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Damascus And Baghdad, Again, Come Together

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
by Marianna Belenkaya
RIA Novosti political commentator
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Nov 22, 2006
As the West, especially the U.S. and Britain, is trying to rethink its policies in Iraq and the Greater Middle East, regional nations are doing the same: Damascus and Baghdad are coming back to talks after 25 years of disarray. Questions arise as to whether it is linked to the Western behavior.

This month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has repeatedly said settlement in Iraq and Palestine should involve Syria and Iran. Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State, also cited Tehran and Damascus as Iraq's closest neighbors and potential settlement brokers. To open up new opportunities for Mideast crisis resolution, he called for an international conference involving, apart from these two, UN Security Council permanent members and regional powers such as India and Pakistan.

Kissinger was clearly not the first to propose that: Russia had called for dialog with Iraq's neighbors shortly after the regime change in Iraq. However, the first time they appeared at the negotiating table was in November 2004 at the Iraq international conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.

The reality is that the well-intentioned joint effort on Iraq has failed - largely because, for all their reliance on Washington's power, Iraqi politicians have always been influenced by official and unofficial players in the neighboring states.

Iraq, as well as the broader Middle East, is witnessing stiff competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both Damascus and Tehran have apparently fallen out with the West, and not a single player is interested in making life easier to Washington. The result is regionwide political musical chairs, with all the play running around Iraq.

The U.S., in spite of many reported pundits' attempts to persuade policymakers to talk to Iran and Syria, has done little to establish constructive dialog. Now London and Washington are changing the tune, announcing they do not rule out policy coordination with Tehran and Damascus - at least on Iraq and for the time being.

The re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Iraq and Syria, severed 25 years ago, comes in the run-up to Iraqi President's visit to Tehran, with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad also invited. It is certainly not by accident or magic. Whether Assad will come is, of course, an open question, and the answer lies in the political context outside Iraq.

On Baghdad's part, the renewed liaison with Damascus could hardly have been possible without prior U.S. consent. Otherwise the ties cut under Saddam would have been re-established three years ago. Instead, while post-Saddam Baghdad elites maintained regular contacts with Damascus, formally Baghdad was playing the American tune all the time, joining in on accusations of Syria's attempts to destabilize Iraq. Now Baghdad says so much for it - just when London and Washington are contemplating new cooperation with Damascus. So, it's certainly not accidental.

The problem is that, reaching out to Damascus by proxy, Western powers still prefer to chastise it in public. U.S. President George W. Bush said in his condemnation of the recent assassination of Lebanese industry minister Pierre Gemayel that the U.S. supported Lebanese democracy in the face of attempts from Syria, Iran and their allies to foment instability and violence there. The news came several hours after many Middle East experts expressed hope for better U.S.-Syrian relations following the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Baghdad and Damascus. London is not as hard on Syria as it is on Iran, but effectively stays on the same side of the fence as Washington.

This is why the summit in Damascus is so important. If Assad joins it, this tripartite deal could make life more difficult - or easier, whatever the signatories choose to do - for the British and Americans in Iraq. On a recent trip to Baghdad, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Mualem said what many Arab and Russian diplomats have been talking about for some time: "Setting a pullout schedule for the U.S.-led occupation force will help reduce violence in this country."

This is largely true but the pullout schedule will not right all Iraq's wrongs. Continued U.S. pressure on Tehran and Damascus will still affect security there even if other factors improve. Iraq will be closely intertwined with Iran's nuclear file, Palestinian settlement, Lebanon - all the places where the West has dug in its heels.

The result is that neither the U.S., nor the United Kingdom, nor the other UN Security Council members and Middle Eastern power brokers know what their next step should be. They certainly know that to hope for cooperation on one count while continuing to exert pressure on others is unrealistic. However, even if they decided to cooperate, they do not know how.

Source: RIA Novosti

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Washington (UPI) Nov 22, 2006
The good news is that the rate of U.S. fatalities in Iraq has significantly fallen since the end of Ramadan. The bad news is that the civilian slaughter keeps soaring to new heights. More than 1,300 Iraq civilians are believed to have been killed in sectarian strife in the first 20 days of November, making this month already by far the most deadly month of the entire insurgency for such figures.

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