Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani just traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, marking the first visit paid by an Iraqi prime minister to Syria since 2010.
They reportedly discussed a host of issues impacting Iraq and Syria, including terrorism, water, drug trafficking, refugees, Israeli attacks, U.S. sanctions, and economic development. Although Iraq’s western partners do not like Arab states engaging Damascus, officials in Baghdad believe that doing so serves Iraq’s national interests against the backdrop of Damascus’s reintegration into the region’s diplomatic fold gaining momentum.
Throughout modern history, Iraqi-Syrian relations have been complicated. During the time of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, the two states competed in the world of Ba’athist politics. Baghdad’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism in Syria, Damascus’s support for Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), and Syria’s contribution to the U.S.-led military coalition that liberated Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation in 1991 all contributed to mutual hostility.
Although relations thawed during Saddam Hussein’s final years in power, it was the emergence of a pro-Iranian political order in post-Ba’athist Iraq that paved the way for a rapprochement. However, there have been episodes of tension, such as the 2009 car bombings in Baghdad that then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed on the Assad government. The existential threat posed by the Islamic State to both Damascus and Baghdad, however, gave both governments common cause.
While the Islamic State threat remained serious after Haider al-Abadi was elected Iraq’s prime minister in 2014, Iraqi-Syrian relations cooled after Abadi replaced Maliki. Abadi sought greater distance from Iran than his predecessor, in part due to significant U.S. pressure.
Now, with Sudani and his Tehran-aligned allies governing Iraq since October and most of the Arab world normalizing relations with Assad after isolating him beginning in 2011/12, bilateral ties between the two countries have once again improved markedly.
From Baghdad’s perspective, engaging Damascus is pragmatic. Sharing a roughly 375-mile border, many security challenges and economic and environmental problems tie the two Arab countries together.
“There [are many] overlapping issues related to specifically the return of refugees, remnants of ISIS, and water issues,” explained Nader Hashemi, the director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, in an interview with RS. “The Middle East is disproportionately affected by climate change.”
He added that Iraq also “has economic interests in terms of extending its oil pipeline through Syrian territory to expand its economic base.”
The situation in al-Hol, a refugee camp in northeastern Syria under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), worries Iraqi officials. Described as “ground zero for the ISIS-related displacement crisis,” al-Hol is home to more than 50,000 people suspected of being former ISIS fighters or otherwise linked to the group. The camp’s close proximity to Iraq, the number of displaced Iraqis there, and the violence inside the camp all pose major security challenges for Iraq for which there are no easy solutions.
The illicit Captagon trade is also relevant to Iraq’s dealings with Assad. Captagon, a highly addictive synthetic drug, has proliferated throughout the Middle East, especially in the Gulf Arab states. Most of it is currently produced in Syria and Lebanon, allegedly by the Syrian government itself, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and anti-Assad jihadist groups. The importance of ending the trade has been cited as a major reason why key Arab governments have decided to engage Assad.
How much his regime, which profits significantly from Captagon production and trafficking, will be willing to crack down on the trade is debatable. But the view from Baghdad and other Arab capitals is that continuing to isolate Assad will only worsen the crisis. Much of this trade transits both Iraq and Jordan. This issue will likely be a major focus in upcoming discussions between Iraqi and Syrian officials.
A New Era of Realism in the Middle East
Sudani’s trip to Damascus must be understood within the context of the Assad government’s escape from regional isolation. Now that Syria has been readmitted to the Arab League and following the visits by high-ranking officials from Gulf Cooperation Council states, Egypt, and Jordan to Damascus, Sudani’s sojourn in the Syrian capital this month provoked little controversy.
Assad’s return is “a byproduct of the new realism and latest changes in the region, [that] include the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and Gulf Arabs reinstating Assad and Syria in the Arab League,” Nabeel Khoury, the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, told RS.
“The Assad regime is still the same as it was in 2011 (i.e. unreformed in terms of its human rights record and its relationships with Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah). The fact, however distasteful to Western countries, is that there is no current or near future alternative to the Assad regime but the issues that need to be negotiated with Syria are of mounting importance.”
The U.S. military maintains a presence in both Iraq and Syria, and both countries are flashpoints for U.S.-Iran hostilities and the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran. Washington does not want to see Iraq add momentum to the trend toward Syria’s full reintegration into the Arab fold. But Washington is considered unlikely to do anything to prevent it.
“The world has changed very much since the heyday of the Arab Spring. The focus of U.S. foreign policy is very much on Ukraine, Russia, and China,” said Hashemi. “They’re not going to lift a finger to oppose Assad’s reintegration into the Arab world. At most they’ll issue verbal warnings and statements against these moves. But the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria doesn’t fit into the picture at all.”
Nonetheless, given the U.S.’s Caesar Act sanctions imposed on Syria, Iraq and other countries — and their companies — run the risk of being targeted by secondary U.S. sanctions if they do business with government-controlled parts of Syria. As Iraq works on rebuilding following decades of warfare, occupation, terrorism, and economic devastation, officials in Baghdad are working to develop commercial, trade, and investment ties with all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria.
The threat of U.S. sanctions, however, will probably limit Iraqi-Syrian economic ties. At the same time, Washington’s sanctions are unlikely to prevent the two governments from building on plans to strengthen border security, address the persistent threat of the Islamic State, and tackle water and other environmental issues.
Washington should consider not only how the Caesar Act harms ordinary Syrians, but also their neighbors. Using America’s leverage in the international financial system to prevent Syria from rebuilding so long as Assad remains in power has consequences for the wider region. A host of Arab states, such as Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, have voiced opposition to the Caesar Act, but efforts to convince Washington to abandon the sanctions have so far proven futile.
“The U.S. in particular still considers Assad a pariah but it makes no sense to punish countries with sanctions if and when they deal with the regime in Damascus,” Khoury said.
“Lebanon is one case in point where the Syrian refugee issue is of paramount importance — a crisis which the UN, U.S., and the EU seem completely clueless on how to resolve. Lebanon has no alternative but to negotiate the issue with Damascus. Iraq finds itself in the same boat: whether the U.S. likes it or not, the Iraqi prime minister’s visit is absolutely logical and needed by Iraq and the region,” said the former U.S. diplomat.