Who Will Blink First: Damascus or Baghdad?

Abdel Wahab Badrakhan: Who Will Blink First: Damascus or Baghdad?

  • 8 September 2009

On August 18, 2009, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki left for Damascus on a one-day business visit. When he met Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, he was told that Syria was quite concerned about the security and stability of Iraq. The next day, Baghdad was rocked by a series of explosions that targeted two government buildings housing the ministries of foreign affairs and finance, which caused the Iraqi regime to go out of gear for the first time since the withdrawal of US troops from cities and the taking over of security responsibilities by Iraqi military and police forces. The explosions clearly exposed shortcomings of Iraqi security measures, particularly as some officers were being questioned over the blasts.

A week after Damascus visit, the Maliki government decided to recall its ambassador from the Syrian capital in an accusatory manner pointing to Syrain involvement in the incident. Baghdad also sent a tape showing one of the people arrested for the explosion admitting that two leaders of the now-disbanded Iraqi Baath party—and presently residing in Damascus—having given the orders for conducting the blasts. The recalling of the ambassador was accompanied by the demand for the handing over of the two leaders—Mohammed Younes Ahmad and Satam Farhan. Syria immediately retaliated by recalling its ambassador back from Bagdad and retorted that Iraqis should have sent a delegation presenting evidence to substantiate their case, instead of hurling accusations in an unbecoming manner.

Syrians believe that the Maliki government is trying to export its internal problems outside. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda owned up responsibility for the “bloody Wednesday” explosions but Baghdad’s actions raised the matter further. Maliki declared that his government would ask the UN Security Council to set up a special international tribunal for enforcing the extradition of those accused of violent activities in Iraq from countries that are harboring them, to make such countries accountable for their involvement and support of terrorists. The crisis further escalated when another tape was aired showing a Saudi detainee from Al-Qaeda, who claimed he was being trained in Syria and was able to enter Iraqi territories with the help of what he claimed were “Syrian intelligence elements.”

The tape was aired on the eve of the arrival of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Daoud Oglo in an attempt to mediate between the two countries. It was understood that Damascus had probably requested Ankara to mediate. However, Iranian Foreign Minister Manushaher Mottaki made the first bid at reconciliation during the funeral ceremony of Sayed Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim. Turkish and Iranian ministers became aware that Baghdad is adamant not to back down except if both wanted persons of the disbanded Baath are handed over.

In earlier times, such an exchange would have come from the US side that spent the initial years of its occupation of Iraq in almost daily skirmishes with Syrians. However, they have remained silent this time, even after Iraqi government declared that the two main blast suspects were prisoners of Americans in Baghdad and had been recently released. Perhaps, the nonchalant US attitude in dealing with Syria-Iraq tensions explains the intensity in Maliki’s position. However, he probably did go very far and in haste, without coordinating with a foreign party, at least over the “international tribunal” issue.

The US position could be a result of it passing through a phase of regional coordination and calculations in preparation for the start of the practical side of its new diplomacy in the region. For this reason, it has entered into intense dialogue with Syria and although it has not been fruitful so far, it is progressing at an acceptable pace. For this reason, crisis between the two countries broke out at an inappropriate time. Undoubtedly, Maliki’s escalation of the issue is not without any personal, political and internal reasons, even though the file of accusation is getting bigger with time.

Contrary to its calm in dealing with US accusations, Damascus has not hesitated in fiercely retaliating this time. President Assad described Iraqi accusations as being immoral and he personally denounced Iraqi request for the setting up of an international tribunal. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari has said that his ministry had started making a file for the Security Council and explained that the proposed tribunal would handle “all interferences taking place in Iraq”. Despite the optimism expressed by the Turkish mediator, the increasingly public face of the crisis is becoming overwhelming. The Maliki government is feeling the pressure to show its performance for the record, especially as this is the first time that it has raised the issue of interference, especially as the security responsibility is now in its hands and not with the Americans. For this reason, any backing down on the issue would be considered a complete loss for Al-Maliki and his political ambitions.

It is obvious that the idea of an “international tribunal” has been drawn from the UN tribunal looking into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The Security Council set it up on the grounds that the assassination was part of the war on terrorism, as well as on accusations that Syria was behind the assassination. It is known that the tribunal was and still is an important issue influencing Syrian policy towards Lebanon, even after the general view is that the tribunal would start its work soon and would not implicate the Syrian regime or its important symbols for the crime. However, the mere talk of a new “international tribunal” by Baghdad must have raises fears and anxieties in Damascus.

Iranian foreign minister Mottaki advised Iraqis not to “internationalize” the issue, but Baghdad has probably mooted it to strike a bargain, especially as it knows that Damascus has earlier handed over wanted persons when pressured, as in the case of the prominent Turkish Kurd leader Abdullah Ojalan in order to avoid Turkish military threat and the extradition of two family members of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to ward off US pressure. However, the difference in this case is that Damascus is not currently under any pressure or threat and insists that Baghdad is making accusations without furnishing any evidence. However, a file has been sent to Mottaki, who is supposed to have informed Damascus of its contents.

The Syrian action aims to abort any attempt at the setting up of an international tribunal because it knows that the issue will become an American one this time and would be filled with many details, facts and names that any tribunal can easily pursue, especially articles related to terrorism and interference in the affairs of a neighboring country. When the President Assad attacked “internationalization” of the affair, it is noteworthy that he said, “Internationalization was not neutral, and it did not achieve anything but miseries”. Even if Syria feels that the international climate is not currently favorable for discussing a new tribunal, the headache that the “Hariri tribunal” has already caused is generating much anxiety for him, especially when Al-Maliki has actually started officially taking the steps requesting a tribunal.

What encourages Damascus to wage a confrontation with the Maliki government is that the Iraqi political circles are not united in this campaign nor do they unanimously support it. On the eve of the recall of the two ambassadors, an electoral alliance was announced that included Shiite parties. Maliki refused to join this coalition but sought to forge another alliance that would include different parties from all political and religious affiliations. Consequently, Shiites are not behind Maliki over the Syrian crisis, and Iran is certainly not supporting him on this issue. Maliki will also not be able to garner the support of Sunnis, and even the Kurds are giving him limited and conditional support knowing that he will not be able to pursue this crisis successfully or hope of receiving any Syrian concession. They could keep on supporting him if he acknowledges their internal demands related to contentious issues (Kirkuk, oil, constitution, electoral law, etc).

As long as Maliki aligns all his actions with an eye on upcoming elections in January, Damascus will be aware of postponing matters and waiting for the elections without antagonizing the US side or else it could enhance Maliki’s position. Despite this, it would be important to monitor efforts at mediation, especially the noticeable Turkish mediation. However, Tehran could also play a role, especially that it has its own interests to secure with Syria as well as with Iraq, and as it is afraid that matters could escalate and become difficult to manage at a time when it is getting ready to start difficult and complex discussions with Western countries.