Syria Wants in On Iraq
From the New York Times: Syria Is Said to Be Strengthening Ties to Opponents of Iraq's Government
Syria is encouraging Sunni Arab insurgent groups and former Iraqi Baathists with ties to the leaders of Saddam Hussein's government to organize [in Damascus], diplomats and Syrian political analysts say. By building strong ties to those groups, they say, Syria hopes to gain influence in Iraq before what it sees as the inevitable waning of the American presence there.
In July, former Baathists opposed to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki scheduled a conference for insurgent groups -- including two of the most prominent, the 1920s Revolution Brigades and Ansar al Sunna -- at the Sahara Resort outside Damascus.
The meeting followed two others in Syria in January that aimed to form an opposition front to the government of Iraq, and an announcement in Damascus in July of the formation of a coalition of seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups with the goal of coordinating and intensifying attacks in Iraq to force an American withdrawal. That coalition has since expanded to incorporate other groups.
The July conference was canceled at the last minute, however, indicating the political perils of Syria's developing strategy. It was called off by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, participants, diplomats and analysts said, primarily because of pressure from Iran.
Iran is Syria's chief ally and a staunch supporter of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Damascus just days before the conference was to have taken place.
"Iran is the big player in Iraq," said Mr. Hamidi, of Al Hayat, "but it lacks influence on the Baathists and the Sunnis."
That would seem to create a natural opening for Syria, a predominantly Sunni country governed by its own version of the Baath Party. But its relations with the Iraqi Baathists have long been strained. Syria backed Iran in its war with Iraq in the 1980s and supported the United States against Mr. Hussein during the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
Syria has long had a regional strategy of influencing its neighbors' politics by harboring their opposition groups. Washington imposed economic sanctions on Syria in 2004 for, among other things, its support of Hamas and several other militant Palestinian groups.
Suspected of orchestrating the 2005 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, Syria has also come under increasing pressure from the United States and France for its support of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia.
I can think of two possibilities here, neither of them particularly good. The first is that Syria wants to escape from Iran's shadow. Iran is busy trying to establish influence over Iraq's Shiite parties. Perhaps Syria wants to establish influence of Iraq's Sunni and Baathist parties, in an attempt to outflank Iran. However, I just don't see Syria having the will to actually go against Iran.
The second possibility is that Iran is using Syria to establish even more control over Iraq. While Iran establishes influence over the Shiite parties, Syria establishes influence over the Sunni parties. Together, they play the Iraqi government like fiddles.
Perhaps. The whole situation is muddled by the fact that Iran told Syria to knock it. Pique at Syria's attempts? Wanting to hide the strategy before it gets too obvious? Something else? I don't know, but I'm worried about the whole situation.