Paving the Way for Closer Relations

By King, John | The Middle East, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

Paving the Way for Closer Relations


King, John, The Middle East


Could it be the Syria and Iraq have decided to take the plunge into a new era of better bilateral relations?

Recent monitoring of exchanges between Syria and Iraq indicate that some degree of change might be in the air. And if a new Damascus-Baghdad axis were to be created, the results in terms of the regional balance of power and influence would be nothing less than seismic.

The border between the two states has been closed since Syria declared it shut on 8 April 1982, when the rapidly accelerating estrangement between the two countries reached its apex.

Apparently, nothing could reconcile the rift between Syria's President Assad and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq which began with accusations of a Syrian coup plot against Iraq in 1979. The two Baathist strongmen seemed doomed to remain locked in perpetual conflict for regional hegemony. But an article published in May by the Paris-based newspaper, Al-Watan al-Arabi, claimed that the two leaders have recently held a secret meeting on the Iraq border, which might prefigure a rapprochement in the long-standing cold war between Damascus and Baghdad.

Since then there have also been other indications that change might be on the horizon. But what would be the circumstances that might prompt a thaw in this Arab cold war?

Iraq, of course, whose isolation dates from the Gulf War, would welcome any friend - through the signing of the UN's oil-for-food deal, Security Council resolution 986 (see page 9) seems to have opened the floodgate for contacts between Baghdad and Arab states which were erstwhile members of the United States-led Gulf War alliance. But more explanation is needed of why President Assad might seek to take as a partner his longtime rival and enemy.

One answer seems to be a growing sense of isolation in Syria, matching the longstanding and very real isolation undergone by the regime in Iraq. In view of the recent election of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Damascus may well now feel that it is in for a long and lonely haul in the negotiations with the Israelis - if indeed they continue - in which Syrian negotiators try to explain to Israel and the United States that they will not compromise on the Golan Heights issue.

President Assad's disappointment at the course of these negotiations has begun to intensify, and this was underlined by the appalling spectacle of White House officials standing by while Israeli shelled and bombed Lebanon during the course of Operation Grapes of Wrath in April. In spite of the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, and all that has flowed from it, President Assad has concluded that the Israeli leopard has not changed its spots since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and this has apparently undermined any belief he might have begun to develop that Israel is negotiating in good faith.

Assad was also rattled and angered by the verbal onslaught unleashed upon him by American Secretary of State Warren Christopher after April's shuttle diplomacy in Damascus and Jerusalem, when the American foreign affairs chief said the Syrian leader was mistrustful, inflexible and unreliable. And he has drawn the conclusion that the willingness to negotiate he has shown so far, will go unrewarded.

Syria remains on the United States list of states suspected of encouraging international terrorism, and there remains the possibility that Syria could join Libya, Iraq and Sudan on the list of Arab states subject - at Washington's insistence - to international sanctions. Meanwhile Syria's ally in the east, Iran, is already being eyed by the White House as a potential addition to the sanctions list.

In addition, there are other aspects of the analysis of regional relations which would lead Syria to see practical benefits in being on the same side as Baghdad. …

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