Syria-Iraq Ties Cool Over Bomb Charges

Ambassadors recalled just as relations were getting better.

Syria-Iraq Ties Cool Over Bomb Charges

Ambassadors recalled just as relations were getting better.

Monday, 7 September, 2009
A row over charges by Baghdad that Damascus is harbouring former Iraqi cadres responsible for the latest deadly attacks in Iraq is likely to escalate and hinder cooperation between the two nations, Syrian analysts say.

The new tensions abruptly brought back to the surface Syria’s alleged role in the destabilisation of Iraq despite an apparent improvement in relations between the two countries in recent months.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad criticised Iraq for making accusations against Syria without providing any evidence.

"It is unacceptable to have irresponsible accusations [against Syria] that hurt the developing path of Syrian Iraqi relations," Assad said during a meeting with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, according to the official news agency SANA.

Davutoglu was shuttling between Iraq and Syria on Monday August 31 in an attempt to reduce tensions between the two countries.

Earlier, the Iraqi government blamed two officials from the dissolved Iraqi Baath party, who it said were in Syria, for the August 19 bombings in Baghdad, which killed 96 people and injured about 600.

The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted on its website.

Baghdad accused Damascus of turning a blind eye to the presence of these people on its soil.

Hussein al-Awdat, a Damascus-based political analyst, believes the recent dispute will obstruct the implementation of recent bilateral agreements.

“The recent events will create turmoil that will impede the implementation of bilateral agreements which will remain only on paper,” he said.

The Iraqi accusations came only days after the August 18 visit by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to Syria, which was described by the media as “successful”.

The two countries announced at the time the creation of a strategic partnership in areas of defence, energy, finance and the economy.

Awdat said that the two countries had lost considerable potential revenues because they delayed for a long time agreeing on how to share water from their common rivers and on planned oil pipelines between them.

Waddah Abed-Rabbou of the pro-government Syrian newspaper Al-Watan said in a recent editorial that Maliki was trying to abandon meeting his commitments towards Syria, the author accusing “higher powers” – an apparent reference to Washington - of dictating Iraqi policies.

The tensions come at a time when the United States had opened channels of communication with Damascus to discuss in part the issue of security along its border with Iraq.

In recent weeks, a second US military delegation visited Syria to discuss the smuggling of fighters into Iraq – for long a bone of contention between the two countries, news agencies reported.

Washington has refrained from intervening openly in the dispute, calling the matter an internal affair and calling on both parties to resort to diplomacy and dialogue as a way to settle their differences.

On August 25, Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government’s spokesman, demanded that Damascus hand over two former commanders of the Iraqi Baath, Mohamad Youness al-Ahmad and Sattam Farhan, for what he said was their direct involvement in the latest attacks.

Although Dabbagh did not accuse the Syrians of being directly involved in planning for the attacks, he asserted that Syria was covering up the activities of terrorists based on its territory.

He also announced that Iraq would recall its ambassador in Damascus.

Iraqi officials said they will seek help from the United Nations and the international community in the handing over of terror suspects.

Iraqi state television has shown a former police chief confessing that he planned the truck attacks on the orders of his Baathist superiors based in Syria.

Syria rebuffed the Iraqi claims and reciprocated by summoning home its ambassador in Iraq.

The two countries had re-established diplomatic ties at the level of ambassadors in 2006 after more than three years of tensions following the US invasion of Baghdad.

A statement published by the state-run news agency SANA quoted an official source as saying that the Syrian government wanted proof that Iraqi political refugees exiled in Syria were behind the attacks.

He added that Syria had strongly condemned the recent bombing in Iraq.

The source lamented the state of relations between the two nations, which he described as “prey to internal [Iraqi] disputes and maybe foreign agendas.”

Awdat, the political expert, believes that the recent tensions were warning signs but were unlikely to escalate to a complete break in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Said Moqbel, another Damascus-based political analyst, argued that Syria had made giving asylum to Iraqi political refugees one of the principles of its foreign policy.

“Syria will not break this principle and hand in any Iraqi dissidents unless there is clear criminal evidence incriminating them,” said Moqbel.

The recent tensions also call into question the fate of the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in Damascus.

“I think that this will be the beginning of the end for the majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria,” said a western observer living in Syria.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added that Syria could start deporting more Iraqis especially since it has increased pressure on them in the past few months with “more arrests and closer scrutiny”.
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