Across the Bay

Monday, August 31, 2009

Inglorious Baathists

Here's my commentary on the crisis between Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi government has accused Syria of harboring and refusing to hand over figures who have played a direct role in the latest bombings in Baghdad.

The Syrians, I argue, are playing an old game of theirs, trying to create for themselves a political asset (where none exists in Iraq) using Muhammad Younis al-Ahmad, whom they cultivated in order to attempt and create a splinter faction of the Iraqi Baath party that they would control (think Abu Musa and Fateh Intifada, e.g.). I had blogged about him back in 2007.

The Iraqis are also shining the spotlight on Syria's sponsorship of Al-Qaeda in Iraq as well:

Shemari said when he arrived in Syria from Saudi Arabia, he was met by a militant who took him to an al Qaeda training camp in Syria. The head of the camp was a Syrian intelligence agent called Abu al-Qaqaa, he said.

"They taught us lessons in Islamic law and trained us to fight. The camp was well known to Syrian intelligence," he said.

For more on the infamous Abu Qa'qa', see my old post here.

You'll recall that in the case of al-Qaeda's Abu Ghadiyah, the Iraqis had told the Syrians numerous times to hand him over, to no avail, until the US raided his hideout in the Syrian border town of Al Bu Kamal and ostensibly took him out. Similarly today, the Syrians are playing the same game.

This type of transparent evasive trickery will have repercussions on the already cautious US engagement effort.

Finally, Arabic readers should also check out Hazem Amin's follow-up in al-Hayat:

لكلا التوجهين السوري والإيراني نتائجه الدموية، والمالكي يتلقى صفعاتهما بصفته واقفاً في نقطة وسط. فالبعث الذي يتحدث عنه المسؤولون في سورية هو غير البعث الذي يرغب المالكي في استدراجه الى العملية السياسية. فالبعث، عند الأخير، بعث الداخل، او بالأصح البيئة البعثية بعد سحب الجهاز الحزبي منها، في حين تتحدث دمشق عن الجهاز الحزبي المقيم عندها، والمتورط بأعمال عنف وقتل، قبل سقوط النظام وبعده. أما البعث الذي تسعى طهران عبر حلفائها العراقيين الى «استئصاله»، فلا يقتصر على الجهاز الحزبي الذي كان حاكماً، إنما أيضاً يشمل البيئة البعثية في العراق، وهو ما يعني حرباً أهلية جرب العراقيون بعض نُذرها.

وإذا أجرينا عملية حسابية لما تريده كل من سورية وإيران في ملف البعث في العراق، حصلنا على نقطة مشتركة. فسورية غير مكترثة بالبيئة البعثية، وتطالب باستيعاب الجهاز الحزبي، وإيران غير مكترثة بالجهاز الحزبي المقيم في دمشق، وتطالب بإقصاء «مجتمع البعث». إذاً، الحرب الأهلية في العراق هي ما يلتقي عنده كل من النظامين الجارين للعراق.
الأوراق الإيرانية في العراق واضحة، وطهران تجيد لعبها، بدءاً من ضغطها لإعادة إحياء الائتلاف الشيعي وصولاً الى إيوائها قيادات تنظيم «القاعدة» العاملين على خط كابول – بغداد. أما الأوراق السورية فهي، وإن كانت اقل تأثيراً، أكثر طموحاً. فزيارة المالكي الأخيرة الى دمشق لم تُخلف ارتياحاً سورياً بسبب شعور المسؤولين في دمشق انهم حيال ممثل لدولة بدأت تتحسس الطريق الى مصالحها.

Amin is wrong about one thing, however, and that is the notion that the US discussed with the Syrians the issue of drawing in Baathist clients they harbor into the political process and forcing them on Maliki. That's simply not true. It is however the false impression the Syrians want to give, as I noted in my piece about how the Syrians are putting out such nonsense as the US "inviting" them to play a "bigger role" in Iraqi affairs! That's King of Comedy material.

What this Syrian propaganda campaign shows is a perfect example of how Syria uses engagement to screw its enemies (US allies and friends). I.e., it uses US engagement to screw US interests. It targets it in media (or other) campaigns in order to demoralize and confuse US allies and friends, and in order to create impressions about the engagement with the US. This is done to extract concessions from US allies under the illusion of an American cover.

In reality, however, no such "discussion" exists with the US. It's a complete distortion of not just US intentions, but also the actual pace and substance of the engagement process. It's vintage Syrian trickery. It's also a good example of some of the public pitfalls of engagement.

Amin's main insight, however, is that he shows how terrorist extortion is in fact the Syrians' (only) foreign policy tool, which is what I have argued repeatedly. That is what I've dubbed structural and systemic reasons why Syria won't change its behavior, and why its relations with its neighbors and the US will continue to be tense and problematic. Syria cannot have the kind of influence it regards as its entitlement, commensurate with its grossly over-inflated self-image, without sponsorship of terror and extortion of its neighbors. As Amin put it in the conclusion of his piece, "the bombings... are part of the relations with the Iraqi government." I.e., terrorism as state policy.