Iraq-Syrian tensions

Iraq and Syria have had a not so great relationship over the past number of decades. The two countries were governed by competing branches of the pan-Arab Baathist movement, and ties have been largely antagonistic. Relations were severed in 1982 during Saddam Hussein’s rule and soon after the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. Later, Syria joined the anti-Saddam coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in the 1991 Gulf War.

Since the American liberation of Iraq, Syria has been a launching ground for terrorist operations in Iraq. The vast majority of bombings in Iraq were carried out by Al Qaida operatives and other non-Iraqi jihadists based in neighbouring states like Syria, which became a hub for terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his network of operatives.

In 2006 Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic relations and have since established a number of economic agreements.

But relations have broken down once again, despite PM Maliki’s security focused visit to Syria less than two weeks ago.

Maliki’s government accuses Syria of harbouring terrorists behind the August 19 attacks in Baghdad which killed more than 200 and injured many hundreds more. In a televised confession, Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim, the so-called mastermind behind the attacks, issued a televised confession in which he detailed the order to execute the operation by a man in Syria who wanted the attacks “to shake the administration.” Information leaked by Iraqi security to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai says that one car used in the explosion is registered in Syria.

Syrian facilitation of militants across its borders and into Iraq and its safe haven for them is therefore still a problem.

The tit-for-tat rhetoric and aggressive posturing is taking place as usual. Maliki has told Syria that it could harbour anti-Syrian elements just as Syria hosts anti-Iraq militants, according to yesterday’s Al-Sharq al-Awsat. According to Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, writes the paper, Syria has rejected an Iraqi government proposal for a strategic agreement which provides for the extradition of terrorist groups operating in Syria. Iraq has a list of names for extradition but Syria has rejected it.

Tensions will not have helped US-Syria relations either. Washington has been concerned about terrorists infiltrating Iraq from Syria since 2003. A senior delegation of U.S. military commanders visited Damascus on August 13 for talks on curbing the flow of terrorists into Iraq; tellingly, Syrian state-television didn’t even report the visit. But with both states recalling their ambassadors, it is unclear whether any such dialogue between the three states will be resumed any time soon.

Also possible is that this is all just Maliki’s attempt to cover up his government’s security failures. Taking away security barriers that could have saved lives was a complacent and negligent act. Speaking to Al-Arabiya, Amman Salman al-Jumayli, member of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Iraqi Council of Representatives, believes Iran may be complicit in the attacks. Iran sponsors, supports, funds and influences most of Iraq’s Shia movement, political or otherwise. Countless weapons caches, missiles, and IEDs are believed to have emanated from Tehran.

The matter could become an electoral issue come the national elections in January, should it continue unresolved that is. Iraqiya news channel reported Al-Fadila (Islamic Virtue Party) calls for Syria to extradite Baath party leaders exiled in Syria. Al-Fadila is a discredited Shia offshoot Sadrist movement led by Abdelrahim Al-Husseini. It’s notorious for being a mainly thuggish group responsible for robbing and extorting the population of Basra province where senior Fadila leader Mohammed al-Waili served as governor until April 2007 when ISCI successfully brought a no-confidence motion against him. Basra’s electorate punished and marginalised Fadila in last January’s provincial elections; the party won only 1 of 35 seats. Fadila will not be part of the new Shia coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance.

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