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Damascus Vibrations – Analysis

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For a variety of overlapping reasons, the situation in Syria is very alarming to Iraqis from every end of the political spectrum.

For starters, approximately 1 million Iraqis currently live in Syria, all of whom fled the mayhem in their country in 2003. They are worried that if security breaks down in Syria, or if the state can no longer accommodate them, they would have to unwillingly return home – where a very uncertain future awaits them.

A country that now has refugees on the border with Turkey will have a hard time absorbing refugees on its own territories – and certainly not Iraqi refugees.

Iraqi Christians living in Syria are particularly afraid of the sectarian rhetoric emerging from radical groups inside Syria. They fled their country precisely because they were targeted by radical Islamic groups and are worried that a similar scenario could be repeated in Syria.

Iraqi Ba’athists are also worried about the status of the Ba’ath Party in Syria. Demonstrators have been on the streets throughout rural Syria and in many towns within its interior, demanding an end to one-party rule and cancelation of Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which designates the Ba’ath as “leader of state and society”.

These Iraqi Ba’athists are still very much committed to Ba’ath Party rule and they are horrified by the fact that perhaps soon, Ba’ath Party supremacy will end in a country that gave birth to their doctrine back in 1947. Ba’athist Syria welcomed them with open arms in 2003, but that wouldn’t necessarily apply to a country in which the Ba’ath no longer has the upper hand.

Hardline Iraqi Shi’ites are also alarmed, seeing the demonstrations on the Syrian street as part of a Western-engineered “conspiracy” aimed at punishing Syria for its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are very worried that if the regime collapses in Syria, or is reformed beyond recognition, then this would spell out a slow breakdown in the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah trio that has dominated the Arab world for more than 10 years.

That alliance was a source of inspiration to radical Iraqi groups like the Mehdi Army, whose leader Muqtada al-Sadr often looked towards Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for leadership and guidance, enjoying excellent relations with the Syrians. They fear the rise of radical Sunni groups within Syria, like the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, would certainly work to obstruct what its leaders have often described as a “Shi’ite crescent” linking Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

As far as they are concerned, the Brotherhood, through an alliance with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is now coordinating with the West over how to end to Iranian influence in the Arab world. The believe this is why Erdogan began dialogue with Hamas in Palestine back in 2004 – to counterbalance the influence of Hezbollah in the eyes of Muslim Sunnis around the world.

If the Brotherhood is empowered by whatever scenario unfolds in Syria, then this would have immediate vibrations in Iraq among groups allied to Sunni Islamic groups, like the Iraqi Accordance Front and the Iraqi Islamic Party, being the Iraqi branch of the Brotherhood.

That fear is shared by the Mehdi Army, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), and even by Shi’ite heavyweights like former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his successor, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Additionally, the recently released bill of indictment in the murder of Lebanon’s former premier Rafik al-Hariri has blamed senior members of Hezbollah – a proxy blow to Iran and its allies in the Iraqi arena, and throughout the Arab world.

Iraqi Kurds are also watching the Syria scenario with plenty of interest. Their top leadership, including President Jalal Talabani and president of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud al-Barazani, are both closely allied to Syrian Kurds, having spent a long exile in Syria during the era of Saddam Hussein.

Early on in the crisis, Syrian Kurds were appeased by the government through a series of measures that included granting citizenship to around 300,000 Kurds (a key demand since 1962) and celebrating the Kurdish Neirouz holiday – for the first time in decades.

Despite that, however, Kurdish districts in eastern Syria went out in anti-government demonstrations, demanding political and economic change, claiming that their ultimate demand is democracy rather than citizenship. To date, although Kurdish demonstrators have been snowballing on Fridays, no casualties have been recorded in the Kurdish community.

If that changes for any reason, this could potentially lead to a bloody confrontation between them and the government, as was the case in 2004. Additionally there are 12 Kurdish political parties in Syria that although unlicensed, have recently been invited for a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad.

That meeting did not take place, and these parties are concerned that authorities did not contact them early on in the crisis, although they were the ones to calm the Kurdish street back in 2004. All of them are now eyeing a new political party law that is in the works in Syria, waiting to see if their parties, which for years have been persecuted by the government, will get licensed in a multi-party Syria.

If they don’t – either for political reasons or if they don’t meet the legal requirements – this could also spell more trouble in the Kurdish districts, which could immediately spill over into Iraq. They need to be represented as well in an upcoming National Dialogue that is due to start in Damascus on July 10, chaired by Vice President Farouk al-Shara.

They have already outlined a set of 10 demands which range from full rights for Syrian Kurds, including that of language, schools and culture, onto a new constitution that recognizes the Kurdish ethnicity in Syria.

A quick review of Arab history shows that what happens in Egypt is often duplicated in Syria, and what happens in Syria is often copied in Iraq.

If Syrians are the Egyptian copycat, then Iraqis are the Syrian copycat. Egypt became a Fatimad (caliphate); Syria became a Fatimad. Egypt established a Revolutionary Command Council in 1952; Syria established a Revolutionary Command Council in 1963. Egypt spoke of Arab unity; Syria followed by merging with Cairo in 1958.

And in Iraq’s case, the pattern is similar. Damascus established the Muslim Umayyad Dynasty in 661; Baghdad established the Muslim Abbasid Dynasty in 750. Syria created a Hashemite crown in 1920; Iraq did the same in 1921 – ironically with the same monarch.

Syrians established a Ba’ath Party government in 1963; the Iraqis followed suit in 1968. What happens in Damascus undoubtedly always has a strong vibration in Baghdad. The street demonstrations that began in Syria in March will probably soon find their way to Iraq, and so will the democratization and reform process, which Iraqis are still yearning for since the downfall of Hussein, eight years ago.

Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. He is also a writer, political analyst, and historian, based in Damascus. His articles on Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria appear regularly in The Daily Star, Asia Times, Al-Hayat, Gulf News, al-Ahram Weekly, and The Washington Post. He lectures frequently at the Assad National Library on the founding years of the Syrian Republic, in association with the Friends of Damascus Society and appears regularly on Syrian TV, Al-Jazeera, and BBC.

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