Sunday, December 03, 2006

Non-starter with Iran and Syria

Oct.21, 2006

Non-starter without
broader framework

TO a large extent, it is true that the raging violence in Iraq could be contained if Iran and Syria were to join efforts to stabilise the country. In simple terms, Tehran and Damascus have links with influential figures in Iraq, both Shiites and Sunnis, and they could use this influence to help check the home-grown insurgency against the US military and its allies in Iraq.
As to the "international jihadist" segment of the guerrilla war in Iraq, the Iranians and Syrians could help prevent the infiltration of "volunteer fighters" across their borders into Iraq with the intention of joining the insurgency if only for the sake of fighting the US wherever possible.
Other avenues for "jihadists" to enter Iraq are the Jordanian, Saudi and Turkish borders. All three countries have imposed strict measures along their borders to check infiltrators. However, infiltrations do take place, as Saudi Arabia has implicitly admitted. Indications have emerged that Saudi militants do play a role in the insurgency in Iraq as part of a wider network involving Al Qaeda. So do Jordanian militants, mainly of Palestinian origin. Those trying to cross into Iraq from Turkey find the task difficult because of Ankara's own fight against its Kurdish dissidents who have found shelter in northern Iraq.
Former US secretary of state James Baker, working under a congressional mandate, is preparing a set of recommendations to the Bush administration. Among the recommendations is a call for Washington to initiate contacts with Iran and Syria in order to contain the crisis in Iraq. Without their involvement, the Baker report is said to implicitly affirm, there could not be an end to the problems the US faces in Iraq.
The broader view of the proposed role Iran and Syria could play in containing the Iraqi crisis is that there is little incentive for either of them to assume and perform that role.
As far as Iran is concerned, the US military should remain preoccupied with the internal crisis in Iraq so that Washington would not find it desirable to open a new front against the Iranians in the name of Tehran's nuclear programmes.
If it were to be asked to shift its stand, Iran would demand in return an assurance from the US that Washington has given up its goal of "regime change" in Terhan; so is the case with Syria.
Secondly, it is a non-starter if the US is seeking to isolate and deal with the Iraq crisis with no bearing on other lingering conflicts in the region — plus of course the raging dispute over Iran's nuclear intentions. The main features of the air among them are distrust and a total lack of good faith.
Indeed, Damascus has repeatedly affirmed that it is ready to help check the crisis in Iraq, but the US has been keeping Syria at arms length. Washington fears that allowing the Syrians to assume a political role in Iraq would lead to strengthening the Syrian influence among Iraqi groups at the expense of the US as well as the US-backed Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein who returned to the country after the ouster of the Saddam regime.
Ideally, Washington would want the Syrians to fortify their border with Iraq and launch a nationwide crackdown on Iraqis who have sought shelter in Syria and hand over to the US military anyone suspected of having the slightest link with any Iraqi dissident group. Damascus might consider the idea only if the US undertakes not to seek regime change in Syria and to help solve Syria's conflict with Israel on the basis of returning the Golan Heights in its entirety to Syrian sovereignty. That is definitely not acceptable to Israel and hence the deadlock on that front.
Similarly, from the US point of view, Iran playing a mediatory role in Iraq, would mean Tehran consolidating its alliance with Iraqi Shiites beyond those who are already avowed pro-Iranians in the south of the country.
No doubt, Iran does have an influential role in Iraq and is already playing that role in its own way, but it would not agree switch tracks at US terms except within a broader framework that addresses the whole gamut of issues of conflict between Tehran and Washington. Placing the root issues of dispute on the table is not acceptable to the US, and hence the whole idea of bringing Iran and Syria into the bid for pacifyng the Iraqis would not get anywhere as long as Washington wants to have the apple and eat it too.