Stable Iraq Key to U.S.-Syria Dialogue
Stable Iraq Key to U.S.-Syria Dialogue
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Stable Iraq Key to U.S.-Syria Dialogue

Engagement with Syria has been featured among the U.S. administration’s prom­ised foreign policy changes, yet so far a mechanism for coopera­tion has elud­ed both sides. Renewed negotiations with Israel must wait for the political dust to settle in Jerusalem.

Damascus is unlikely to ac­cede to U.S.   requests for shifting poli­cies toward Hamas or Hizbollah, and certainly will not do so before signifi­cant progress has been made on oth­er fronts. The United States has renewed sanctions.

That leaves the topic of Iraq, where both sides expected the road to be smoothest because of apparent shared interests. In­stead, U.S. officials accuse Dam­ascus of allowing — if not abet­ting — the infiltration of militants across the border to Iraq.

Securing this border was sup­posed to be the most straightfor­ward of issues, but the question is more complicated than it first appeared and will require a broader discussion about politi­cal reconciliation in Iraq and a better understanding of Damas­cus’ fluctuating relationship with Sunni armed groups.

Different Perspective

When Iraq’s former regime col­lapsed, Syria openly supported those resisting the occupation, busing militants across the bor­der and creating an image that has shaped U.S. opinion ever since. However, the intensifying conflict transformed Syria’s threat perception from one cen­tered on the U.S. agenda for the region to one more concerned about Iraq’s breakup, sectarian dynamics, the influx of refugees and the uncomfortable expansion of Iranian influence.

Syria’s policy also was driven by the government’s desire to de­flect its own jihadi problem and rid itself of home-grown activists while placating the jihadi move­ment as a whole. That policy eventually backfired: Those who didn’t die came back more expe­rienced, better connected and ful­ly indoctrinated — more of a risk than before.

As Iraqi Sunnis turned away from foreign volunteers and Dam­ascus adjusted its own posture, Syria lost both a useful outlet and the indulgence of the jihadi com­munity. A series of violent inci­dents culminating in the 2008 bomb attack in the Syrian capital underscored this shift.

Syria’s dysfunctional border controls are also an important factor. Corruption has long been rife, enabling cross-border net­works to operate with cover from high-ranking officials. Moreover, technology is deficient; Damas­cus only recently introduced a centralized computer system to monitor entries and exits.

Despite an antiquated approach to illegal crossings, notable ef­forts have been made, such as en­gaging tribes, improving routine controls, and even cracking down on corrupt magnates in order to better protect Syrian territory.

Ironically, Syrian officials now complain that the United States and Iraq aren’t doing enough on the Iraqi side to seal the border.

Two issues stand out. First, the ambiguous links that Washington accuses Damascus of enjoying with al-Qaida and other armed groups provide Syria with far bet­ter intelligence on the former and more leverage on the latter than the search-and-destroy approach typically pursued by the United States. In other words, Syria may think twice about severing ties that bolster its security and en­hance its political clout.

Second, opening and closing the tap of insurgents going into Iraq likely will remain a valuable pressure point for Damascus in future negotiations with the United States. That said, while U.S. demands on Syria are clear, Syria’s expectations are clouded in strategic ambiguity.

There are other obstacles to ef­fective security cooperation. The uneven quality of U.S. intelli­gence, particularly human intelli­gence from questionable Iraqi sources, along with a propensity to favor short-term benefits over long-term infiltration, has gener­ated skepticism in Syrian quar­ters. It will take time before enough trust exists for the Syrian regime to allow the U.S. to by­pass political interlocutors and engage the intelligence communi­ty directly.

Perhaps most important, no matter what is done in Damas­cus, U.S. efforts to eradicate the insurgency will only go so far without a political breakthrough in Iraq. Less violence and suc­cessful elections in Iraq have led only to token reconciliation and little reform. Simply arresting ever more opponents is not a so­lution while fundamental issues go unaddressed. Security steps are not what will make the biggest difference in Iraq now.

Political ones will. And that is also the arena where cooperation with Syria may prove the most fruitful.

Today, Damascus has a keen in­terest in Iraqi stability, after hav­ing paid a high price for promot­ing the reverse. Moreover, at a time when its economy is danger­ously ailing, it wants to become an outlet for Iraq’s oil products, a supplier for its emerging markets and a route for transit trade. De­veloping economic ties will en­hance Syrian buy-in.

Officials also have realized that an unstable Iraq serves Iran, not Syria, and now see value in recon­ciliation. If Washington pressures Baghdad to implement a genuine reconciliation process, Syria can help by using its access to impor­tant insurgent players. In that context, sifting unredeemable al­Qaida elements from more main­stream resistance will become easier. Only if it is built on a shared vision, with promise of sustainable economic benefits rather than immediate security gains, can the U.S.-Syrian dia­logue on Iraq succeed.

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