As the Iraq-Syria relationship continues to deteriorate further following the August 19 attacks in Baghdad (now dubbed “black Wednesday”), with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu heading to Baghdad and Damascus this week to cool things down, the matter requires re-visiting (see previous post).
The widely held belief is that this is merely a PM Maliki orchestrated show that puts the blame on the August 19 attacks on an easy-to-blame Syrian government that hosts Baath militants among its 1.5 million or so Iraqi refugees; Syria has for long been a hub of militant and jihadist activity that’s turned the country into a base for attacks across the border in Iraq.
Maliki certainly needed a scapegoat and he needed one fast. Elections loom around the corner and security is his main, if not only, credential. Syria was a convenient scapegoat.
This is not to say that Syria isn’t culpable in any way. It hosts militants. It argues that it never sanctioned the attacks. But that’s irrelevant. By virtue of the fact that it provides a launching pad for militants to carry out attacks on Iraqi soil Syria is culpable under international law unless it
disarms the terrorists or militants, arrests them and disbands their bases or cells or unless it takes concrete and active measures to prevent them from crossing into Iraq to execute their operations (remember al-Qaida in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s refusal to take this course of action?). Iraq has a list of militants it has asked Syria to hand over – but to no avail.
Syria might argue it is unable to do so. But this would not suffice. If it is truly unable to police its borders then it must invite or allow other states to intervene on its behalf. Whether Syria has taken appropriate steps to prevent terrorists from planning their operations on Syrian land and then infiltrating Iraqi borders to execute the attacks isn’t clear; however, and to Syria’s credit, attacks by militants who have come into Iraq from Syria have decreased over the past couple of years.
What’s interesting is that Iraq is seeking to establish an international tribunal that tries and, eventually, convicts those responsible for the attacks; a trial, that is, akin to the UN Rafik Hariri tribunal formed in 2007 to bring Hariri’s murderers to justice and investigate Lebanon’s broader culture of assassination. The tribunal met for the first time on March 1, 2009, in The Hague. See here for report on Maliki request for UN inquiry.
Where does Iran exactly fit into the picture though? Iraqi officials have already said on the record that they believe Iran may be complicit in the attacks. In any case, isn’t Iran responsible for backing, funding, sponsoring some of the worst atrocities committed by its proxies in Iraq? Why hasn’t Maliki been as vocal towards Iran as he has towards Syria? And is there any prospect of a tribunal that investigates any potential Iranian involvement in the umpteen terrorist attacks that take place and have taken place in Iraq? Iranian backed militants in Iraq roam with impunity and Iranian weapons caches, explosives and rockets are regularly found in the country.
The aforesaid questions would lead nowhere but to the unmatched influence that Iran now wields in Iraq, and worryingly so for an Obama administration that could soon be reviewing plans to withdraw from the country. As astute as ever, Iran sent its Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to Iraq and Syria to ease the tensions in what could have been a counter measure against Turkish involvement in the affair (Iran is Turkey’s ideological and regional rival. Both states compete for the same sphere of influence in the region)
The US is still yet to comment on the dispute. What stance does it take? Iraq has for long been at the centre of US-Syria tensions. If the US takes Iraq’s position then it pushes Syria closer to Iran or isolates it to the disadvantage of recent attempts at rapprochement. Even if it says nothing at all, then Syria might feel the US has a hand in it all anyway. Many suggest Iran has asked Iraq to finger the Syrians just to send a message in response to overtures with the US and possible peace with Israel. But wouldn’t this backfire on them, given that a Syrian bust-up with Maliki would a good development from the US point of view?
Still, it is too early to make any meaningful analysis as it’s all too speculative right now. Tensions are likely to cool down, although nothing should be ruled out.