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What Factors Unite, Divide Syria's Relations with Iraq? - 2003-04-16


The United States has accused Syria of sheltering officials from the ousted Iraqi government, but Syria has denied the charges. Iraq and Syria share a sense of animosity toward the West, but they have a history of mutual distrust.

Iraq and Syria are secular Muslim states, with governments that make no room for Islamic activism. Each has been ruled by the Baath Socialist Party since the 1960s. The Baath Socialist Party was the result of a merger of the Baath Party, founded in the 1940s by two Syrians, and the Arab Socialist Party.

Middle East specialist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd says the Baath Socialist Party originally had two driving ideals: Arab socialism to bring economic justice to the Arab people, and Arab unity. Professor Hurd, who teaches political science at Northwestern University in Chicago, says in the 1950s and 1960s, the Baath parties in Iraq and Syria had a common dream.

"Their overarching objective was to weld the Arab world into a single organic unity, to erase the boundaries that had been imposed by the Europeans after the settlement after World War II and the fall of the Ottoman empire, to erase those boundaries and to weld the Arab world into something unified that could act as a single political unit. That was the dream," she said.

But that did not happen. "There have been a number of incidents over the last several decades that have pulled these countries in opposite directions toward a much more suspicious relationship," she said.

Professor Hurd said things began to break down in the 1950s and 1960s when Iraq and Syria accused each other of using the idea of Arab unity to bolster their own domestic regimes. In addition, she says the two countries have had ongoing disputes over water rights, a crucial issue throughout the Middle East.

Professor Hurd said relations deteriorated further when Syria did not support Iraq in its military engagements. "Syria, during the 1980s actually sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and that certainly did not help relations. Syria sided against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war of 1991, taking the side of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, of course, the West and the United Nations," she said.

Despite their distrust and rivalry, Professor Hurd said Iraq and Syria share a feeling of hostility toward the West that goes back for centuries.

"A general hostility toward European intervention in the Middle East and toward what is perceived to be European imperial intentions - both economically and militarily - throughout the region," she said. "And this certainly pre-dates Israel and goes back well into the 19th century, or earlier, with Napoleon invading Egypt in the late 18th century. And I think that the U.S., especially at the end of the Cold War, took on the mantle of being the great power in the world and therefore it also took on the mantle of the country that is possibly a candidate for imperialist designs upon the Middle East. And these two countries are both very, very wary of that."

After the death of Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad in 2000, his son Bashar became president. Since then, Syrian-Iraqi relations have improved, according to Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. And Mr. Pipes said he is not surprised by reports that Syria may be protecting top members of the Iraqi regime.

"These are two regimes of the same outlook, and while there were tensions for many years, those tensions dissipated since the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000," he said. "So, relations have been good, there is a general similarity of outlook, and it is conceivable."

Elizabeth Hurd does not believe the Syrian government has changed that much, and she said it is not likely the government in Damascus would want to harbor Iraqi leaders. She also said political Islamists, such as the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas that are sheltered in Syria, did not like Saddam Hussein and probably would not offer to help members of his regime.

Former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, Joseph Wilson, said an even greater concern than Syria harboring former Iraqi leaders is Syria's military support for Iraq.

"I think more serious are these allegations that Syria was providing support to Iraq, in terms of shipping equipment to the Iraqis during the war, and also that Syria has, and has been testing chemical weapons," he said. "That is a red flag in Washington."

Ambassador Wilson said the United States is also concerned about the presence of Syrians fighting against U.S. and British troops in Iraq. Joseph Wilson and Elizabeth Hurd question whether those fighters were sponsored by the Syrian government or volunteers organized by other groups, or perhaps were other nationals carrying false Syrian papers.

Professor Hurd said the United States needs to be certain of the actors involved before leveling charges at the Syrian government.

Syria has denied U.S. accusations that it is harboring Iraqi leaders or that it is developing chemical weapons. Syria said the accusations are unfounded and aimed at serving the interests of Israel.

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