DAMASCUS // If there were any doubts Syria would help support democratic elections in neighbouring Iraq, they were buried beneath the quickly proliferating campaign posters that sprang up in areas of Damascus where Iraqis concentrate.
Syria allowed Iraq's election campaign to take place openly, on the streets of its capital, granting it licence that surprised many of the Iraqi exiles who, at least for now, call this city home. Major Iraqi political figures put Syria firmly on their campaign trail, meeting the president, Bashar Assad, and passing through Saida Zeynab, Jeremana and Sahnaiya, all Iraqi neighbourhoods, in their bid for votes. Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission was prominently headquartered on the Mezzeh motorway, and dozens of polling stations were set up across the country.
Long accused by the United States of trying to undermine Iraq's experiment in democracy, in March 2010 Syria was a supporter of the election. On August 18, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, was in Damascus for talks with the Syrian president. The two men established a joint strategic council and agreed to economic deals. It appeared as though Iraq-Syria relations, comatose throughout the Saddam Hussein decades and the post US-invasion years, had finally revived.
That revival however must rank among the most short-lived in diplomatic history; it had gone into meltdown within 24 hours. That was the time it took for two massive bombs to explode in Baghdad, killing some 100 people and wounding 1,000 others. Syria condemned the atrocities but Mr al Maliki quickly and publicly accused Damascus of giving safe haven to those orchestrating the attacks. Syria, stunned by the dramatic turnaround and outraged about the public charge of complicity, denied the allegations and said it would co-operate with any formal evidence-based investigation. By that time however the situation had already escalated far beyond such prosaic concerns as the truth; the Damascus-Baghdad relationship was again flatlining.
The collapse was made all the more acrimonious because, in his meeting with Mr Assad, the Iraqi prime minister had handed over a list of wanted men living in Syria - opponents to his rule and the US presence in Iraq - demanding they be sent to Baghdad. The Syrian president reportedly pointed out that Mr al Maliki had once been given shelter and hospitality in Damascus when he was wanted for treason by the Saddam Hussein regime. Mr al Maliki was told Damascus would not force out today's political exiles just as it had not done in the past.
Angry at what they saw as the Iraqi prime minister's lack of respect, the Syrian authorities were also reportedly annoyed that his list of wanted men was exactly the same at the one a US delegation had previously shown them. It begged the question; was Iraq an independent state as it claimed, or was the Iraqi government simply doing the CIA's bidding? The United States, long a vocal critic of Syria and with more than 100,000 troops still stationed in Iraq, was surprisingly quiet over the allegations of Syrian involvement in the August 19 bombings.
Iraq's foreign minister and president also seemed to contradict the assertions of Mr al Maliki and his allies that Damascus was at fault. Observers concluded that, fearing his chances of re-election threatened by the dramatic security lapses, the Iraqi prime minister had decided blaming Syria was the best way to diffuse the crisis Whatever the motivations, it was taken in Damascus as a declaration of political war and, renowned as an adept player in regional politics, Syria quickly began to manoeuvre. With an eye on the coming election, the Syrian authorities met with key people from all Iraq's main parties, among them Ayad Allawi, the principle challenger to Mr al Maliki.
Syria's large Iraqi population - estimated to number between 200,000 and 1.5 million - meant it was potentially an important constituency. Critically - at least anecdotally - the exiles were also not supporters of Mr al Maliki. Therefore, helping Iraqis vote would be a way of helping prevent him from winning, hence perhaps Syria's willingness to support the election. With final results still not announced, and with Mr Allawi and Mr al Maliki neck and neck in the race to become Iraq's next prime minister, there is a broad consensus here that Syria is hoping for an Allawi victory. Officially the authorities are neutral about the outcome but unofficially they want to see Mr al Maliki defeated.
That desire is complicated somewhat by the fact Syria and Mr al Maliki both share a close alliance with Iran, while Mr Allawi has made his animosity towards Tehran clear. Syrians quietly suggest that Damascus, while happy to see a powerful Iran, does not want it excessively so, preferring to keep the delicate balance of power and its own regional influence intact. "Iran strong is good for Syria, Iran too strong is bad for everyone, Syria included," as one Damascus-based political analyst put it. "Allawi winning gives Syria a neat solution to the problem of limiting Iranian influence."
Even if Mr al Maliki does emerge as the eventual winner, he will have to rule by coalition. Understanding that, Syria has already reached out to the groups he will have to depend on, putting in place a fall back position that should ensure it doesn't suffer too badly from the poisoned relationship. Damascus may never have the ear of a Nouri al Maliki-run Iraq - if it comes to that - but, by staying close to his coalition partners, it can retain some cards for use in the Middle East's permanent diplomatic game.