x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syria appoints Iraq ambassador

Post filled for first time in nearly 30 years with some believing the move is designed to continue Damascus's rapprochement with international community.

Nawaf Fares, left, who was named as Syria's ambassador to Iraq, is sworn in before the Syrian president Bashar Assad in Damascus.
Nawaf Fares, left, who was named as Syria's ambassador to Iraq, is sworn in before the Syrian president Bashar Assad in Damascus.

Damascus and Baghdad // With his family ties to the Iraqi tribal network, and top-level connections within the Syrian establishment, Nawaf Fares is perhaps ideally suited to be Syria's first ambassador to Baghdad in almost 30 years.

A powerful and charismatic figure, he is originally from the border town of Abu Kamal, which lies on the Euphrates River and which has long been a key staging post between the ancient cities of Damascus and Baghdad. Mr Fares's tribal roots go back far beyond the 20th century formation of Syria and Iraq as two separate countries when, with such devastating consequences, the European powers drew their arbitrary lines-on-maps, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence.

Tribes in Anbar province, until recently the centre of Iraq's insurgency, are effectively part of the same, vast extended family as the tribes in Syria's eastern desert. They share their history and speak the same distinct dialect of Arabic, a language significantly different from the Shami Arabic widely spoken in Syria. Culturally, the tribes out in Syria's remote desert regions have as much in common with their Iraqi cousins as they do fellow Syrians.

These close ties mean Mr Fares is no stranger to some of the strongest currents shaping Iraqi society. It was the resurgence of Anbar's Sunni tribes that led to the weakening of al Qa'eda in Iraq. "It's crucially important that Syria has chosen someone who really understands the different tribes and ethnicities, and who has a real understanding of the country," said Mohammad Khnenah, an Iraq specialist at the Damascus-based Orient Centre for Studies.

"We have to be frank, Iraq does have social and sectarian divisions, and in appointing Nawaf Fares, Syria is sending someone who can get to grips with that and help them overcome it." Critics of the US-led invasion, and subsequent floundering efforts to rebuild a stable Iraq, have often pointed to a failure by foreign powers to understand the society they were suddenly supposed to administer. Tuesday's announcement that Mr Fares would be ambassador underscores Syria's determination not to make a similar mistake.

Mr Fares is also well-connected within Syria's complex - to outsiders, baffling - administrative system. He has held key governance and security office posts, and is regarded as a man of integrity, not something that is said of all of his contemporaries in a bureaucracy renowned for corruption. The timing of the announcement is also significant, with Syria keen to head off a long US-occupation in Iraq. Damascus also wants to cement trade and oil deals with Baghdad, and tackle a huge refugee problem. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled the violence in their country still live in Syria, too afraid to return home.

"The Iraqi government is negotiating a status of forces agreement with the Americans, and the Syrians wanted to strengthen the Iraqis' hands," Mr Khnenah said. "Appointing an ambassador is a show of support from an Arab neighbour and will help the Iraqis argue things are getting back to normal and that they do not need such a heavy US presence. "Of course the implications of any security agreement between Iraq and America are enormous, and affect all neighbouring countries. There is a direct impact on Syrian national security so Syria wants to have its say."

Syria opposed the 2003 invasion, and has been a constant critic of the ongoing US military deployment in Iraq, arguing it has destabilised an already volatile region. It is just one of a series of disagreements between Syria and the Bush administration that has led Washington to brand Damascus a "state sponsor of terrorism". The United States has accused Syria of channelling Islamic militants across the border as part of a proxy war against America, charges Syria denies.

At the same time, the United States has been urging all Arab states to give Iraq more support and set up embassies in Baghdad. Most had refused to do so citing security concerns but are also uneasy to see a new Shiite-led government in Iraq, intent on cordial relations with Iran. Syria's decision to appoint an ambassador follows similar moves by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait and, some analysts said, represents another small concession by Damascus as it continues a rapprochement with the international community, after years in the diplomatic wilderness.

Syrian-Iraqi relations have been at best cool, and at times murderous, since the 1980s. Although the Baath party ruled both countries, a factional split put the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad, the former Syrian leader, at loggerheads. The formal split in relations happened in 1982, with Damascus accusing Iraq of inciting riots involving the banned Muslim Brotherhood. During the Iran-Iraq war, Syria sided with Iran, breaking ranks with all the other Arab nations. The relationship further worsened in 1991 when Syria supported the US-led alliance that forced Iraq's army out of Kuwait.

Labeed Abbawi, Iraq's deputy foreign minister, welcomed Mr Fares's appointment as "a positive and important move". "It is a big step towards developing the bilateral relations between Syria and Iraq. It is an indication to Syria's willingness to support Iraq," he said. Other Iraqi politicians who spoke to The National were more sceptical. "The question is why are they doing this now, and not a year ago," said one MP who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of his comments. "Syria has been supporting terrorists in Iraq as part of its plan to oppose the Americans. We hope that the new ambassador represents an end to that policy and that we will see a more positive role from Syria from now on."

Another Iraqi MP, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was too soon to laud the move. "Syria is very skilled at politics and we don't know what they are planning in the long term," he said. "They might still support insurgents and at the same time support the Iraqi government. But perhaps if Syria really is pushing for reconciliation with the West, we will see improved relations here. I hope so."

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