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.

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Led by Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate, the Democrats have warned President Bush about increasing troop levels in Iraq.

“No issue is more important than finding an end to the war in Iraq,” states a letter to George Bush by Pelosi and Reid.

While the US President has of late veered away from the idea of an exit from Iraq, it now seems that the Democrats may push the President back to that strategy. They see a surge of troops as a strategy that has already been tried and has failed.

With other countries slowly pulling their troops from Iraq (Slovakia does so in February), and an imminent change of leadership in Britain, it’s clear that the US may end up alone to handle the difficult situation created in Iraq.

Unless the US has other plans in the region — like threatening Iran — then the Democrats may have a point. Since the war began, the strategy of Britain and the US has basically been one of increasing troops. But Iraq will not be solved with the massive presence of military; Iraq needs significant aid, as well as close cooperation with its neighbors. And whether the US likes it or not, Syria and Iran are part of the neighborhood and are important players in the region.

If President Talabani can get along with Iran, then the US should not be exclusively favoring PM Maliki as has been the case in recent weeks. It was Talabani who visited Tehran in late November to discuss how Iran could help. With Iraq’s restored diplomatic relations with Syria, the Iraqi President already has an invitation to visit Damascus.

Independent Iraq

December 25, 2006

A British raid of a police station in Basra is bringing forth questions of the degree of Iraqi independence. The Guardian reports that British forces stormed Jamiat prison, to free 127 prisoners, many of whom British forces feared would be killed or were falsely imprisoned.

The BBC reports that the head of city council of Basra has called this operation illegal, saying that the council had not been informed of the raid.

It’s noteworthy that Basra is one of the areas the British hoped to leave for Iraqi forces to secure, as a first test of how prepared Iraqi forces are to handle security on their own. Foreign Secretary Beckett has said that British forces could be out of Basra province by spring.

This raid and the Iraqi response seems to be a vote of no confidence on the part of the British, on how well Iraqis can secure their own freedom. It’s yet another confirmation that Iraq is not an independent democracy. After all, Iraqi President Talabani invited to Iranian envoys, who have been detained by US forces.

It’s clear that Iran is not a favored player by occupying forces, however if Iraq can create stability through its contacts with Iran, this should be allowed. Also, the US clearly favors Iraqi PM Maliki over President Talabani, but again, if Talabani can bring peace, this should be allowed. But Iraq is not a free country.

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.

Maliki Snubs Bush?

November 29, 2006

President Bush’s meeting with Iraqi PM al-Maliki has been postponed till Thursday. The reason given is that Maliki had already met King Abdullah prior to Bush’s arrival in Jordan’s capital and it wasn’t necessary for the three parties to meet tonight.

The White House has denied the postponing being a snub by the Iraqi PM. However, it is difficult to see it as anything other than that; if Maliki is to work with the US in bringing stability to Iraq, he needs to spend as much time with Bush as possible. Today’s event dictated otherwise. This is possibly a signal for Iran, indicating that Iraq is ready to cooperate with its neighbor. After all, Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei offered Iranian help yesterday when he met with Iraq’s President Talabani, while criticizing US presence in the country.

Iran Cooperates

November 23, 2006

After Iran’s Ambassador to Russia spoke favorably about enriching uranium in Russia yesterday, Iran announced today that it would open up its records on uranium enrichment to IAEA inspectors.

This is yet another diplomatic step on the part of Iran to avert UN Security Council sanctions against it. Iran is slowly gearing up to play a bigger regional role; this weekend Iran’s President Ahmadinejad will be meeting with his Iraqi counterpart President Talabani to discuss three-way cooperation between Iran, Syria and Iraq in bringing stability back to war-torn Iraq.

Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is focused on nuclear energy, not arms. The IAEA’s view on the matter has largely confirmed Iran’s position, except for a plutonium discovery ten days ago. Today’s gesture is meant to clear up any doubts about Iran’s program.

This would be the perfect opportunity for the US and UK to start cooperating with Iran. After all, today’s announcement is a clear signal to the US, Iran’s biggest doubter. It is also a move meant to strengthen Russia’s position in the UN Security Council, as Russia has maintained an anti-sanction position and has curtailed US efforts to sanction the Iranian government.

Iran Takes the Lead

November 22, 2006

The Associated Press learned Monday that Iranian President Ahmadinejad had invited his counterparts in Syria and Iraq for a summit to discuss ending violence in Iraq. On Tuesday, Syria and Iraq completely restored diplomatic relations after years of severed ties. With this restoration of ties, the Syrian govenment has accepted that US troops will stay in Iraq as long as the country requires them.

It is clear that some sort of meeting will be taking place this weekend between the Iraqi and Iranian leadership, and instead of applauding the effort the White House is being cautious and saying that Iran and Syria must back up their discourse with real actions.

It is also clear that if the hypothetical three-way summit takes place, it will be a major political victory for Iran. The idea of Iran and Syria working to restore stability to Iraq has been around for several weeks, with British Prime Minister Blair favoring it. However, no one has said yes to the plan, citing the need for change in Iran and Syria. With the meeting taking place, Iran would take the lead in establishing the framework of its (and Syria’s) participation in the new Iraq. This is crucial, because the framework would be pre-set without US or British influence and it would be difficult for the US or Britain to assert themselves.

Tuesday’s diplomatic agreement between Syria and Iraq was the first step in making the three-way summit a reality. The next significant step will be taken on Sunday when Ahmadinejad meets with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Tehran to discuss the eventuality of the summit and its details.