Marc Lynch

The Syrian-Iraqi spat

The Syrian-Iraqi spat

The sudden deterioration of relations between Syria and Iraq is not really evidence of any failure of Obama’s outreach to Syria. But it most definitely has thrown regional diplomacy for a bit of a loop. Why have Syria and Iraq veered from their best relations in many years to their worst crisis virtually overnight?

 Syria and Iraq have had a tortured relationship for decades, but up until shortly after the bombings in Baghdad, relations between the two traditional rivals had seemed to be warming considerably. Indeed, Iraq had been a major focus of American-Syrian military discussions, as a place where interests could be made to overlap and cooperation could be developed outside of the more contentious Lebanese and Israeli tracks. Shortly before the bombings, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had paid a trip to Damascus and talked seriously about a joint institutional framework for cooperation.

But then, after the Baghdad bombings, Maliki turned sharply against the Syrians, accusing them of complicity in the attacks and demanding that they turn over insurgency leaders residing in Damascus. The Iraqi government presented one of those televised confessions of which they have become so fond. The Syrians responded furiously, denying any role. The Syrians have demanded to see any evidence whatsoever for Iraqi accusations, while the Iraqis are threatening an international tribunal against them along a Hariri model. Syria’s hard-won ambassador to Iraq has been withdrawn, and there are few signs yet of an easing of the tension.

 Why did Maliki turn this into a crisis with Syria? It probably is not because the Iraqi government really has evidence tying the attack to Damascus — if they did, they surely would have presented it by now. Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat and no friend of the Syrians, argues that authorizing such an attack makes little sense for Damascus at the moment, given what it is trying to achieve strategically. As Wafiq al-Samarra’ie points out it is unlikely that the ex-Baathists living there would have been able to carry out something like this without the awareness of the Syrian mukhbarat. For what it’s worth, AQI’s Islamic State of Iraq (and not the factions whose leaders reside in Damascus) claimed responsibility for the attack. Others have pointed fingers at Tehran. Nobody really seems to know for sure; I certainly don’t. But few Arab commentators — even those ill-disposed towards Damascus — seem to believe the Maliki line.

 So what do they think? There are two main theories dominating the Arab discussion, one focusing on the Syrian-Iranian relationship and the other focusing on Maliki’s domestic political problems. And then there’s a wider discussion about the effects of the crisis on the Arab political scene which may be more important in the long run.

 The most common regional politics argument is that Iran wanted to prevent Syria from reconciling with the U.S. and making peace with Israel, and thus pushed the Iraqi government to finger the Syrians (regardless of who was actually responsible). The columnist Ghassan al-Imam, for instance, suggests that Iran was sending a warning signal at Syria, with the prospect of US-Syrian reconciliation alarming Tehran. This analysis (which tracks a number of others I’ve seen over the last few days) suggests that the Obama outreach to Syria was actually generating some real concern among those most affected (and thus directly contradicts the Abrams thesis that such outreach has failed).

A second, and not necessarily incompatible, hypothesis focuses on Maliki’s domestic problems. With his political standing based primarily on his claims to be able to provide security without American assistance, goes this argument, Maliki is desperate and needed to blame someone. The Saudi journalist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed speculates that Maliki has realized that the violence could bring down his government by exposing his inability to provide security without the U.S. Blaming a convenient target like Syria doesn’t threaten any of his important domestic constituencies, deflects attention from any of his own failings, and conveniently sidesteps the need for any domestic political reforms. Other commentators suggest that Maliki may also have felt threatened by the prospect of improving Syrian-American relations, and acted to torpedo this reconciliation to prevent it happening at his expense — especially given his deep resistance to reconciliation with the ex-Baathists, which the Americans may have been working with the Syrians to encourage.

 Whatever the case, the Syrian-Iraqi crisis has generated a round of garment-thrashing over the inability or unwillingness of Arab states to effectively mediate such intra-Arab conflicts. Daoud Shriyan in al-Hayat marvels at the complete absence of Arab engagement with the crisis, with its collective silence showing its complete disinterest in the new Iraq. Ahmed Yusuf Ahmed sees it as an endlessly recurring pattern of never-ending feuds between Arab states, egged on by foreign intervention. And Mustafa Zayn says that Iraqi-Syrian reconciliation was "forbidden" (by whom, unclear) because the prospect of an Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian bloc would overturn the regional balance of power. And others (not understanding, perhaps, the ways in which Washington DC shuts down in August) wonder why the U.S. has had so little to say about the crisis.

 The sudden crisis between Syria and Iraq strikes me as a potentially very serious development, with possible spillover effects on a wide range of issues beyond the bilateral relationship. It could cast a serious cloud over the push for the resumption of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations — or it could push Syria to get off the fence and play ball more aggressively with the U.S. and Israel. It could heighten Iraq’s Arab isolation, confirming the widespread antipathy among Arab leaders towards Maliki’s government and freezing whatever momentum might have existed towards rebuilding Arab ties with Iraq — or, if resolved through stronger cooperation against insurgents crossing into Iraq, the crisis could create the basis for a stronger and sustainable Iraqi integration into the Arab region. And it could lead to heightened suspicion of the Iranian role — or, if Iran’s call for a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors were taken up, become the vehicle for overcoming the regional cold war which Obama’s efforts have so fitfully begun to thaw. It’s worth American attention.