x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Blame game threatens Iraq's ties with Syria

Relations between Baghdad and Damascus have fallen to a new low after fresh allegations claim Syrian complicity in bombings.

DAMASCUS // Relations between Baghdad and Damascus have fallen to a new low after fresh allegations claiming Syrian complicity in bombings were aired on Iraqi state-run television. The damage to ties between the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and his Syrian counterpart, the president, Bashar al Assad, is now "permanent", Syrian and Iraqi politicians and analysts have warned.

"If Maliki is re-elected as Iraq's leader, his relations with Syria will never be warm," said Mohammad Ghrawi, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's (ISCI) chief representative in Syria. "There is always hope that things will improve and that the two countries can function together on an official basis. But they will never be close, personal relations." On August 18, Mr al Maliki met with Mr Assad in Damascus to conclude a strategic partnership between Syria and Iraq, a deal that promised a new era of co-operation. The following day two huge explosions devastated government buildings in Baghdad, killing more than 100 people and wounding 1,000 others. Almost immediately, Iraqi officials publicly blamed Syria for hosting the insurgents behind the attack.

Iraq withdrew its recently appointed ambassador to Damascus, and Syria responded in kind. Baghdad then went even further and called on the United Nations to set up a tribunal to investigate the case. In consequence, the situation was already extremely tense when, on Sunday, Iraqi officials said suspects behind a more recent double suicide bombing originated in Syria. The blasts on October 25 targeted Iraq's ministry of justice, killing 160 and wounding more than 500, a death toll that made it the worst single incident in two years.

Iraqi television showed confessions of three men it claimed participated in the attack. The government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said the insurgent cell "came from Syria". "We have proof that condemns all those who justify terrorist acts from groups based in Syria," he said, although he insisted that did not mean Iraq was accusing the Syrian authorities of orchestrating the blasts. Damascus, which has condemned the attacks as terrorist outrages, has denied sheltering anti-Iraqi government insurgents and has promised it would assist in any formal investigation into allegations against Iraqis on its soil. No evidence has been handed over support the claims however, according to Syrian officials.

The crisis, its subsequent escalation and continued handling by the Iraqi government, has confounded observers here. "Our position was and is that if there is involvement of Iraqis based in Syria, that is no reason to destroy our ties," said Mr Ghrawi of ISCI. "On the contrary, that is the time for co-operation. I would have expected the prime minister [Mr al Maliki] to send a delegation with evidence, there should be face to face talks, not this talking through the media which is never constructive."

The head of an Iraqi political office in Syria, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his group's close relationship with Mr al Maliki's Dawa party, said the continued claims against Damascus were driven by domestic political concerns. "I'm an Iraqi so I know not to trust any confessions that are shown on the television," he said. "There is talk of Baathists, of al Qa'eda, of a Saudi connection but there are no details, just vague assertions, just rumour.

"In truth, the bombs hit Maliki's standing hard. He was gambling everything on security and then this happened, it showed holes in the Iraqi security forces, it showed that despite improvements we cannot say there is stability or security. That undermined his position. He saw this [blaming Syria] as a way of reasserting himself." Apparently the scale and speed with which the diplomatic row developed caught even the Iraqi ambassador to Syria, Ala al Jawadi, unawares. According to one of his colleagues, Mr al Jawadi learnt of his withdrawal from Damascus when it was announced on a television news show.

"To say we are surprised at this very sudden and public escalation is an understatement," said Jasim Mohammad Zakaria, a professor of international law at Damascus University. "Syria wants to have a healthy strategic relationship with Iraq and we make decisions with that in mind, not on some short term basis. "This problem is something that will be overcome as long as the Iraqis do not continue to invest in the issue. The ball is in their court. Syria wants a good relationship with Iraq, it is up to Iraq to decide it if shares that view."

In blaming members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, Mr al Maliki may have undercut efforts to bring more moderate Baathists back into the political fold, a process of reconciliation widely seen as essential if Iraq is to move beyond a state of conflict. With his government's allegations against Syria, the Iraqi prime minister has also antagonised a neighbour long accused of fuelling the insurgency, a claim Damascus denies. The tension between Damascus and Baghdad has an added personal twist because Mr al Maliki once lived in Syria, where he and other wanted members of the Dawa party were given protection from Saddam Hussein.

Since the 2003 invasion, Syria has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who have fled the violence at home - among them former regime members - and insists it will not force this new generation of political exiles to return. "Maliki was supported by Syria, the Syrians had come to view him as positive and was even their preferred candidate in the election," said Fadhil al Rubaiee, an Iraqi based in Damascus with close connections to exiled Baathists. "Maliki was under pressure from Iran and America and domestically was in difficulty. He saw this as a way out and it wasn't.

"He has now played a card against Syria, for regional and domestic reasons, and it was a big mistake. Today Syria isn't with al Maliki." Before the crisis spiralled out of control, Damascus had high hopes for its relationship with Baghdad, including lucrative energy deals to transport Iraqi oil and gas through Syria en route to Europe. Those deals, critical as Damascus tries to plug a $50 billion dollar (Dh184bn) investment hole, are now in jeopardy.

"If Iraqi oil comes to Syria, there will be no problems," Sufian al Allaw, Syria's minister of petroleum and mineral resources, said in a recent interview. "Co-operation with Iraq is essential and we are hoping for this." @Email:psands@thenational.ae