November 21, 2006

Iraq-Syria: Restoration of Diplomatic Relations

Iraq and Syria have restored diplomatic relations after 24 years. The countries broke diplomatic ties in 1982 when Syria not only sided with Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, but provided military assistance to Tehran. In that same year, Syria allowed Iran to deploy members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Lebanon to create the Islamic Resistance to Israeli occupation of the southern part of the country - the organization more commonly known as Hizballah, (the Party of God). That close relationship between Damascus and Tehran continues to this day - the two countries have a formal defense pact as well.

The agreement was reached in Baghdad. Syria was represented by its foreign minister, Walid Mu'alim. Mu'alim is a long-time Syrian diplomat, former ambassador to the United States and previously director of North American affairs for his country. He is well-versed in American interests in the region. Iraq was represented by its foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari. Zebari is a Kurd, formerly the foreign affairs chief of the Kurdish Democratic Party, also well-versed in American affairs.

I know both Mu'alim and Zebari personally - these are two of the most astute individuals in the region when it comes to understanding American issues in the region. It is no accident that the two countries are now talking following revelations that the Iraq Study Group led by former U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker will likely recommend that the United States engage both Iran and Syria for solutions to the situation in Iraq. Interesting that Iraqi president Jalal Talabani will be visiting both Syria and Iran in the near future.

It is also no coincidence that Syria accepts the presence of American forces in Iraq as long as the Iraqi government feels that their presence is required, especially given the fact that Syria has been a major transit point for insurgents entering Iraq. This is probably indicative of the fact that Syria is concerned about an all-out civil war in neighboring Iraq, a civil war that might draw a reaction from Iran, causing Syria's Arab and Turkish neighbors to intervene as well - countries not favorably disposed to Damascus.

The Iraqi embassy in Damascus was located directly across the street from the American embassy - it remains to be seen where the new embassy will be located.