Iraq, Syria Try to Restore Ties

DAMASCUS – After years of hostility and recent tension over foreign fighters sneaking into Iraq, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi ended a visit to Syria with a declaration that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be restored soon.

Following what he described as “fruitful and constructive” talks with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Allawi said the two countries had agreed to set up a joint committee to oversee the security of their 600km (370-mile) border.

“Relations will be restored and they will be strong,” Allawi said. “It is clear that our visit here is the beginning of a bright chapter in relations between our two brotherly people. We are opening a new page with Syria,” he told a press conference held jointly with his Syrian counterpart Mohammed Naji Otri.

Damascus-based diplomats told IPS the two countries had signed security agreements that address border control, joint patrols and exchange of security and intelligence information.

“That the decisions were made without U.S. auspices is a good indicator of the Iraqi interim government’s willingness to get the ball rolling on establishing a viable state that can stand alongside its neighbors,” a Western diplomat said. “Security is a central part of any state, and it is crucial that this agreement works so it can be followed by others.”

Syria has long been a haven for Iraqis opposed to Saddam Hussein. Syria’s branch of the ruling Ba’ath party broke with the Iraqi Ba’ath party in 1966 amid political infighting.

During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Syria was the only Arab country to support Persian Iran. Syria also joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Yet, it was one of the strongest opponents of the second U.S.-led war on Iraq, and greeted Allawi’s government with suspicion.

Many Syrians are still resistant to the new Iraqi government. “We express resentment over the visit of the head of the government of the occupation of Iraq,” a group of Syrian intellectuals said in a statement as Allawi headed for Damascus. “He is persona non grata in our country, not only because of his personal disgraceful past but also because he and his government are just tools in the hands of occupation against Iraq and the Arab nation.”

The statement added: “He and his cabinet are preparing to turn Iraq into a launching pad to reshape the region and place it under American-Israeli domination.”

The United States has repeatedly accused Syria of not doing enough to stop infiltration of Islamic fighters through the Syrian border to Iraq to fight the coalition forces. Syria has denied the accusations, but has said also that it cannot fully police its border with its eastern neighbor.

Kidnappings have been frequent in recent months, and insurgents appear to have become emboldened after forcing the Philippines to withdraw its 51-member peacekeeping contingent last week to save the life of a Filipino truck driver they were holding.

Iraqi officials accompanying Allawi said the Prime Minister was seeking on his first Middle East tour since he took power June 28 to rebuild relations with Iraq’s neighbors following the end of the Saddam Hussein regime.

The Syrian Prime Minister assured Allawi his country was keen to “achieve security and stability in Iraq” and to “support the efforts that aim at achieving that.”

The Iraqi Prime Minister assured Syrians, who repeatedly demand withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq, that Baghdad has the right once it completes the training of its own military forces to ask U.S.-led forces to leave the country.

Syrian foreign minister Farouk Al-Sharaa said Monday the recent improvement in Syrian-Iraqi relations was not intended to placate Washington. He said he hoped the “current faces” in the U.S. administration would “disappear” in the coming presidential elections.

“I do not link between the two issues regardless whether the Americans like this or not,” Sharaa told IPS at a gathering in Damascus.

Syrian analysts believe Syria is most severely affected by the Iraq war and the deterioration of security within Iraq. An Iraqi oil pipeline running through Syria has been closed, and bilateral trade exchanges greatly cut down, depriving Syria of considerable revenues.

Iraqi sources said the two countries have discussed ways to reinforce economic and trade ties, adding that Syria would participate in the third donor conference for Iraq scheduled to be held in Tokyo in October.

Iraqi oil minister Thamer al-Ghadhban said he signed an agreement with his Syrian counterpart Ibrahim Haddad to export crude oil to Syria from an oilfield close to the border. In return, Syria would supply Iraq with refined petroleum products.

The Syrian economy is in deep crisis and would benefit greatly if it were offered a slice of the lucrative reconstruction market in Iraq.

Syria and Iraq have worked over several years to rehabilitate their ties. This was accelerated when Bashar Assad succeeded his father Hafez Assad as President in 2000.

Trade between the two countries had resumed in 1997, and Syrian exports to Iraq jumped from $500 million in 1997 to $2 billion dollars in 2002, according to official Iraqi statistics.

“Although the new decisions have shown that Iraq and Syria are serious about confronting their mutual security concerns, a dose of healthy skepticism is still warranted,” says economist Izeddeen Ismail who lectures at the Damascus Faculty of Trade. “Pan-Arab projects have hardly had the best track record when judged by the past 50 years’ trail of failed agreements and friendships.”