Only 24 hours passed between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s warm welcome to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the presidential palace in Damascus and the attacks on the government buildings in Baghdad that killed dozens and spoiled the development of fraternal relations between the two countries. On August 19, six explosions rocked Baghdad, killing 95 people and injuring 563 others. The two largest blasts targeted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance with truck bombs (AFP, August 19). The attacks were big even by Iraqi standards and August 19, “Bloody Wednesday,” as it became known, emerged as the bloodiest day recorded in Iraq since the U.S. army pulled out from Iraq’s urban areas on June 30. Shocked by the destruction of his ministry’s headquarters and the number of casualties, Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari accused the Iraqi security forces of colluding with perpetrators (Alarabia.net, August 22).
The Iraqi government blamed Syria for hosting the Iraqi groups and individuals behind the bombings, though Syria denied responsibility and President Bashar al-Assad described the Iraqi accusations as “immoral” (Syria-news.com, August 31). A political and diplomatic crisis emerged and the two countries withdrew their ambassadors from each other’s capitals (Al-Quds al-Arabi, August 26). Iraq went further and called for an international tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks (Al-Sabah [Baghdad], August 28). Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal al-Talabani are united in their calls for the U.N. to establish an independent commission to investigate the bombings (AFP, September 22).
On October 13, Foreign Minister Zebari announced his government’s conclusion that there was no use in pursuing further talks with Syria through the mediation of Turkey and the Arab League. Instead, Zebari intended to form a special committee of ministers under his leadership to prepare a dossier of Iraq’s evidence of foreign involvement in Iraqi-based terrorist activities to present to a special UN envoy after his anticipated appointment (Al-Sharqiyah [Dubai], October 13; Republic of Iraq Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement, October 14).
The sixth annual conference of interior ministers from countries bordering Iraq held in mid-October also failed to make headway in resolving the crisis in relations, with Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad Kazem al-Bolami demanding those in attendance must “criminalize the aggressors” (VOA, October 14; ChamPress [Damascus], October 13).
Regional mediation has failed to contain the situation so far, but the real reasons behind the recent tension between Baghdad and Damascus are deeper than one-day events, no matter how bloody.
Who is Sattam Farhan?
On August 23, General Kassim Ata, the spokesman of Baghdad Operations Command, showed journalists a video of a detainee who admitted to being behind the attacks. The man, who was identified as Wissam Ali Kadhum, said that he received his orders from an exiled Iraqi Ba’athist in Syria, Sattam Farhan. Kadhum said that Farhan was a member of a Syrian-based faction of the Ba’ath party led by General Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad.
The name Sattam Farhan did not ring a bell for most of people. A short while later it turned out that the Iraqi authorities were referring to Sattam al-Gaoud, a well known businessman in Iraq since the early 1990s. Benefiting from finding ways around the international sanctions that were imposed on Iraq, Sattam emerged as a tycoon in economically-devastated Iraq, building a business empire and even purchasing a football club. Sattam was not known as a senior member of the then-ruling Ba’ath party, but he would not have achieved his prominence without the regime’s blessing.
During the first weeks after the fall of Saddam, Sattam al-Gaoud led protests against the U.S. forces in his hometown of Ramadi and in Baghdad. He also founded the National Front of the Masses and Intellectuals of Iraq (NFMII). Sattam, who belonged to a prominent family of the Sunni al-Dulaim tribe, was arrested by the American army in 2003 and remained in custody for more than two years. He was released in early 2006 and left for Jordan but is believed to be living in Syria now. Sattam’s NFMII frequently places statements on pro-Ba’ath web sites.
The Islamic State of Iraq Claims Responsibility
A few days after the attack, the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) claimed responsibility for the bombings, which they referred to as Ghazwat al-Aseer (The Raid of the Prisoner) (Muslim.net, August 25). Even after the ISI claimed responsibility the Iraqi government not only stuck with its accusations but also became more specific. Al-Maliki said on September 2: “We gave them [the Syrians] information collected by our security devices about a meeting between members of the Ba’ath party and takfiris [Muslim extremists] attended also by Syrian intelligence officers held in al-Zabadani (a Syrian resort nearby Damascus) on July 30, 2009. Why do they insist on hosting armed organizations and people who are wanted by the Iraqi authorities and Interpol?” (aswataliraq.info, September 3).
Syria persistently denied any involvement in the attacks by the Iraqi Ba’athists who live on its soil. “They are there but the Iraqi officials expressed contradicting statements,” said Faisal al-Miqdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister. “They decided finally to accuse some Iraqi individuals who live in Syria. We confirm that there is no link between those Iraqis and the attacks at all” (Aljeeran.net, August 31).
General al-Ahmad’s Group
The organization of General Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad, implicated in Kadhum’s testimony, is one of the least known insurgent groups in Iraq (See Terrorism Monitor, February 9). In an interview with al-Arabiya TV channel, Ghazwan al-Kubaisi, a leading figure in the group, admitted the limited capabilities of the organization but also indicated that it coordinated and worked with the other insurgent groups. The history of the insurgency in Iraq shows that groups of different, if not contradicting, ideologies have often worked together and avoided fighting each other (Al-Arabiya, August 29).
However, does that mean the Iraqi government was correct? Despite the possibilities indicated above, there were some weaknesses in the case that the Iraqi government tried to build. The accusations against Syria originated with General Kassim Ata, the spokesman for Baghdad Operations Command, after the Iraqi security forces came under extensive pressure for their failure to provide security against such attacks (Al-Iraqia TV, August 23). The videotaped confession of Wissam Ali Kadhum that implicated Syria has also been criticized for the possibility that it may have been generated through the use of torture.
But the main challenge to the government’s story came from inside. The Iraqi Presidential Council issued a statement saying al-Maliki’s call for an international tribunal was illegal. The council, which includes President Jalal al-Talibani (Kurd), Vice-president Adil Abd al-Mahdi (Shi’a Arab) and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi (Sunni Arab), has urged dialogue through diplomatic and political channels to resolve the differences between the two countries (Middle East Online, September 9).
The crisis also showed that al-Maliki’s troubles are not only in the political arena. After the initial criticism of the Iraqi security forces, al-Maliki sacked General Muhammad al-Shahwani, the head of the intelligence service. Critics said that Gen. Shahwani was dismissed because he insisted there was Iranian involvement in the attack. (Asharq al-Awsat, August 24; Iraqforallnews.dk, September 6).
The Iraqi Prime Minister’s authority was to be challenged when he also tried to fire General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, head of the operations of the interior ministry. Al-Maliki was pinned down by his own Minister of the Interior, who refused to carry out the decision. General Khalaf remains in his post (Asharq al-Awsat, October 9, 2009)
Syria and post-war Iraq
Governed by two rival wings of the pan-Arab ultra-nationalist Ba’ath party, Iraq and Syria have a long history of mutual hostility since the late 1960s. Both regimes supported the other’s exiled opposition and routinely exchanged accusations of inciting violence and sponsoring plots to topple each other. Despite this, Syria still opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Syrians, who have been involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the 1940s, did not like Saddam Hussein but from a geopolitical point of view Iraq was part of their strategic depth in the struggle against Israel while Saddam’s regime was an Arab and unequivocal anti-Israeli power. They would not have welcomed his topple, which put them between the Israeli army in the west and the American army in the east.
After the war the Syrian-Iraqi border became the main crossing point for foreign fighters who were joining the insurgency. In 2006, Nuri al-Maliki, a former member of the Iraqi opposition who lived in Damascus for more than two decades, became Iraq’s new prime minister. Following this, the two countries restored diplomatic relations after a 24 year break (Al-Sabah, November 22, 2006).
These developments were accompanied by American willingness to deal with Iraq’s neighboring countries for the sake of controlling the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. All of that seemed to have led to Syrian cooperation, which became a factor in reducing the violence in Iraq. The positive role of Syria was recognized by the then-U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus: “Iraq has also been helped by more aggressive action by foreign-fighter source countries and by Syria, which has taken steps to reduce the flow of foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq” (VOA, December 6, 2007).
The Iraqi accusation suggests the possibility of a higher level of cooperation between the Ba’athists and Salafis in the Iraqi insurgency. It also suggests a bigger role for Syrian intelligence in that alleged coordination. If proved correct this is a worrying sign for Iraq and its security. On the other hand, if al-Maliki’s government is using inaccurate information for political purposes, this will complicate the efforts to stabilize Iraq.
The first wave of the Iraqi diplomatic campaign against Syria does not seem to have shaken the Syrians, while al-Maliki appears to have chosen a poor moment to take on the Syrians. He did not seem to have coordinated with the Americans. His relations with his fellow Shiite politicians and the Kurds are at their worst. He has problems with the regional powers. The Iranians are not comfortable with his refusal to join the Shiite coalition and the Saudis have been refusing to invite him to visit Riyadh.
The same border which let hundreds of fighters into Iraq was also open for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled the violence in their country. According to the Syrian authorities, one and a half million Iraqis live in Syria. One of the main arguments of the Syrians against the Iraqi accusations is that Syria would not support attacks against Iraqis while it was hosting hundred of thousands of Iraqis who had fled to Syria to save their lives.
Whether the Iraqi accusations are right or not, Syria openly hosts many Iraqi insurgent individuals and organizations. Damascus’s stance is to support the “Resistance” against the “Occupation.” Iraq has passed on a list to Damascus of the suspects it wants extradited to Iraq, but Syria has cited a lack of evidence as the reason for their failure to cooperate. According to an Iraqi spokesman, Iraq is also seeking the closing of militants’ training camps, an end to terrorists crossing the Syrian border into Iraq and a pledge that Damascus will stop supporting terrorist groups that target Iraqis (The National [Abu Dhabi], September 26). Although Iraq has taken the initiative in this row, the Syrians seem to have a more stable strategy than the Iraqis. The latter will need to have more international and regional support to effectively pressure Syria on the issue of cross-border terrorism.