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Iraq and Syria Restore Relations After 24-year Rift

November 21, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: With the stroke of a pen, Syria and Iraq formally ended more than 20 years of diplomatic estrangement. Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Moallem, visited Iraq this week, the first such meeting since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

WALID MOALLEM, Foreign Minister, Syria (through translator): What we want to establish together in this visit is a mechanism for future cooperation in all fields, as long as the political decision and the political will in this regard are clear.

RAY SUAREZ: Syria and Iraq were both governed by Baathist ruling parties but broke ties during the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq war. Later, Syria joined the anti- Saddam coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in the 1991 Gulf War.

Up until this week’s renewal of diplomatic ties, Iraqi leaders often accused Syria of trying to destabilize their country by allowing Sunni Arab foreign fighters to cross the border Iraq shares with Syria, but even the U.S. military concedes that frontier is difficult to police.

The Baghdad visit by the Syrian foreign minister revealed some differences still exist. The Syrian called for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. The idea was rejected by Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki.

Yesterday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invited the leaders of Iraq and Syria to a weekend of talks in Tehran. The idea was well-received on the streets of the capital.

IRANIAN CITIZEN (through translator): Without Iran and Syria present in negotiations, bringing about peace and security in Iraq will be impossible. The United States’ comments come from their hostility towards the Iranian government and the Iranian people. They do not want Iran to be involved in solving the Iraqis’ problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Top Bush administration officials have frequently accused Iran of supporting Shia militias in Iraq and contributing to sectarian violence there.

But it was Syria’s alleged connection with instability that dominated the Mideast news today. Syria was widely blamed, but denied any role, in the assassination of a Lebanese Christian leader, Pierre Gemayel.

It’s been less than two years since Syria was forced to end its military occupation of Lebanon. Syria is still under investigation by the United Nations for its alleged role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The diplomatic developments in the region coincide with a review of U.S. policy in Iraq by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Former Secretary of State James Baker has advocated the U.S. engaging Iran and Syria in diplomacy to help stabilize the region.

A tactical move

David Schenker
Former Pentagon Official
The Syrians have claimed that their border with Iraq is like the United States and Mexico, they can't stop it. I think this is really an exaggeration or a fib, if you would. They can stop it.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Iraq and its neighbors, we're joined by Robert Malley, a former director for Near-Eastern affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. He's now Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.

And David Schenker, a Pentagon policy adviser on Syria, Lebanon and other Middle East issues for the past four years, he's now a senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy.

And, David Schenker, after nearly 25 years of bad blood, the current Iraqi suspicion that Syria had a hand in prolonging the chaos, why this thaw now?

DAVID SCHENKER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, I think Syria sees the writing on the wall. They're anticipating the Baker report, calls for the U.S. to start engaging with the Syrians on Iraq.

And at the same time, this is a page out of the Syrian playbook. Traditionally, when they're under a lot of pressure -- and, in this case, in Lebanon, with the Hariri investigation and the international tribunal moving forward -- they try to change the subject. And in this case, they're changing the subject to Iraq.

In previous years, particularly as the investigation has gone along and they've been concerned about the nature of the report, whether the midterm reports of the Brammertz investigation, U.N. investigation, would finger the Syrians, they've mentioned possible peace negotiations with Israel. So I think this is a diversionary tactic for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley, you agree, a tactical move by the Syrians?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, there's something to that. Although, on the other hand, I think Syria has interests in Iraq that it wants to pursue. It does want to tell the U.S., "We could help. You say you want to save the situation in Iraq. We're showing you that we can move quickly and do things if you want us to do things."

I think they're also anticipating not only the Baker and Hamilton report and possible reengagement with the U.S.; they're anticipating the end of the U.S. era in Iraq and they're preparing for the day when countries in the region -- Iran, Syria, but also others -- are going to play a far greater role in the future of Iraq than the U.S. will.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned shared interests. What are the shared interests right now between Syria and Iraq?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, in some degree of stability. I wouldn't call it a complete coincidence of interest. I think Syria, like Iran, has an interest in what I would call managed chaos. They want the situation to be bad enough in Iraq so that it ties the U.S. down, but not so bad that it spills over and creates problems in their countries.

They have problems with their Kurdish minority. They have problems in Iran. They don't want the break-up of Iraq, which could have repercussions for them.

But at the same time, they're relatively content with the degree of instability, which makes it impossible for the U.S. to continue its endeavor of democratizing the region in Iran or Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David Schenker, the Syrian foreign minister said that Syria can help curb the violence in Iraq. Can it really do that?

DAVID SCHENKER: I think that Syria plays a particularly unhelpful role in Iraq and has done so since the invasion. Their territory has been used for the transfer of jihadis. They land at Damascus airport. They go overland relatively freely.

There's not a whole lot of freelance political activity going on in Damascus or Syria. It's a police state. They can do something about it.

The Syrians have claimed that their border with Iraq is like the United States and Mexico, they can't stop it. I think this is really an exaggeration or a fib, if you would. They can stop it.

What they can do is stop it. They can police their airport better, and they can secure their borders. This would have some effect on stability in Iraq. After all, the U.S. reports that nearly 20 percent of the jihadis that they round up are of Syrian origin.

Iraq and its neighbors

Robert Malley
Former Nat'l Security Council Staff
But at this point, for the U.S. to salvage whatever can still be salvaged in Iraq -- unfortunately, our leverage in Iraq is reducing by the day.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, maybe they're unintentionally correct, but it's just backwards, because tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees have streamed into Syria, haven't they?

ROBERT MALLEY: Quite a few have, indeed. And, you know, Syria could probably do more than it's doing. I think U.S. officials tend to exaggerate the role that Syria's playing in the instability in Iraq. I don't think that most analysts believe that it's because of Syrian activity that Iraq is where it is today. There's plenty of Iraqi reasons for that.

But at this point, for the U.S. to salvage whatever can still be salvaged in Iraq -- unfortunately, our leverage in Iraq is reducing by the day. We're going to have to come to terms with the neighbors. But that's going to mean meeting to some extent Syrian demands and Iranian demands, and I'm not sure that that's a feasible concept for this administration.

It's going to be a very difficult thing to do. But if we're going to want to get -- if we want to get out of the situation, at this point we've tied our hands in Iraq. We're going to have to work with the neighbors.

RAY SUAREZ: This reopening of relations comes just before a meeting between Iran, Iraq and Syria. What do you make of that, David?

DAVID SCHENKER: Well, I think the Iraqi government is appropriately trying to talk with its neighbors to get them to try and play a productive role in Iraq. Until now, both Iran and Syria have taken an active role in undermining stability there.

As Rob said earlier, Syria and Iran both see an interest in chaos, managed chaos, but nevertheless violence, political instability, anything short of total deterioration I think is what they'd like to see.

The Iraqi government is saying, "Hey, we have to talk to these people. We have to have relations with our neighbors. Otherwise, this is going to continue." The problem is fundamentally nothing has changed in Iranian interests and Syrian interests in Iraq.

There's not been any new development that would change their interest in shifting it away from this type of chaos that they like to see or bloodying the American nose in Iraq. They like to see this continue. So I don't see how these talks are really going to go anywhere.

What the Iraqis have to offer is very little to both Syria and Iran. What they're looking for is U.S. involvement. And in that case, it's going to be particularly damaging, because what Syria wants, their priority is an end to the Hariri investigation and the international tribunal.

The U.S. role in negotiations

David Schenker
Former Pentagon Official
This is an existential issue for the Syrians. Should the tribunal move forward and indict senior levels of the Assad regime, it's game over.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's talk a little more about American involvement, because a lot of the word around official Washington circles was people urging the Bush administration to get the neighbors involved. While the United States mulled that over, did events overtake their deliberation?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, not precisely, exactly for the reason David gave. Iraq can't really give Syria or Iran what they want. The U.S. can, at least theoretically can.

It's really a matter of logic. Neither Syria nor Iran are going to help the U.S. succeed in Iraq unless they get something for that. Nobody is going to give something for free.

Syria has several interests. One of them is to get the Golan back; the other one is to make sure that there's no attempt to change its regime. Why should they participate in an enterprise the U.S. is involved in, at the same as the U.S. is at least contemplating regime change in Damascus?

And Iran has interests on the nuclear file, has also its own security interests. The question now is whether there could be some accommodation between what the U.S. needs in Iraq and what Syria and Iran need in the rest of the region.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how do you answer that question? Can there be that kind of...

ROBERT MALLEY: Frankly, at this point, I think we have to try it, because it's a condition for getting Iraq right. We've got to try it. It's very difficult; it may not be feasible, because we have strengthened inadvertently by our policies both Iran and Syria's hands. So our negotiating hand is much weaker today than it was before we entered Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: David, is the American predicament in Iraq such -- and you heard what Robert Malley just said -- that America can risk strengthening the Iranian and Syrian regimes in order to extricate itself from Iraq?

DAVID SCHENKER: Well, I don't think so. I think Rob is right in portraying Iran as extremely strong. Syria is portraying itself as strong, but I think, with the tribunal, the international tribunal hanging over their heads, they're actually in a weakened position.

This is an existential issue for the Syrians. Should the tribunal move forward and indict senior levels of the Assad regime, it's game over. The Europeans will be forced to change their policies. They will not be able to continue engaging with the Syrians, moving forward on economic association and cooperation agreements.

This is 60 percent of the Syrian economy. This is the lifeline of the regime. This is how it manages to have economic growth and continued political repression. So it's critical for them to get out of this, and I think they are in a weak position should we push forward relentlessly with pursuing the Hariri tribunal.

The importance of Lebanon

Robert Malley
Former Nat'l Security Council Staff
Lebanon may pay a very heavy price before we come to the day where this tribunal is established, because there are many in Lebanon who still feel that they are strong allies of Syria and who could do a lot of damage in Lebanon.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, just as people are talking about the Hariri tribunal comes this murder of a senior Christian leader, a cabinet official in the Siniora government. What do you make of that?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I think this is part of, unfortunately, the tragedy of Lebanon now, well, historically, but it always the proxy or the surrogate for the fights that are being waged by others.

And today, Lebanon is very deeply divided, not only on confessional lines, but between two visions of the future of Lebanon which have regional repercussions between those who want to see Lebanon more anchored in a Western worldview and those who see Lebanon anchored in an Arab nationalist rejectionist view. And that's playing out today on the issue of the tribunal; it's playing out in the streets of Beirut, perhaps tomorrow, if you have demonstrations. And the victims, as always, are going to be the Lebanese.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, what about David's point that embedded in this Hariri investigation is possibly real trouble for the Syrian regime?

ROBERT MALLEY: Yes. And I think, clearly, that's why the Syrians are reacting the way they are. But the game is not over yet, and Lebanon may pay a very heavy price before we come to the day where this tribunal is established, because there are many in Lebanon who still feel that they are strong allies of Syria and who could do a lot of damage in Lebanon. And the fight between the two camps in Lebanon is going to leave many losers and I fear no winners.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley, David Schenker, thank you both.

DAVID SCHENKER: Thank you.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.