Iraqi government formation: Syria dives in

By: Ane Mannsåker Roald

As Eid al-fitr is drawing to a close, Iraqi politicians are preparing for what will hopefully be the last rounds of negotiations before a new Iraqi government is formed.

In a bid to help breaking the deadlock, Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Najri Otri called his opposite number in Iraq, incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Thursday evening last week. This is the first contact between al-Maliki and Syrian authorities since August last year, when a particularly deadly string of bombs hit Baghdad and led al-Maliki to charge Syria with supporting Iraqi insurgents. More than just being an effort to patch up bilateral relations, last week’s phone call should be seen as an expression of Syrian ambitions to have their say in the political developments in Iraq.

While Syria obviously has taken a keen interest in Iraqi politics also previously, what is new about the current initiative is their open and systematic approach; earlier years have seen more covert approaches; tacit support for former regime loyalists and insurgents, security collaboration on border control, and otherwise no public engagement with Iraqi internal affairs.

This year is different: Syria stated their intentions to play an active role in Iraqi politics already in April when an Iraq policy group was formed, aiming at contributing to the stability of their neighbour as well as safeguarding Syrian interests in the government formation. Syrian authorities then proceeded to organizing meetings in order to broker a breakthrough in the stalemate which has been plaguing the Iraqi government formation process ever since the March 7 elections. Syrian diplomacy has resulted in a meeting between Muqtada al-Sadr and Iyad Allawi in Damascus in July, as well as a meeting between members of the former Ba’th party and the Shi’i islamist ISCI in June.

For most Iraqis, the Syrian initiative is no more welcome than those of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or any other meddlesome neighbour. However, one advantage of Syrian mediation would be their good standing with all relevant parties – Damascus has honed relations with former Ba’thists as well as secularists and Sunni and Shia Islamists. It is significant that while no Shi’i Islamist party is represented in Amman, the most prominent hub for Iraqi politics outside Baghdad, the ISCI has now opened an office in the Syrian capital. A major limitation for Syrian diplomacy these days, however, is their strained relations with Nouri al-Maliki, on the background  of which last week’s phone call should be seen.

For Iraq, Syrian success would probably be good news, to the degree that the preferred Iranian solution to government formation, namely an all-Shii alliance, is thwarted. In the event that the announced alliance between al-Maliki’s State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance (ISCI, the Sadr movement, Fadhila) should finally come to fruition, it would mean further cementing sectarian divisions and a logic of ethno-sectarian quotas in political institutions. It is difficult to see how such a development bodes well for Iraq.

What Syria seems to be promoting instead, is an all-comprising national unity government. According to the Iraqiyya spokesman in Damascus, Ahmad al-Dulaymi, the Syrians “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.”[i] While it seems unlikely that a broad, all-encompassing government should be strong and efficient, or for that sake escaping the logic of sectarian quotas, it might have the virtue of lending legitimacy to the many important processes in line for the new government, constitutional reform and passing an oil law being only two examples out of a long list.

The national unity approach is moreover on line with what US authorities have been promoting as their preferred solution. It therefore seems probable that the Syrian initiative is the result of a budding US-Syrian partnership in Iraq policy, and that the Syrians are now in earnest returning to the fold.

[i] Philip Sands (2010) Syria helps to break deadlock in Baghdad. The National 24.10.2010.

2 Responses to “Iraqi government formation: Syria dives in”

  1. 1 Andrita September 18, 2010 at 02:07

    Has the Iraq government been formed yet? I want to know when the currency for Iraqi will RV.


    • 2 Ane Roald October 5, 2010 at 11:07

      Dear Andrita,

      the Iraqi government has not yet been formed, and it is not unlikely that the process will still take some time.

      Ane Roald

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