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Assyrian News Watch
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Assyrian Chaldean Syriac


The Daily Star [Lebanon]
July 18, 2002

Why Syria opposes ‘regime change’

Syria is clearly one of the regional states most strongly opposed to a US
military offensive aimed at changing President Saddam Hussein’s regime in
Baghdad, especially if that leads to Iraq’s dismemberment.
Ostensibly, Syria appears to be in total agreement with Iran and Turkey
about the need to uphold the territorial integrity of the country between
them. Specifically, Damascus, Tehran and Ankara are committed to working
together, as they did in the early 1990s, to prevent the emergence of a
Kurdish state in northern Iraq. At the time, the three countries held a
succession of meetings at the foreign-minister level to prevent the
Western-protected Kurdish entity that emerged in northern Iraq from
developing into a state, particularly after elections were held and Kurdish
institutions set up.

All three countries were involved, in different ways, in the US-led
“international coalition” set up in 1990 to drive out Iraqi forces from
Kuwait. But they distanced themselves from it when military operations
began on the ground and threatened to fragment Iraq. They teamed up to try
and prevent the creation of a Kurdish entity, in the belief that this could
have a domino effect in the predominantly Kurdish regions of northeast
Syria, southeast Turkey, and northwest Iran.
There are both similarities and differences between that experience and the
present one.
While Syria, Turkey and Iran are still opposed to the creation of a Kurdish
homeland, Damascus’s position with regard to prospective US military action
against Iraq differs from that of Tehran and Ankara in many ways.

The Turks and Iranians are likely to cooperate with Washington’s plans ­
whose declared objective is to change Iraq’s regime but not to occupy or
dismember the country ­ if they are provided with guarantees about the
nature of the “new regime” in Baghdad.
One must not forget that Iran cooperated with the US in supporting the
Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, in the hope that Washington would support
the reformist current led by President Mohammad Khatami, and spare Tehran
pressure in its “war on terror.”
Iran already wields powerful influence in Iraq ­ in the south via its
historic relationship with Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim’s Supreme Assembly for
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and in the north through its links with
Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

So does Turkey. It has strong ties with the PUK, and a much closer alliance
with the latter’s local rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud
Barzani. Ankara also sponsors the ethnic Turks in the area as represented
by the Iraqi Turcoman Front, which is allied to the PUK. And, crucially,
Turkey’s Incirlik air base hosts the warplanes used by its NATO partners ­
the US and Britain ­ to enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq.
Thus, even if the anticipated war on Iraq resulted in the dismemberment of
the country and the emergence of various “spheres of influence,” the
national interests of Iran and Turkey would not be that severely affected.
Iran could sponsor the Shiites in southern Iraq while Turkey sponsored the
Turcomans in the north, and both could ensure that the Kurdish region
remains beholden to them and thus block any aspirations for Iraqi Kurdish

That is why Syria is the most adamant opponent of the prospective partition
of Iraq. It’s not as though there is any great love lost between Baghdad
and Damascus. The former supported the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood during
their violent insurgency in the late 1970s, and the latter backed Iran in
its 1980-1988 war with Iraq. And the rivalry between the opposing factions
of the Baath Party that govern the two countries is a matter of record.
Nevertheless, nothing troubles the Syrians as much as the prospect of Iraq
being partitioned or broken up. They have always perceived Iraq as their
country’s “strategic depth” ­ irrespective of any transient disputes
between them.

Moreover, the rapprochement between Damascus and Baghdad in the past five
years has made the Syrian economy heavily dependent on the Iraqi market,
from which it earns some $2 billion annually.
Without doubt, Syrian fear of US-sponsored regime change in Iraq has been
compounded by other factors. They include the death of the Arab-Israeli
peace process that was started at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference,
Washington’s neglect of the Syrian track of that process, the anti-Syrian
campaign being waged by members of the US Congress, and US President George
W. Bush’s criticisms of Damascus’s support for Palestinian organizations
that Washington has branded as “terrorist.”
In addition, Damascus has serious worries about prospective anarchy in Iraq
spilling over the 800 kilometer border into its territory.

Thus, Syria believes it stands to lose most from American military action
against its eastern neighbor, regardless of whether it results in
partition, chaos, or the installation of a US client regime in Baghdad.
It would be mistaken to assume that Damascus would simply behave as it did
during the 1991 Gulf War. At the time, it joined the coalition to eject
Iraq from Kuwait, but quit it once the coalition forces entered Iraqi
The ideal solution for Damascus would be for UN arms inspectors to return
to Iraq, so as to strip the Bush administration of the main pretext it is
using to justify a future attack on Iraq. At the same time, Damascus is
aware that Washington is proceeding with its war preparation. So it is
keeping all its options open.

It is trying to persuade the Iraqi regime to deny the Americans a casus
belli by readmitting the inspectors. It has also been mediating between
Iraq on the one hand and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on the other, with a view
to brokering political accommodation between them and getting the two Gulf
states that are close to Washington to lobby against an attack on Iraq.
But at the same time it is hoping that change will come about within the
Iraqi regime, to keep the regime’s structure, and the country’s stability
intact ­ this while keeping channels open to the full range of Iraqi
opposition factions ­ such as Jalal Talabani and Barzani ­ in an effort to
put political, security, military and economic brakes on America’s plan.

Ibrahim Hamidi, a Damascus-based journalist specialized in Syrian current
affairs, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star

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