Following five years of tense relations between the United States and Syria, the Barack Obama Administration has appointed a new ambassador to Damascus – the current Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, Robert Ford. The nomination shows the central importance of Iraq to US-Syria relations. The US war on Iraq drove a deep wedge between the two, but common interests over Iraq now seem to have become the latent force behind rapprochement.
When the George W. Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Syria openly opposed the plan. Syria felt that the United States was targeting it as well since Washington’s political conservatives advocated regime change in Damascus, and supported the resistance to US occupation. The United States also accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross the borders into Iraq and hosting senior members of the former Iraqi regime.
In the summer of 2004, however, Syria started to reconsider its policy. Increasing violence in Iraq and the growing influence of extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda, led Syria to place greater emphasis on helping stabilise Iraq in order to reduce the war's effect.
In the autumn of 2005, Syria reinforced its military presence along the Iraq border, deploying 7,000 extra troops to stop would-be infiltrators trying to join the anti-US insurgency. In addition, as a mark of good faith, Syria allowed Iraqi electoral candidates to campaign amongst the approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria – a clear departure from earlier Syrian policy which opposed the US invasion and everything resulting from it, including elections.
In 2006, Syria recognised the Nouri al-Maliki-led government in Iraq and re-established diplomatic relations with Baghdad. Increasingly, observers started to see agreement, and sometime overlapping interests, between the United States and Syria.
From mid-2007, Syria and the United States, notwithstanding the hostile rhetoric, started to explore common interests regarding Iraq. On this particular matter, they could increase their cooperation and stop their deteriorating relationship.
From that time on, Syria started to show genuine interest in the establishment of a strong central government in Baghdad. For Damascus this was a key requirement in preventing the disintegration of the country and the emergence of confessional-based mini-states along its border. To this end, Syria lobbied for the inclusion of the major Sunni factions in Iraq's political process. A formula of power and wealth sharing was seen as essential to get all the parties involved in a national reconciliation process.
Syria also advocated for a revision of the de-Ba'athification law in Iraq to allow some former members of the Sunni-dominated Ba'ath party to participate again in government, a prerequisite for an inclusive national reconciliation process.
Syria is concerned about the activities of extremist groups in Iraq and fears violence could spill over into its territory. For Damascus, Iraq might very well turn into a breeding ground for extremists. As such, Syria makes no efforts to hide its displeasure with policies that foster sectarianism and federalism, opposing attempts by key Shi'ite factions – such as the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq – to establish a Shi'ite province in the south of Iraq. Syria also coordinated with Turkey to preserve Iraq’s unity and territorial integrity.
Ahead of the latest general elections in Iraq, Syria and the United States seemed to endorse more or less the same policies on Iraq: encouraging the inclusion of all political parties in the electoral process, working to provide a reasonable level of stability and security and preventing sectarian violence or partition along ethnic lines. Syria also hopes to see the smooth withdrawal of all American troops according to the timetable set out in the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement.
Indeed, there are a number of differences between the United States and Syria, such as disagreements over the pace of US withdrawal from Iraq and Syria’s strong ties with elements of the former Iraqi regime. Yet, these differences can be overcome, particularly after the positive developments resulting from the 7 March general elections in Iraq, including strong performances by secular and nationalist forces.
Indeed, the two countries will have to agree on an overall strategy to cooperate on stabilising Iraq, an opportunity for the new US ambassador to Syria to bring five years of cold relations to an end.
* Dr. Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian writer and academic. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).