According to the Iraqi government, 90% of the foreign fighters involved in attacks within the country have travelled through or are based in Syria.
It is hard to verify these figures absolutely, but they come as no great surprise. The Iraq-Syria border is relatively porous, with close relations between Sunni tribes based on both sides. Furthermore, the Syrian government is known for its suspicion of its US-backed Iraqi counterpart. Conditions are ideal for any budding cross-border militant group.
Over the past few weeks, events have been reaching a head. Relations between Iraq and Syria have shifted from a cautious detente to full-blooded rhetorical sparring. On Wednesday August 19th, half a dozen ministries in Baghdad, as well as the cabinet office, were struck by combined car bomb and rocket attacks. Close to 100 died and 300 were wounded. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki blamed Syria, demanding its government hand over the operation’s planners. He supported his accusations with a taped confession by a former Iraqi police officer who purported to have been trained by Syrian intelligence.
Syria, in response, has called the accusation of harbouring terrorists “immoral” and has demanded concrete proof of a Syrian connection. Each country has subsequently withdrawn its diplomatic representation from the other.
Two interesting issues arise from these events. Firstly, aside from a long-standing dislike of Iraq’s government, why does Syria continue to adopt a passive stance towards militants using Syrian soil as a base of operations? Given its past record with domestic fundamentalism, it seems likely that the government would be able to at least drive militants far enough underground to significantly disrupt their activities should it genuinely wish to. That it doesn’t is surprising, considering its recent tentative dialogue with the US.
Set against this apparent reluctance to act, however, it must be remembered that over 1 million Iraqi refugees live in Syria. Ensuring their absolute compliance with Syrian government policy is difficult. Furthermore, the Syrian relationship with Iraq and the US has not solely been characterised by Syrian intransigence. There has been short-sightedness on both sides. In the past, the Syrian government has extended offers of joint security patrols on the Iraqi border to the US; offers which have been declined. In 2005, leading former Baathists were detained by the government and subsequently handed over to the Americans. Little or no credit was awarded for such co-operation. It is perhaps unsurprising that Syria will now respond less than gracefully when it is very publically accused of harbouring terrorists.
The second question is why the exchange on the subject has grown so much more heated in the past few weeks. There are several reasons for this. At the time of the bombing the USA was attempting negotiations with Syria over a reinforcement of security on the Iraqi border, which would facilitate the imminent US withdrawal. Syria, for its part, is eager to lose its long-established pariah status, whilst maintaining face as a nation which stands up to America in the region. Maliki, meanwhile, has seen his previously strong security-based election ticket severely compromised just as his rivals begin to close in for the kill, and must display a bullish front to shore up his credibility.
It remains to be seen how the problem will be resolved. For Syria to take meaningful action in terms of the arrest or expulsion of Iraqi dissidents would be for it to admit that it was harbouring them in the first place. Equally, Maliki cannot back down. This has also left the USA in an awkward position. It cannot invite Syria in from the cold while it appears to back terrorists, and so has extended sanctions. The issue of border security, however, remains unresolved. Iraq’s future stability, should bombings on the pattern of the 19th of August continue, looks far from assured.