Tough Love: The Paradox of Syrian-Iraqi Interdependence

By Christopher Phillips, The Majalla 21 December 2009

Iraqi Prime Minister Nour Al-Maliki’s response to the 8 December Baghdad bombings that left more than 110 dead, carried with it a sense of déjà vu. As with a similar bloody attack on 19 August, Maliki claimed militant former Ba’athists based in Syria were behind the attack and accused Damascus of harbouring Baghdad’s enemies. These accusations are symptomatic of a recent decline in Syrian-Iraqi relations which has seen both sides exchanging insults that echo the days of hostility seen under Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. However, despite this recent increase in aggressive rhetoric between the regimes involving both ambassadors being recalled in the summer, instances of economic and cultural cooperation between the neighbours is at its highest level in years. Are Maliki’s accusations mere short-term politicking, rather than a return to the dark years of enmity?

Hostility between Damascus and Baghdad is nothing new. Though both adopted Ba’athist governments in the 1960s, Iraq and Syria were ruled by different wings of the party following an ideological schism. Once Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein assumed power in each state this theoretical opposition was transplanted by a deep personal disdain. This contributed to Damascus breaking Arab ranks and supporting Tehran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and then sending troops to Kuwait in alliance with the US in the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis.

However, the fall of Saddam in 2003 and subsequent insurgency made Syrian-Iraqi relations far more complex. On the one hand, Damascus feared the success of the US neo-conservative project in Iraq and President Bashar Al-Assad, like most Arab leaders, publicly opposed the US invasion. Syria was accused of promoting instability by the Bush administration claiming Damascus was facilitating the insurgency by allowing Iraqi militants to use its territory as a base. On the other hand, Assad moved to mend relations with the new Iraq regime. Damascus recognised Maliki’s government by fully restoring ties in 2006, and the US reported a notable decrease in militant activity originating in Syria.

Central to Damascus’ seeming ambivalence to the success or failure of the US-led transformation of Iraq have been economic and political concerns. The early years of the insurgency, where Damascus at the minimum turned a blind eye to militants crossing its borders, coincided with a huge wave of at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria. Whilst some brought needed skills and capital, the majority were poor Sunnis fleeing sectarianism who overwhelmed Syria’s already over-populated cities and over-stretched services. Moreover, it was in these early years that Assad’s regime appeared most threatened by the Bush neo-conservatives, with many in Washington arguing for US forces to continue on to Damascus after Baghdad. Chaos in Iraq was therefore of greater value to Syria than prosperity.

However, the picture has changed in recent years. The threat of US-imposed regime change has diminished as prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dissuaded American policy makers from seeking to repeat the model in Syria or elsewhere. Moreover, the improved stability in Iraq has fed economic growth in Syria, with GDP up to 6.5%. In 2008 Iraq was Syria’s largest export partner, with 30% of Syrian exports heading East, and Syria was Iraq’s greatest import partner, with 26% of Iraq’s imports originating from its immediate West. More importantly, last year work began to restore the crucial Kirkuk- Banyas oil pipeline, from which Syria is expected to earn up to $1.5 billion a year in transit fees.

Yet the advantages are not one-sided, and Iraq benefits enormously from its renewed ties to Syria. The new pipeline with Banyas, like the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan route through Turkey is essential to both maintain economic autonomy for Iraq’s northern provinces and also to guard the whole oil economy against any future disruption to routes via the straits of Hormuz. Additionally, Baghdad recently agreed to link its electricity grid to Syria alongside Iran and Turkey. Iraq also relies on Syrian good will to maintain the flow of the Euphrates river – an issue of vital importance given Iraq’s recent droughts. A further factor for Baghdad to consider is the millions of refugees still living in Syria. A recent report by Al-Arabiya illustrated how a worsening of ties between Baghdad and Damascus might lead to their expulsion – thrusting an unwelcome influx of people onto the fragile Iraqi state.

Maliki’s blaming of Damascus after the bomb attacks therefore appears unwise given the increased level of interdependency between the two states. His motives for doing so are likely political and short term. Iraqis soon go to the polls and Maliki will be seeking re-election on a platform of security and unity – something questioned by the devastation of such bomb attacks. Blaming an outside power is a convenient scapegoat and Syria, given its history with the insurgents and its comparative weakness compared to other influential neighbours like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, fits the bill best.

For now Syria is too dependent on Iraq for continued economic growth to register its frustration in a manner more substantial than rhetoric and back-biting. Moreover, Damascus may chose to stay its hand until after the Iraq elections when it may well be facing a new Premier in Baghdad. Yet Syria’s reaction to these accusations will be swayed by the paradox of its relationship with Iraq. Both sides need each other and are becoming more and more interdependent through economic and cultural ties every year. However, on a political level hostility does have its shot term advantages.

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