SYRIA: Real fears or crocodile tears?
Rime Allaf

March 27, 2006

While American and British officials continue to live in a state of denial about the situation in Iraq, for most others talk of a civil war has for now overtaken talk of the de facto fragmentation of the country, brought closer with the passing of an ominous constitution in October 2005. After the most recent upsurge in violence, hopes are fading that further divisions along sectarian lines can be averted.

But with or without a civil war, and regardless of the level of violence in different areas in Iraq, there seems to be little chance of a stable, centralized Iraqi state in these circumstances. The segmentation that the new constitution didn`t completely achieve has been compounded by the inability of the major Iraqi parties during the past three months to agree on the formation of a government.

With serious disagreements on issues such as Kirkuk and the designation of the prime minister, with Shia and Kurdish parties making no pretense anymore about their own clashes, let alone those with Sunni groups, the matter of Iraq`s break-up may have become inevitable.

So what does this portend for Iraq`s neighbors who have been carefully observing developments? Throughout the Middle East, conventional wisdom had it that a break-up of Iraq would be disastrous for the region and that exported chaos was unavoidable.

On the popular level, there certainly seems to be much sympathy with Iraqis mourning the loss of Iraq as they know it, and a lamentation that one of the great Arab states is being purposely broken up in what many believe is a systematic, organized remapping of the region nearly 100 years after Sykes-Picot. The world`s powers do not want a strong Arab nation, believes the proverbial Arab street, and Iraq is just the beginning.

This has certainly been the rhetoric of the Syrian regime, which has found attentive ears among its citizens and even with other Arabs frustrated by their powerlessness. But in spite of statements and speeches decrying Iraq`s fragmentation, it is getting increasingly difficult to believe that regimes in the area - including the Syrian one - are really shedding tears over the demise of the state of Iraq.

Initially, Syria (like other Arab states) would have probably preferred a central but weakened Iraq with which it could do business. After much American pressure, the Syrian regime made some belated efforts to seal its border with Iraq (including building a sand wall to restrain vehicles), in an apparent attempt to control the flow of assistance to insurgents. But three years after the invasion, as Iraq`s fragmentation begins, the Syrian regime will have noticed that there are also advantages to be had.

In Damascus, Syrian Baathism - which the regime persisted in describing as `the beating heart of Arabism` no matter how hard Baghdad tried to compete - lives on. After pressure started accumulating on Syria, there ensued wave of both regime-sponsored and spontaneous displays of nationalism and Arabism, and the regime has gleefully seen its official raison d`etre reincarnated with new fervor.

With Syria now being touted as the last bastion of Arabism, the image of Syrian officials losing sleep over the disintegration of the only other (and larger) Arabist state becomes incredulous.

If Iraq breaks up into three main entities, the smallest and weakest will be the so-called Sunni triangle, where Syria`s long-standing competitors (technically its natural allies and ideological companions) will remain entrenched in a resource-less, violent environment with little potential for revival.

Some people on both sides will still ignore artificial man-made borders, and tribal ties will keep on cultivating social and economic interests between parts of Syria and Iraq, including its mainly Sunni heartland. This will endure whether or not Iraq fragments.

Syria`s relations with major Arab states (especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt) soured temporarily after its meddling in Lebanon, but ties with Iran and Turkey remained unspoiled, all three having recognized and respected each others` vested interests in keeping Iraqi problems - and particularly dealings with Shias and Kurds - manageable.

Most Shia politicians have criticized Syria in sync with American accusations, but it is only a matter of time before Iran becomes the only real influence over what promises to be a large area of joint hegemony; Damascus only needs to wait for the fruits of its rapport with Tehran to flourish and win over the Iraqi Shia leaders who have thus far been reluctant to embrace Syria. Decades of Syrian support for Iran will not have been in vain.

While Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran could well become inspired by their Iraqi brethren`s autonomy, they are unfortunately only too aware of the harsh repercussions their own aspirations could have. Thus, Kurdish gains are likely to be limited to Iraq, and potential transgressions over the borders would be quickly met by the neighbors.

Moreover, the landlocked Iraqi Kurdish leaders are intent on maintaining good relations with their neighbors and on reassuring them that Kurdish nationalism is not a threat. For the time being, Iraqi Kurds are more concerned with their fragile coexistence with Iraq`s Shia majority, and with the apparent Shia-Turkish understanding over issues like Kirkuk.

Even if most of these developments were not deliberate, they can benefit a Syrian regime that is less fearful than other Arab regimes of a strong Iranian influence in the region, which pays lip service (and possibly more) to the Arab insurgency, and which has ensured a harmonious coordination with its neighbors on the Kurdish question.

Three years ago, it would have been ludicrous to predict that Iraq`s invasion and subsequent disintegration could have been advantageous to the `rogue` neighbor that the US remains keen to contain, but such is the law of unintended consequences.

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House. Acknowledgement to bitterlemons-international.org