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Landis: Syria Eagerly Seeking to Improve Relations with Iraqi Leaders

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Joshua Landis, codirector, Center of Peace Studies, University of Oklahoma
April 26, 2006

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Joshua M. Landis, a Syria expert who recently returned to the United States after spending a year in Damascus, says that Syrian leaders are seeking to establish good relations with all segments of Iraqi political life, including the Shiite leaders. He says the newly chosen prime minister of Iraq, Jawad al-Maliki, lived in exile in Syria for twenty-one years, but the current Syrian leadership, which had little direct contact with him then, is trying hard to curry favor now.

"The leadership doesn't know much about him, because most of the people he had been friendly with have retired," Landis says. "He was friendly with [former Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad's generation, not with the generation that has come into power under the son, Bashar. They don't really know who he is. So they're scrambling right now to figure out who has good relations with him, and obviously they're going to try to make that connection."

Landis, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma's School of International and Area Studies, says Syria and Iran are trying to take advantage of anti-Americanism in the Middle East to enhance their influence in the region.

In your most recent blog entry, you said that Syrian officials are striving to have good relations with all sectors of Iraqi society. Now this surprises me, because I always assumed the Syrians were very anti-Iraqi Shiite, and since the Shiites are the predominant force in the Iraqi government, there would be rather cool relations between Syria and Iraq. What explains this change?

Well, Syria did not traditionally have good relations with the Shiites in Iraq, largely because the Shiites were anti-Baathist [Saddam Hussein headed the Baath Party in Iraq]. And because Syria was also Baathist, [the Iraqi Shiites] distrusted Syria. That has changed a lot. What's happened is, as the Shiite [political figures] in Iraq have become more and more distrustful of the United States, and have divided amongst themselves, and so find themselves in competition with each other, they have been going to Syria to look for better relations. Also, the government in Syria is, in fact, Shiite. Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite. They are offshoots of Shiites. They claim to be "Twelver" Shiites, the largest of the Shiite factions.

But Syria, traditionally, had had almost no relations with people inside Iraq, because of the terrible relations between the two Baathist regimes. And when Hafez al-Assad and the Alawites took over in Syria, they kicked out the founding members of the Baathist Party -- many of whom fled to Iraq in the sixties and were given a home by the Baathist Party there, and later by Saddam Hussein. And so Saddam promoted the idea that these exiled Syrian Baathists might be used to undermine Syria. Saddam was the major funder and helper of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria [a Sunni Muslim group]. He helped sneak car bombs and weapons across that border, into places like Hama where they were used against the Syrian regime, provoking the slaughter of 1982 in that city by Assad's forces.

At this time, Saddam Hussein attacked the [Shiite] Dawa party in Iraq. [Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-]Jaafari and [incoming Prime Minister Jawad al-]Maliki are both members of that party. And the Dawa people claim that Saddam over the years killed 70,000 of their members. In 1982, Maliki fled Iraq during this crackdown, at the same time that Saddam was funding the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. So he fled, first to Iran, where he was unhappy because he felt he didn't have enough independence, and then to Syria. And Syria helped these Shiite members of the Dawa party.

And he stayed in Syria a long time?

The whole time. In fact, until 2003. So he spent, essentially, two decades in Syria.

So he obviously is fairly well clued in to the leadership in Damascus, yes?

No, he's not. And this is the odd thing. In preparation for our interview I got in touch with some people in Damascus, and they said that, in fact, the leadership doesn't know much about him because most of the people he had been friendly with have retired. He was friendly with Hafez al-Assad's generation, not with the generation that has come into power under the son, Bashar. They don't really know who he is. So they're scrambling, right now, to figure out who has good relations with him, and obviously they're going to try to make that connection.

Now, the importance of having been in Syria, for Maliki, seems to be that he's quite a staunchly Arab nationalist, as opposed to being influenced by Iran. He has made it clear -- or at least he says -- that he wants to put aside any sectarian interests, and that he's interested in preserving a non-sectarian, Arab identity for Iraq. This is going to get him in trouble with the Kurds, but it's the kind of language that Sunnis in Iraq will like to hear. And it's the kind of language that Syria will like to hear.

Have the border incursions of insurgents from Syria into Iraq been stopped, more or less? Or is that still an issue?

It's not much of an issue. The head of American forces in Iraq has said the Syrians are doing a much better job and they're working together. The big change is the Iraqi and American troops have finally arrived at the border. For the first two and a half years, there were no Iraqi troops guarding that nearly 500-kilometer border. There were just Syrians on one side. But now, Americans and Iraqis have managed to put up a fairly effective border guard system. Right down the whole border there are outposts and guard houses. In this way they are managing to have some communication with the Syrians, and they seem quite satisfied. The commanders along the line say they have been able to stop whatever it is that's going on, and they've been able to stop smuggling, even. Now there are still some issues, but it doesn't seem to be infiltrators.

Now the other issue, of course, that was big news a year and a half ago, was the UN investigation into the assassination last year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The latest news is that the chief U.N. investigator Serge Brammertz met with Bashar today. Where does that issue stand?

Well, Syria took some satisfaction in the collapse of the so-called "national dialogue" in Lebanon earlier this year. The Hariri and pro-American forces in Lebanon put all their money behind getting rid of the president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, who has been a major link between Syria and the Lebanese state. They believed that through this national dialogue, with all these national leaders coming together in March, they were going to be able to get progress on impeaching the president. His importance is that he sits over the whole security apparatus in Lebanon, and he's chief of staff of the military in Lebanon. He, of course, was the president who had his term extended, constitutionally, under great pressure from the Syrians. So he became the focal point for the anti-Syrian movement, which led eventually to Rafik Hariri's assassination. And Hariri's people put all their effort into getting rid of him, and they failed.

What was the reason for the failure, that Hezbollah was able to block it?

Yes. And the Christians. Michel Aoun, who is the most popular Christian for the next presidential seat [which has to be held by a Christian according to the Lebanese constitution] -- opinion polls put him at about 30 percent, and his closest competitor had about 10 percent -- has made an alliance with Hezbollah. So there's a Maronite-Shiite alliance that really frustrated the Sunnis. In a sense, America has thrown its money behind the Sunnis in Lebanon, who are one of the smaller groups, and this has caused the other groups to gang up against them. The Christians are divided, but the most popular presidential candidate, Aoun, wanted the Future Movement, the party of Hariri's people, to say that it would endorse his becoming president to replace Lahoud, before he would agree to sway his people behind the removal of Lahoud. But they refused to back Aoun.

So that took the whole steam out of the U.S. effort to bring about change in Lebanon?

It did, it took the wind out of the Lebanese anti-Syrian drive, and Washington had to feel as if it got some mud on its face, because Bush had been very dedicated to supporting Hariri's people in trying to get rid of Lahoud and put a dent in Syrian influence. So I have the feeling Syria won on that.

Now in your blog, you said that the Syrian leadership has more or less decided just to wait for a new president in the United States. There is more than two years to go. Is that really the policy?

The Syrians don't really have any choice. They would have preferred to create some dialogue with Washington, but they've failed at every turn to do so. They used to have intelligence-sharing on al-Qaeda matters. What happened, as we know, is that Syria came out vociferously against the American occupation of Iraq. It took a major stand against it. That was a big turning point, and it soured the relations that still existed. Then Syria realized that it had made a mistake and tried to calm relations with America by taking away the Iraq portfolio from Farouk al-Shara, the foreign minister and giving it to Abdul Halim Khaddam, who was vice president at the time. This was around November of 2003.

Khaddam began to organize all the tribal leaders, all the Sunnis, who were being pushed out of the Iraqi government at the time, and he brought them for a series of about ten meetings in Syria. What he was trying to do was unify the Sunni voice in Iraq, so he could trot over to the Americans in Iraq and say, "Look, I can help you, I can bring these people together to a negotiating table, and I can push them -- if you basically go soft on us in Lebanon and stop criticizing us." This is just what Washington did not want to hear at the time, because L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer III was in the process of moving the Shiites into power in Iraq, and disciplining the Sunnis, getting them out of the army, getting rid of the Baath Party. All these Sunnis who were circling around, trying to get a bargaining position, were cut out of the picture. And that meant Syria was cut out of the picture as well. Washington felt it didn't need to have dialogue with Syria because that would give Syria more leeway in Lebanon and other places.

This was a great miscalculation on Syria's part, believing that the Iraq card was a way to improve bilateral relations with the United States. It failed because America didn't want to hear about the Sunnis in Iraq, and it didn't want to hear about Syria. Secretary of State Colin Powell made some efforts in 2004, but by the end of 2004 you have the extension of Lahoud's government. Syria obviously realized this was not going to work, and decided to move against the United States and extend the presidency of Lahoud against America's and France's wishes. And then in February 2005, Hariri was killed. This was just a further step in Syria's crackdown on the Lebanese situation.

Is there any doubt in your mind that Bashar was instrumental in [the Haririassassination]?

I have no reason to doubt the Lebanese and international investigations, which have all pointed their fingers at him. I don't see anyone else whom I could blame for it.

Washington is obviously looking for a political settlement in Iraq, and today we have the defense secretary and the secretary of state in Iraq at the same time, urging this on. Is there anything the Syrians can do? Is Washington considering anything with Syria to help this along?

They are not. The problem is that Washington has gotten itself into this terrible situation with Iran and Syria. Iran and Syria, sensing that Washington is floundering now in the Middle East, and wanting to profit from the widespread anger at the United States that spans from one end of the Islamic world to the next, are playing to the street. They're playing an anti-American policy by supporting Hamas and supporting other anti-American forces in the Middle East. And this has helped them a great deal. Bashar has never been more popular on the streets of Syria than he is today, even though he has not helped the economy, he has not reformed, he has failed to fulfill on a number of other important criteria. By playing this anti-American card, he is winning support.

Has Syria always been close to Iran?

Syria has been close to Iran since 1980, the year that Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. Saddam Hussein was the big enemy of Syria, and he invaded Iran. He was also supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, so immediately Hafez al-Assad reached out to Iran. They made what was clearly a strategic alliance that was based on the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

And then, of course, Syria sent troops to the first Gulf War.

Yes, and again it was an anti-Saddam move.

So why were they so angry at the United States for knocking off Saddam?

Because the United States was coming to the Middle East to change the whole balance of power, to occupy an Arab country, which of course is against the ideology, but also to possibly take Syria. The Syrians believed that if the Americans had a really easy time in Iraq that they might charge right down the Euphrates and overthrow the Baathist power in Syria. And that this would be part of the strategy of getting rid of dictators, of overthrowing the anti-Israel forces in the Middle East, and of getting rid of the Baath Party. So they believed that America was on an anti-Arab, as they called it, campaign.

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