuk. Jaburi reportedly had been in Syria before, having fled Iraq in 1989 after being implicated in an assassination attempt in that year against Saddam. Arriving with tens of millions of dollars, al-Jaburi and his Syrian wife, Rawa al-Ustah, established al-Zawra television and subsequently, after Egypt removed al-Zawra from Nilesat, the al-Rai TV station. Like al-Zawra before it, al-Rai broadcasts pro-insurgency vitriol including footage of attacks on US forces.

By late 2006 Syria came to the conclusion that the Maliki government had to succeed because the alternative was worse. Initiatives included return of $200 million in Iraqi funds wrongly paid out immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein, ending negative public statements on Iraq, and expelling or handing over a number of Iraqi Baathists.

Good relations with Sunnis, including Baathists and tribal leaders, as well as with Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, were significant. Unlike the Iranians, who only had good relations with the Shiites, Syria had strong, long-established ties with all three groups, buttressed by the years of exile spent in Syria by their leaders. Maliki specifically, but others also in power in Baghdad by 2006, had spent a long period of exile in Damascus. The Syrian regime felt betrayed and believed that Maliki had repaid their hospitality with hostility.

Possibly no other country in the region was as well placed as Syria to decisively influence events. But Syrian influence among the Kurds and Shiites was weaker than commonly believed while its influence among the Iraqi Baathists is consistently overstated.

Up to an estimated 1 million Iraqi refugees lived in Syria after the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, of whom more than 224,000 have officially registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but some thousands have returned to Iraq as the security situation in Syria worsened.

Since the 19-21 November 2006 Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim visit to Baghdad, there was considerable technical movement on resumption of diplomatic relations, leading to the resumption of diplomatic relations after a 25-year rupture.The Syrian Foreign Ministry had accorded full diplomatic status to the Iraqi interests section. It had issued a diplomatic note to that effect and had reissued diplomatic cards with the new diplomatic status to all Iraqi diplomats.

Iraq's and Syria's Ministers of Interior signed a memorandum of understanding on joint security cooperation. The MOU will result in increased Iraqi monitoring of other side of the border, a hotline between Ministers of Interior, and daily Syria-Iraq security meetings at border posts, he said. Although the MOU would not be 100 percent effective, it would help staunch the flow of foreign fighters who come to Syria because of its long border with Iraq.

During Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's 14 to 20 January 2007 visit to Damascus, he met with most Syrians of significance, including four separate meetings with President Asad including two one-on-ones. Talabani was accompanied by some 20 Iraqi officials in addition to four ministers who signed unspecified security and economic agreements with their Syrian counterparts. The state-controlled press portrayed the visit as proof the GOI does not share the U.S. view that Syria is playing a destabilizing role in Iraq. Despite the very positive public and private statements by both sides, sequencing could be an issue for moving forward with deepening engagement. A few potential sticking points for future progress included the high priority tha Syria attached to Iraq legalizing the Iraqi Baath party and its reintegration of former Iraqi military officers.

Many Iraqis came to Syria because there were no entry restrictions like that on other neighboring Arab countries. Iraqis could stay for three months, and then request an in-country extension for another three months. Additionally, Iraqis came because Syria was seen to have a lower cost of living than other countries in the region. Syria opened its schools to Iraqi children and granted Iraqis access to public health care, although the regime began limiting medical services in Damascus at the start of 2006. Additionally, although Iraqis were not legally permitted to work here, authorities generally turn a blind eye to working Iraqis.

There were no reliable statistics about the demographic breakdown of Iraqis in Syria. Between December 2003 and January 17, 2007, UNHCR registered 41,831 individual Iraqis, out of the at least estimated 800,000 Iraqis believed as of December 2006 to be in Syria. Of those, 36 percent are Christian; 32 percent are Sunni; 23 percent are Shia; and 9 percent are Sabians (an obscure pre-Islamic sect), according to UNHCR.

UNHCR's March 2006 survey estimated 450,000 displaced Iraqis in Syria, using limited demographic data from limited household surveys and somewhat questionable Ministry of Interior figures. That survey concluded that 57.2 percent of the families here were Shia; 21.2 percent were Sunni; 15.4 percent were Catholic; 1.5 percent were Sabian; 4.2 percent were Orthodox Christian; and .6 percent fell in the "Other" category.

In early 2007 there were reports of a Syrian government survey of the Iraqi population, with preliminary numbers suggesting much higher concentrations of Iraqis than previously believed. The first predominantly Iraqi Shia neighborhood of Damascus to be surveyed held 300,000 persons, according to the local Internet news agency Syriasteps. Other Damascus neighborhoods had yet to be canvassed as of February 2007, but could lead to estimated totals of 1.3 million Iraqis in Syria, according to the news agency report.

In February 2007 the Syrian government reportedly put into place a number of new measures to restrict the ability of Iraqis to remain indefinitely in Syria without publicly announcing what they are. The government quietly shelved implementation of the new policies. Following the February 2007 visit of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Syria softened the measures by permitting newly arrived Iraqis a one-month stay, with the possibility of two three-month extensions, after which Iraqis had to leave the country for a day before reentering. The lack of clarity that shrouded these steps continues to serve as a sword over the head of many Iraqis who fear that the policy could change yet again.

The Iraqis were often blamed for the price and real estate inflation Syria was increasingly suffering from. In some traditionally low-income areas, housing prices may have risen more than 300 percent, while in higher-income areas, the increase has been less. They also were contributing to the increasingly serious budgetary strains of subsidies, especially diesel and electricity. The number of Iraqis in Syria was estimated at between 800,000 to 1.3 million (or 4 to 7 percent of either country's total population of about 20 million).

Though the Syrian government reported that Iraqi refugees number 1.2 million, by 2009 diplomatic and intelligence sources suggested a number at most half this size. Syria also hosts some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, the descendants of Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, expressed strong concern 12 January 2007 about foreign fighters come through Syria: " I would like to be on record for my Senate colleagues to hear this from me, that if, in fact, the Syrian and Iranian governments are complicit in organizations and groups that are trying to kill American troops, I hope we will have the resolve, in a bipartisan fashion, to put them on notice, to put them on notice that that will be unacceptable and all options are on the table when it comes to defending Americans the jobs they are assigned."

On 10 May 2007, Syria's President Bashar al-Asad delivered a speech to the newly elected Syrian Parliament. Transitioning quickly to foreign policy issues, which made up the bulk of the speech, Asad asserted that with regard to Iraq, Syria had expressed readiness to play a role in encouraging an "Iraqi national dialogue" and "a political process" for Iraq. He also made reference to "the essence of Syrian cooperation" on Iraq. Asad made clear that Syria was pursuing this policy for the sake of "the Iraqi people . . . and for stability in the region," rather than to help the U.S. withdraw its forces or "to serve the goals of other countries." Asad repeated the standard call for a timetable for the withdrawal of what he described as "occupation forces" and criticized the recent deployment of additional U.S. troops in Iraq, indicating Iraq's problems needed to be addressed through political means.

Despite Syria's rhetorical claims it desires normal relations with a secure and stable Iraq, by late 2008 Syria had done little to advance security cooperation with Baghdad. Syrians continued to host former Saddam Hussein military officials and Iraqi Baath Party figures who raise money for weapons and subversion in Iraq. Despite some high-level, Iraqi-Syrian high-level engagement and unilateral deployments along its border, Syria continued to refuse to take concrete security actions to improve security cooperation with the Government of Iraq.

Syria claimed it has strengthened border security and is taking steps to scrutinize foreign visitors to control the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. In fact, foreign fighters traversing Syrian territory continued to kill and maim Iraqi civilians, security forces, and coalition members. While the numbers of foreign fighters and suicide attacks had decreased, their impact continued to represent a security threat to Iraqi civilians and a government attempting to establish law and order. If Syria were truly serious about reorienting its policy, it would take more effective action against networks facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

Syrian President Bashar Asad swore in Nawaf al-Fares as the new Syrian Ambassador to Iraq on 16 September 2008, the first such appointment in over 24 years. One source claimed that al-Fares played a prominent role in the SARG's brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood's 1982 uprising in the city of Hama. Al-Fares also is believed to have extensive connections to tribes residing in Iraq through family ties in eastern Syria. Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported Al-Fares' selection was due to "his extensive work experience in the eastern region bordering Iraq, in addition to being from that region which is very close to the social structure intertwined with the Iraqi environment."

The regime's self-interest in achieving oil and gas pipeline deals, increased bilateral trade, and a desire to exercise greater influence over Iraqi decisions are the most obvious motives for this decision. The timing of this decision put Syria in the company of Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE in appointing envoys to Iraq and sending a positive (albeit low cost) message to PM Maliki in Baghdad. Previously, Syria had balked at taking this step without the near-term prospect of Iraqi reciprocity.

The United States remains the largest single contributor to UN and non-governmental organization (NGO) efforts to assist Iraqi refugees in the region. Total U.S. support region-wide in 2011 approached $630 million--up from $400 million in 2008. Since fiscal year 2007 the United States has admitted over 62,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement. Of that number, over 9,300 arrived in the United States in fiscal year 2011.

Most of the Iraqi refugees who have arrived in the United States -- over 45,000 -- have come from Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, the three countries in the region hosting the most Iraqi refugees. Smaller groups have arrived directly from Iraq, as well as from Lebanon and Egypt. The United States remains committed to assisting Iraqi refugees and plans to continue to help meet the needs of Iraq’s displaced population. Additionally, in fiscal year 2012, the United States would continue to admit as many of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees as possible for resettlement in the United States through the United States Refugee Admissions Program.

Maliki remained fixated on the Syrian government's sheltering of former Saddam regime elements and tolerance of foreign fighter networks that feed the insurgency. To Maliki, the Syrian leadership is most interested in political theater and expects high-level visits will lead to economic cooperation. The Syrian government, told Maliki during PM Otri's April 2009 trip to Baghdad that the former regime elements posed less of a threat to him under the Syrian government's control than if the Syrians expelled them to other countries. Maliki would prefer to see Syria expel them, according to Sajjad, but it is unclear whether he conveyed this request to his Syrian counterpart.

Both sides appear destined to remain frustrated by the lack of moves by the other on important issues. Part of the gulf may stem from lack of clear communication. Syria had been surprised by the sharp tone of official Iraqi accusations regarding Syria's harboring of Iraqi Baathist militants alleged by Baghdad to be involved in the 19 August 2009 attacks. Iraqi PM Maliki had conducted a positive 18 August 2009 visit to Damascus, and he and President Asad had signed a strategic partnership agreement.

Many Syrians appear genuinely to believe that rehabilitation and reintegration of former Iraqi Baathists, most of whom are Sunni, into Iraqi politics will balance Shia influence and help the central government maintain control over the breakaway tendencies of Iraqi Kurds and Shia. Syrian officials also potentially see themselves as brokers who could benefit politically and economically from helping their friends return to power in Iraq. Some Syrian officials, such as GID Chief Ali Mamluk, tend to have an inflated sense of the influence al-Ahmed or al-Douri might yield, but there are others, such as Vice President Shara's National Security Advisor Mohammed Nasif Khayrback, who argue Syria's interests require better ties to all of Iraq's political movements, especially mainstream Shia parties.

Despite these differences, most Syrians appear to agree that de-Baathification measures created a large incentive to resist U.S. reconstruction efforts and require concrete steps by the government to integrate all Iraqi actors into the political mainstream. Syria's sympathetic stance toward the former Iraqi officials puts it at odds not just with Baghdad, but also with Tehran. Syrian officials are talking about Iran's efforts to heighten Iraqi concerns by warning of a return of the Baath Party.

Another reason behind Syria's refusal to part company with the FREs is concern about the kind of signal such an action would send to other "political" exiles in Syria, such as Hamas. Under severe duress caused by the threat of a 1998 Turkish invasion, Syria ended its relationship with former PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan; since then, the Syrian Government has strongly resisted efforts to compel it to sever relations with political exile groups in the country. Part of this resistance stems from a desire to inspire loyalty from the exile groups themselves.

Syrian officials also appear to believe that international and Arab opinion, while not exactly supporting Syria's position, remains ambivalent, if not hostile, to PM Maliki. The Maliki-led government enjoys few friends in the region. By contrast, Turkey, Kuwait, and even Jordan appear to lean towards Syria's side in the ongoing dispute, mainly because Iraq can't provide any credible evidence to substantiate its claims against Syria). Countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are far from friendly to Syria, appear closer to Syria's position because they suspect Iraqi politicians of being pawns of the Iranians.

Iraq refused to adhere to the Arab League’s November 2011 decision to impose sanctions on Syria, possibly to avoid conflict with its eastern neighbor Iran, which continued to strongly support the Asad regime.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2012 18:41:01 ZULU