DAMASCUS // Long accused by its critics of playing a spoiling role in Iraq, Syria is working to break the deadlock over forming a new government in Baghdad, according to Iraqi political leaders in Damascus. Much of the effort has taken place behind the scenes, with delegations from across Iraq's fractured political landscape holding talks with senior Syrian figures.
But there have been public manifestations of the diplomacy, most notably when Ayad Allawi and Muqtada al Sadr met in Damascus last month. It was the first time the two men, both highly influential as leaders of major Iraqi political factions, had ever met face to face. Previously they had been in a state of open war, their forces clashing in 2004 and 2005. The Allawi-Sadr Damascus summit almost did not happen, coming to pass at the 11th hour after a high level Syrian intervention that persuaded Mr Allawi to make the trip, according to officials in his Iraqiyya bloc.
"Syria did a remarkable thing by breaking the ice and arranging those meetings," said Mohammad al Gharawi, Syria office director for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is allied with the Sadr movement. "In the past the Sadrists attitude had been to see Allawi as a red line, they would not meet him, so that is a significant shift." Mr Gharawi said ISCI had long urged its coalition partner to hold leadership level talks with Iraqiyya but that it had required painstaking Syrian mediation to make it happen.
"It's not a small thing to see Muqtada al Sadr and Ayad Allawi shaking hands," he said. "It may not have solved all the differences between them but it has defused tensions. That's very positive." In order to manage what is a highly complex and important area of policy, Damascus has set up a special Iraq unit with contacts to Iraqi groups and direct access to top Syrian decision-makers. Iraqi politicians who spoke to The National said they were amazed at the depth and detail of knowledge of Iraq's affairs possessed by the Syrian authorities. Damascus has cultivated contacts with groups from across the political spectrum, from pro-insurgency rejectionists to government ministers. That has put it in a unique position of being able to reach all factions, Iraqi and Syrian officials said. During Saddam Hussein's regime, Syria hosted his political opponents - among them Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's current prime minister - and rebuffed attempts to have them extradited to Baghdad. More recently, during Mr al Maliki's rule, Damascus has similarly hosted his opposition - including Saddamists - and has refused demands that they be sent back to Iraq. "We know that Syria has a close relationship with Iran, but we are still excepted here, Syria sees us as a real fact of Iraqi politics," said a Saddam Hussein loyalist who remains an active member of the outlawed Iraqi Baath party. The Baathists' military wing is involved in insurgent activity and is opposed to Tehran's involvement in Iraq. But the Baathist said Syria's wide contacts might one day prove crucial in stabilising Iraq. Those links had already allowed for a cautious unofficial dialogue between representatives of insurgent groups and the governments they are fighting, he said, even if they had yet to yield concrete results. "More than once the Americans have sent intermediaries to us here to ask about our positions and Mr al Maliki himself sent a delegation to us earlier this year to discuss reconciliation," the Baathist said. "In the end all of our differences can only be resolved through discussion and Syria has kept that possibility open." Damascus's acceptance of pro-Saddam exiles has led to serious problems with the Iraqi authorities. Perhaps Syria's most strained Iraq relationship is with Mr al Maliki, who last year accused Damascus of harbouring the bombers behind a deadly attack in Baghdad, an allegation it denied. While relations remain cool, the two sides have been in dialogue since the election, with at least two delegations from the Iraq Dawa party, which Mr al Maliki heads, holding talks with Syrian officials. Business between the two governments has also quietly resumed in the form of trade discussions, despite both having withdrawn their ambassadors over the highly public bomb dispute. Ahmed al Dulaimi, spokesman for Iraqiyya in Damascus, said Syria was wielding its influence to help form a non-sectarian, strong central government. "The Syrians always warn against the kind of destructive sectarian divisions we've seen," he said. "They back the idea of a national government that represents all of Iraq and that reflects the election results but that is not some weak partnership, created according to sectarian quotas, and unable to make decisions," Mr al Dulaimi said. Iran, Syria's main regional ally, is widely perceived as favouring a sectarian division of power in Iraq, in order to ensure it has a Shiite-controlled, non-threatening neighbour. That has fuelled persistent suggestions that Iran and Syria disagree over Iraq's future. In a recent visit to Damascus, Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied reports of a rift, saying the two countries' positions were "in unison". His comments did little to tamp down speculation. "I have it on good authority that Iran is the country most opposed to Syria's interests in Iraq," said a Syrian analyst. "Iran wants the Sunnis marginalised in Iraq but Syria doesn't; an oppressed Sunni minority living next door could make problems here. Syria wants national unity in Iraq." With its own large Kurdish minority, Damascus is also keen to ensure that Iraq's Kurds do not push for independence, something that it fears would threaten Syria's territorial integrity. Mustafa Mukdad, managing editor of the Syrian state run daily newspaper Al Thawra, said Damascus had good reason to know what was going on in its war-torn neighbour and in helping it form a stable government. "When there is peace and quiet in Iraq, Syria will be quiet too," he said, adding that with a US timetable for complete withdrawal set for the end of 2011, policy differences between Damascus and Washington over Iraq had lessened considerably. "We have a vested interest in peace and stability," he said. "It is not about supporting one Iraqi group against the other, it is about trying to make the necessary reconciliation. "Syria knows Iraq's problems, it knows all the factions. As the evidence proves, if you don't have Syria's help on Iraq, you will not get a solution." firstname.lastname@example.org