Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq (right) with Iraqi President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (left) in Baghdad in 1968
© The Online Museum of Syrian History
Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq (right) with Iraqi President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (left) in Baghdad in 1968
Last updated: May 15, 2013

Syria and Iraq – will the newfound friendship last?

Banner Icon Iraq is the only Arab state supporting Assad. But it is not too daring to predict that a Sunni-Islamist regime in post-Assad Syria and the Malikki regime in Baghdad are going to pursue a repeat performance of the Assad-Saddam rivalry of old days, writes Professor Josef Olmert.

One of the interesting by-products of the break-up of Syria, as a result of the civil war, is the change in the Syrian-Iraqi relationship. For most of the post-independence era in the Middle East, this relationship was very steady, being based on mutual mistrust, suspicions and fears.

For almost three decades from 1981 until 2008 the two neighbors had no diplomatic relations at all, demonstrating the depth of enmity that has become such a familiar and common feature of Middle East politics.

This state of affairs had its early roots in the old Islamic past of the two countries. The Islamic Caliphate moved from Mecca to Damascus in 661 A.D and then after only 90 years to Baghdad, which was the Capital of the Abbassid Empire, the center of Islam for five centuries.

In modern times, the two countries had disputes over many issues, and in most cases the initiative seemed to be in Iraq’s hands. Iraq got its independence years before Syria did, its Hashemite rulers were perceived to be much more respectable and legitimate rulers than those of Syria, and as a general rule, the Iraqi state was much more stable domestically than Syria.

Add up to that the relative prosperity in Iraq gained by the oil revenues, and altogether Iraq was the bigger, stronger, richer and more populated of the two.

Some of Iraq’s domestic problems, such as the existence of oppressed, disenfranchised Kurdish and Shi’ite populations were conceived as controllable, as opposed to Syria’s inability to reign in on its rebellious minorities.

So, the Syrian state was the one which was under threat from Iraq and veered towards Egypt for protection in the so-called Arab Cold War of the 1950’s. The Iraqis were the ones who pushed through the plans to unite the Fertile Crescent. The Syrians were the ones who defended their independence in face of these plans.

Hafiz Assad hosted the exiled Malikki in Damascus for over twenty years

Even when the two countries were ruled simultaneously by the Arab Ba’ath Party, the self-styled proponent of pure Pan-Arabism, the enmity between the two dictatorships in Damascus and Baghdad continued relentlessly. In fact it was aggravated.

This was so, because under the Ba’ath, particularly under the Hafiz Assad regime from 1970, Syria seemed to have extricated itself from its cycle of coups and counter coups on its way to be a stable country, much the same as Iraq was under Saddam Hussein, or so it seemed in both cases…

The ultimate irony was that the Ba’ath Party could not bring about a union even between countries adhering to its ideology, something which dramatically exposed the grand failure of the Pan-Arab vision. But in the case of Syria and Iraq, the failure also had to do with religion.

The elephant in the room during all the years of the endemic Saddam-Assad rivalry was the issue of religion. Saddam Hussein was Iraqi, a Pan-Arab Ba’athist and a Sunni Muslim, the perfect combination for any claimant for leadership in the Fertile Crescent first, and in the Arab world later. And yes, he also had oil, a lot of it, and with it a lot of money.

Hafiz Assad, on the other hand, ruled over much poorer Syria, and he carried a big damaging baggage, that of being an Alawite. The Alawites were singled out for derision and hatred not only in Syria, but throughout the Arab world. Sunnis, as wrote the Iraqi scholar Professor Kelidar, were the ones destined to rule according to their long-held beliefs.

And so, when Michel Aflaq, the Syrian Christian founder of the historic Ba’ath Party died in Baghdad, his residence in exile from Syria, the Iraqis let it be known that he converted to Sunni Islam just before he died. Whether he did or not who can tell, but the jab at the back of Hafiz Assad was clear to all to see.

It was also clear to all to see that the Syrians supported the Lebanese Shi’ites while Saddam backed the Sunnis. And much more so, it was obvious that Alawite Syria was the only Arab state which supported Shi’ite Iran against the entire Arab-Sunni world in the eight years long Iraq-Iran war, which today we can refer to as the first full-blown Shi’ite-Sunni war of the modern era in the Middle East.

The first but not the last such war, as the Syrian civil war has developed into an Alawite-Sunni struggle inside Syria, and a Shi’ite-Sunni war beyond its boundaries. Shi’ite Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah militia are mobilized to help the crumbling regime of Bashar Assad and the Alawites.

Clearly, 30 years of Alawite-Shi’ite alliance currently pay handsome dividends to Bashar Assad, not enough to save him, but enough to sustain him in power as of now, in face of universal internal and regional Sunni opposition. And here is where Iraq comes to the fore. The Shi’ite regime of Nuri Al-Malikki in Baghdad is the only Arab one to support Assad.

Hafiz Assad hosted the exiled Malikki in Damascus for over twenty years, so there is an element of gratitude here, but much more so, a display of Shi’ite solidarity. What an ironic reversal of roles from that played by Hafiz Assad between 1980-1988.

But then and now, there is a common denominator – religion, or in other words the Sunni-Sh’iite cleavage. And alongside religion there looms also the Kurdish problem. North-East Syria is virtually a self-controlled Kurdish enclave on the other side of the common border with the near-independent Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq. Surely, a recipe for troubles, particularly as long as Damascus is not governed by a stable government.

That said, it is not too daring to predict that a Sunni-Islamist regime in post-Assad Syria and the Malikki regime in Baghdad are going to pursue a repeat performance of the Assad-Saddam rivalry of old days. Just that under the new regime in Damascus, there will not even be an attempt to conceal the sectarian roots of the enmity.

In fact, this element, coupled with the traditional reasons for the near chronic Syrian-Iraqi rivalry, make it a sure case of an on-going conflict and instability.

Many Sunnis in Iraq and Arab states such as Saudi-Arabia are already bracing themselves in preparation for the next chapter in the drama.

Josef Olmert
Dr. Josef Olmert is Adjunct Professor at the University of South Carolina. A native of Israel, he was formerly a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Bar-Ilan Universities. He has served in senior positions in the Israeli government. Dr. Olmert was a participant at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and subsequent Israeli/Syrian peace talks.
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