The Daily Star, 3 August 2004

Just over a week after Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi visited Damascus, in the context of a regional tour of Arab states, it is worth examining what the get-together meant in terms of Syrian-Iraqi relations.

Behind the kisses between Allawi and Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji al-Utri lay Syria’s desire to effect a new departure in its relationship with its occupied neighbor, away from the rigidity that has been its hallmark since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003 and up to June 30 of this year. On the Iraqi side lay an equal desire for normalization and the chance to play a significant role in the Middle East. Allawi thanked Syria for its “concern for Iraq’s security, stability, sovereignty and unity of its land and people”; while Utri thought the visit “a push toward more bilateral cooperation on the economic, trade, development and political fronts.” It appeared, therefore, that while security topped the Iraqi government’s agenda, economic concerns topped Syria’s.

Public declarations can nonetheless create wrong impressions. The Syrian government also had security concerns of its own. Since the early 1980s, it has repeatedly asked for a list of Syrian dissidents (mainly Islamists) living in Baghdad, and Allawi, whose credentials on the security front far surpass those as a neurologist, inaugurated his new relationship of trust with his Baathist neighbors by handing them that list.

Syria’s security concerns with respect to Iraq go further than that. They involve the possible presence of Israeli intelligence operatives in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria’s view, this threat (if American journalist Seymour Hersh’s information in a much-publicized June New Yorker article on Israeli activity in Kurdistan is correct) is directed against Damascus and Tehran on the one hand, and the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation on the other.

At the same time, Allawi’s Syrian agenda was in no way devoid of economic, financial- and services-related issues. He was accompanied on his visit by a significant number of ministers concerned with economic or financial affairs – the minister of oil and mineral resources, the minister of state for financial affairs, the ministers of the environment, health, communications and planning and human cooperation, and the governor of the Iraqi Central Bank.

There are also Iraqi deposits present in Syrian banks – which some estimate at $500 million and others at a lower $264 million – that the Iraqis would like to see returned. In turn, Syria raised the issue of Syrian businessmen still owed money by the Iraqis. On oil, according to sources there was discussion of increasing Iraqi oil exports via Syria to 600,000 barrels a day within the next two years, in addition to collaborating on matters of concern to the Iraqi services sector, namely transport, health, trade, the transit of goods and the use of Syrian ports to supply Iraq.

Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib’s response to Syrian complaints about an Israeli presence in Kurdistan was to downplay its importance by claiming that it was one of many similar such Israeli efforts in Arab countries, and by reminding his audience that Israel “has official relations with some Arab countries.” This was hardly a reassuring way to handle the allegations, even if Naqib promised to look into the matter and put an end to it, “because we do not accept that Iraq become a source of threat to the security of neighboring countries.”

The Syrian regime had displayed amazing (though not surprising) near-sightedness by thinking it could benefit from Iraq’s becoming a hub of turbulence and violence. And today the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurdish leaders are displaying equal shortsightedness in downplaying alleged Israeli infiltration, or thinking they can use this to their advantage.

Now, it seems that the authorities in Damascus are tilting toward a new policy, one that does not center on the American occupation of Iraq and Syria’s desire to make it more difficult. This transformation occurred gradually, following the rioting in Qamishli last March by Syrian Kurds. It also came about most probably because Syria realizes that borders that are permeable in one direction are also permeable in the other. In short, Damascus has taken a new turn in its relations with Baghdad out of fear that a coup might take place at home under the cover of events in Iraq.

However, can the Allawi government allay the security fears of the Syrians as far as Israeli behavior in Iraq is concerned – or, indeed, with respect to the American occupation itself? Does it want to? There is nothing that yet suggests the Iraqi government will waste an opportunity to engage in more shortsighted behavior.

Can one hope that relations between Syria and Iraq will rest on more solid ground? This would need something more than public kisses and covert or semi-covert threats. Above all, it would need something that the two countries lacked when both had Baathist governments: real statesmen.