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Date: Wed, 27 Aug 97 17:41:38 CDT
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Syria and Iraq Reopen Relations

/** mideast.gulf: 43.0 **/
** Topic: Syria and Iraq **
** Written 2:51 PM Aug 24, 1997 by G.LANGE@LINK-GOE.comlink.apc.org in cdp:mideast.gulf **

'The Neighbors Are Talking:' Despite past differences, Syria and Iraq are teaming up again

By Barbara Nimri Aziz, in Toward Freedom,
August 1997

What nobody in the US—no journalist or academic or politician wanted to talk about, has actually happened. Syria and Iraq have opened their borders and may be on the way to normalizing their relations.

The news from Damascus came as a complete surprise to the international community. Damascus is well known for its quiet diplomacy; and Syria silence on many issues included its relations with its eastern neighbor, Iraq. Since severing ties in 1979, almost nothing about Iraq has appeared in the Syrian press. Even Jordan TV, which widely covered the course of the Gulf War and its aftermath, was blocked to Syrian viewers. Any co-operation between these apparent foes seemed impossible.

But the apparent ban on Iraq was lifted in June, when the official Syrian media said that a delegation of the Syrian Chamber of Commerce had returned from Baghdad. A few days later, the Chamber president who headed the delegation an official who some say is as powerful as the minister of economy—announced that Syria was opening its borders with Iraq. Not long after, a news agency reported that Syria was repairing its oil pipeline, unused for 15 years, to carry Iraqi oil (permitted under the UN oil-for-food resolution) to its Mediterranean ports.

What's going on here? According to the American media, to Middle East experts, and even standard US State Department releases, these two nations are among the fiercest of foes. Their leaders are supposed to be enemies. In 1991, Syria seemed to affirm that when it joined the US-led coalition to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Whatever Syria's past differences with Iraq, however, things can change. And if one looks closely at their economies, one finds good reasons for them to restore relations.

Economically, they can be of greater help than ever to each other today. In the past, Syria was economically constrained by its trade agreements with the USSR; industrial production during that era wasn't high. But since the East bloc break up, Syria has been free to develop in new directions. There was no delay. Within short time, fiscal stimulus from the government and increased privatiza- tion resulted in improved production and large surpluses, especially of food and cotton. And Syrian companies began searching for new markets.

Iraq had been a big importer. Before the UN embargo was imposed in 1990, Iraq received much of its food and most manufactured goods from the West. Today, it is impoverished and can purchase a small fraction of what it once consumed. But it still has just over $1 billion every six months for badly needed food and medicines. With the limited trade permitted under UN Resolution 986, Iraq is shop- ping again. Although selling some of its oil to the US, and buying much of its medicine from Europe, as before, Iraq is also turning to neighbors to supply its needs.

How convenient, therefore, that Syria possesses just what Iraq most needs: food. The Iraqis are surely asking themselves: Why purchase wheat from France and Australia under these circumstances? Baghdad is barely 12 hours by transport truck from ample food supplies; the highway from Syria's production centers is closer to Iraqi markets than the road from Jordan's Aqaba port, which has been the main terminal for Iraq-bound food.

Damascus was aware that, since the imposition of the UN embargo, supplies unofficially crossed their border to feed Iraqis. Now, after the agreement with Iraq, that will change. First, Syria's government will enjoy a share of that trade, and contracts will be directed to private Syrian companies. In return, Syria will bring oil from Iraqi refineries, putting its pipeline to use and generating more income from its Tartous and Lattakia refiners on the Mediterranean coast.

Another reason why rapprochement makes sense today has to do with regional politics - with Turkey, and with Iran s shifting relations in the area, for example. Syria and Iran have long been allies. (Syria's rift with Iraq began during the Iraq-Iran war.) Of course, Syria remains close to Iran. But their bond, which once precluded trade with Iraq, seems more flexible. Despite Iran's continued exclusion from Western circles, its relations with the Arab states is steadily improving. The newly elected leadership in Tehran may also have signaled to Syria that it was free to open up trade with Iraq.

Saudi Arabia, an old friend of Syria, also may have a role in this rapprochement. The Saudi leadership has indicated it can no longer tolerate the suffering of Iraqis as a result of the UN sanctions. Riyahd is seeking to reestablish ties with Baghdad too.

Doubtless Damascus took this into account too. Given its close ties with Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely to do anything to jeopardize that.

The normalization of relations is sure to please the Arab public as well. Syrians and Iraqis have deep admiration for one another, notes former Arab League Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Clovis Maksoud. Professor Abbas Alnasrawi of the University of Vermont adds that No country in Arab world is happy to see Iraqi suffer—especially Syrians, who historically speaking were close to Iraqis.

It was in Damascus that a citizen asked me: Everyone talks about normalization with Israel. But what about normalization with our Arab neighbors? That is just as important to us. She was speaking about cultural as well as economic ties.

Which brings us to Israel. The peace treaty between Israel and Syria hasn't materialized as Washington hoped. Especially while negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel remain stalled—and anticipated trade benefits for Jordan, which signed with Israel, are delayed—Syria can't be blamed for being even more cautious. Moreover, in contrast with Jordan and the Palestinians, Syria isn't so desperate economically that it can be coerced to sign an agreement it finds unfavorable. Many observers claim that Jordan and the PLO, both suffering economically, were bribed to the negotiating table by offers of aid and bank loans.

This didn't happen with Syria. Repeated World Bank and International Monetary Fund offers of development loans to Lebanon and Syria have been spurned. But these rejections may not simply be due to what the Western press characterizes as a stubborn leadership. In fact, Syria hardly needs the loans. It has ample credit with the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and currently possesses just about everything it needs: a food surplus (including sugar), a healthy cotton and textile industry, thriving small industries, oil, and a new communications system.

What remains for Syria to work on is to work on its political security. Rather than an unfavorable and perhaps premature peace treaty with Israel, this may be just what it hopes will result from solid trade relations with its immediate neighbors. Finally, any move towards Iraq, may also caution Turkey. Since Turkey and Israel normalized their relations, they have been conducting joint military exercises it south Turkey, just north of the borders of both Syria and Iraq. Turkey's recent incursion into North Iraq could not make Syria feel very comfortable. So the alliance with Iraq is a way of sending a message to Turkey as well.