Talabani talking with Syria

January 14, 2007

Iraqi President Talabani is continuing to show a pro-active stance in Iraqi foreign policy. Following the official return of diplomatic ties with Syria in November, the President is now meeting with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus.

Syria is a vital player in the region and, over the years, has had important relations with Iran: the ties between the two nations developed when Syria sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. It’s also worth mentioning that the Iraq Study Group’s report released in early December favored dialogue with Iran and Syria, Iraq’s immediate neighbors. President Talabani seems to be following this policy, even if the US is reluctant to do the same. In fact, the Iraqi President has become a somewhat unnamed figure in Iraqi leadership.

In his address to Americans Wednesday, President Bush did not mention Talabani, only mentioning Prime Minister Maliki. This is consistent with US foreign policy of late, which has been centred on dealing exclusively with Maliki.

Part of the reason that the US is dealing with Maliki is that as Prime Minister he is the one dealing with domestic issues and the US’ main concern is the domestic insurgency in Iraq. However, if one is to accept US reports of Iranian and Syrian involvement in the insurgency, then Iraq’s foreign policy is key. In that sense, President Talabani is doing his job well: he met with the Iranian leadership in November and is now meeting with Assad in Syria.

In fact, Talabani is showing an independent approach to foreign policy, and the US has been very keen on having Iraqis take the lead in securing their own safety.

If its intentions are peaceful, then the US must consider talking to Iran and Syria as well. The two countries have shown that they are ready to talk and this is not a direct result of the announced troops surge. Reportedly, the meeting between Talabani and Assad has been a year in the making.

Iraq Report Delivered

December 6, 2006

As was expected, the Iraq Study Group has advocated training more Iraqi forces and engaging in diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria. The report also favors gradually getting US combat troops out of Iraq. Its assessment of the situation in Iraq as “deteriorating” and says that Bush’ policy is “not working.”

It remains to be seen what the reaction of the US executive will be to the report it commissioned. Change in policy is likely, because of President Bush’s Secretary of State nominee Robert Gates. Gates’ discourse has differed from his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, and he has said that the US is “not winning” in Iraq. That seems to be in line with the Iraq Study Group’s report, which sees the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating.”

Whether the US is in a stand-off with Iran and Syria or not, it will have to welcome some sort of dialogue with Iraq’s neighbors. After all, Iran has already initiated a process of dialogue within the region, with Iraqi President Talabani visiting Iran and meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad and spiritual leader Khamenei. Iraq and Syria have also taken a step towards regional diplomacy by resuming diplomatic relations, which were cut off when Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Iran and Syria also have influence over different factions in Iraq; Iran is an influential Shi’a voice, while Syria’s population is mostly Sunni (despite its Alawite leadership). Syria may also come to play a bigger regional role, if it is successful in acting with diplomacy in the current political stand-off in Lebanon.

One of the report’s contentious points is suggesting to cut off US aid and military support if the Iraqi government does not reach certain targets. While this may be effective as putting necessary pressure on Iraq, it would also contravene with Bush’s “stay the course” dogma.

President Bush has not said if he will act on the report’s suggestions, saying that he will take them into serious consideration.

The Iraq Study Group will deliver its report to US President Bush this morning. It is expected that the report will advocate a change of policy in Iraq, which can include troops reduction as well as looking to Iraq’s neighbors for assistance.

In the wake of the forthcoming report, President Bush has suggested that his policy in Iraq will be one of perseverance. Different reports have surfaced suggesting that the US President is unlikely to accept big changes in Iraq. However, it remains to be seen what the recommendations actually are and what the President’s reaction will be.

At the same time, Bush’s new man, Secretary of Defense nominee Robert Gates has made statements about the US not winning the war in Iraq. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gates suggested training more Iraqi forces. This seems to be part of the US’ new strategy in Iraq; President Bush has said in a meeting with Iraqi PM Maliki that he is unsatisfied with Iraq tackling sectarian violence. This means that the US is expecting Iraqis to take on more responsibilities in providing security within the country. It is also a policy that is very much aligned with the US’ ally in Iraq, Britain.

For several weeks, Britain has advocated gradual troops withdrawals from Iraq, even suggesting that its troops may be out of Basra province by next spring with Iraqi security forces assuming responsibilities for safety in the area. Also, Britain has looked to significant troops reductions within the next year. If this policy is advanced, the US will be put into a stranglehold position because it simply cannot sustain its current Iraq policy without British participation.

In that sense, President Bush may accept the idea of eventual troops withdrawals, even if he’s not ready to commit to set deadlines.

But President Bush is unlikely to welcome the prospect of working with Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria. The US and other UN Security Council members once again did not agree on the types of sanctions Iran should receive for its nuclear activity. Syria has been in the spotlight, because of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, with some accusing Syria of involvement in the murder.

While US President Bush continues to insist that the US has no plans of withdrawing from Iraq prematurely or on a deadline, Iraqi PM Mailiki today has set a timeline. According to the Prime Minister, Iraq will be able to fully take responsibility for its security by June and relieve international troops of that function.

This is certainly the scenario favored by the British who have publically indicated that they would seek an exit from Iraq within a little over a year. It is also a scenario likely to go with forthcoming recommendations by the Iraq Study Group, which will likely recommend gradual troops withdrawals.

President Bush knows all of this, and he knows that the US will likely have to leave Iraq within a year. He also knows that the US will likely not be leaving the flower of democracy it hoped to instate, but a divided country. And it is for these reasons that Bush is rejecting the idea of an exit; the idea is to make it look like the Iraqis asked the US to leave, but the US wanted to stay.

The murder of Pierre Gemayel has the United States pointing fingers at Syria, even Iran, for jeopardizing the country’s independence.

Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the elections which took place last year was seen as a positive step in the middle east. It was also hailed as a regional success of US Foreign Policy. The assassination of one of the winners of that election, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, has put the country on the brink of a political crisis. Hezbollah, the influential political organization in Lebanon, has been criticizing the government for weeks and the government has now been truly weakened. The question is whether the government can survive this crisis or whether Hezbollah will step in: it is no secret that the organization has aspirations to govern the country due to what it deems as the government’s inability to do so. Hezbollah has a lot of support and influence, which was strengthened this summer after its successful standoff with Israel.

The reason that Syria being accused is because Hezbollah and Syria have been linked, especially financially. However, it is not clear who murdered Gemayel and if Hezbollah or Syria had anything to do with it. In fact, it simply is not in Syria’s interest to contract an assasination, because it does not need this finger-pointing, especially with the recent publication of the results of the probe into the murder of Rafik Hariri.

Iran has been an ally of Syria since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the two countries have found ways to cooperate, despite their differing religious views.

While Hezbollah, Syria or Iran may have been involved in the murder, there is no evidence to say that they were. After all, Lebanon’s domestic scene has been less-than-stable and a rival faction in the Lebanese government could have been involved, without outside influence.

It is not in the interests of Iran or Syria to have an unstable Lebanon. Syria has spent years bringing stability back to the country — its presence there was initially a welcome one both by Lebanon and the US — and after withdrawing its troops last year, it has no interest in going back to avert a civil war. Furthermore, Iran and Syria now have an opportunity to play key regional roles in Iraq. Tony Blair of Britain has talked of bringing in the two states to bring stability back to Iraq, a plan which may be supported by the Iraq Study Group, commissioned by President Bush. Iran has, in fact, already taken the lead in playing a role in Iraq by proposing a three-way summit between Iraq, Syria and Iran.

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has spoken out against the potentiality of directly talking to Iran and Syria. The plan, favored by Tony Blair, has been circulated in the last week or so; anticipation has been high as the world awaits the Iraq Study Group‘s verdict on a US exit strategy from Iraq.

Rice’s statements come among speculation that there is a divide developing between Britain and the US, two close allies in Iraq. The speculation has been so far-reaching that the White House even denied that their is a rift developing, by blaming reporters’ use of language in covering Blair’s meeting with the ISG.

When such speculation surfaces and when the White House takes the time to prepare a fact sheet explaining that there is no divide, chances are that there is some truth to the speculation. The question is how much truth.

What we do know is that Blair did address the idea of working with Iran and Syria yesterday. And, in consequence, Condoleeza Rice has said that Iran and Syria are not ready for direct talks. According to the US Secretary of State, Iran has not indicated a willingness to talk. Ms Rice disregarded Ahmadinejad’s readiness to talk to a “corrected” US. Syria, on the other hand, has once again been accused of causing trouble in Lebanon and insulting US allies.

The current differences are not significant yet, but may become so once the ISG delivers its report to President Bush. In the meantime, the US and Britain have time to come to an understanding. After all, Britain is the US’ closest ally in Iraq. And the US does not want to be left alone in the embattled region, once UK troops start to withdraw.

Iran and Syria Sought

November 14, 2006

British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced the Iraq Study Group. At the core of Blair’s argument was the need for Syria and Iran to chose between being part of the solution or being in isolation.

This is indication that the scenario of bringing in Iran and Syria to help with Iraq is a likely development.

Iran’s Shi’a influence is needed to bring stability to the Sunni-Shi’a divide which has progressed in the last sever months.

Syria, in the past, has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Iraq, depending on the political climate of the day; the countries were also linked by the Ba’th party’s origins in Syria. However, the Iraqi Ba’th leadership was different from Syria, because over time a civilian-military divide emerged within the party.

Recently, Syria was forced out of Lebanon after Hariri’s murder. While Syria receives criticism today for its influence over Lebanon, it is largely Syria’s involvement, which brought stability to the factionalized country. Perhaps Syria will be asked to assert a similar influence in Iraq, because while partitioning has been mentioned, it is not favored and could lead to chaos in the region. Turkey and Iran are also concerned about an independent Kurdish state as that could threaten its territorial integrity.

Iran has been a traditional opponent of Iraq and has even aligned with Syria against it. Today, Iran’s foreign policy is focused on destroying the credibility of Israel as well as maintaining its nuclear program to use as leverage in dealing with the US. Getting Iran involved in Iraq could divert its attentions from Israel and bring Iran back into alignment with the West. After all, Iran’s president has been courting the United States for several months without a reply; with a US and UK exit from Iraq set for the next year, this could be the perfect opportunity.