Syria Cancels Iraq Rebel Sit-down in Damascus – Why?

Taken from Nobles NewsSyria has cancelled the sit-down of Iraqi rebel groups that was scheduled to take place on Monday. Khalid Oweis has a good article: Syria intervenes to cancel Iraq rebels meetings. 

This is a classic Syrian move.             (Photo from Nobles News)

What are the explanations? US pressure?

1. “The Syrians gently made it clear that this is not the time for this,” a senior Baath Party member told Reuters.

2. Iranian pressure? "Some delegates linked the meeting’s cancellation to the visit last week to Syria by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

By calling the meeting and then cancelling, Syria sends a message that it has clout in Iraq and that it could help manage he resistance if the US were willing to deal with it.

In 2005, I wrote a number of articles about Syria's strategy in 2004, which was exactly this. Under the sponsorship of Abdul Halim Khaddam, then the V.P. of Syria, Iraqi tribal elements and various Sunni leaders were gathered on several occasions at the Sham hotel on the airport road. Opponents of Syria claimed that this proved that Syria supported the resistance. It seemed obvious from Damascus, that Khaddam was trying to prepare a role for Syria by showing the Americans that it has influence and can help intercede with Sunni Iraqis to help manage the power-sharing negotiations that were necessary to bring calm to Iraq and help establish a stable and legitimate government. At the time, the US renounced these efforts as Syrian meddling and decided it could deal with the Sunni opposition on its own, either by hunting and killing them or by buying them off.

Syria abandoned its efforts to organize Iraqi Sunnis or play a positive role beyond policing the border with greater vigor. The US and Iraqi governments always insisted that Syrians efforts to clamp down on the resistance were half-hearted or altogether fake.

By calling this meeting and then cancelling it due to "American" pressure, Syria has once again raised the possibility that it has a role to play.

Could there be a connection between the timing of this meeting and Cousseran's Lebanon shuttle diplomacy? Hard to tell.

Here is my 2005 analysis of Khaddam's efforts to organize the Sunni tribal elements. I quote myself:

Bashar brought Khaddam back into the center of power in mid-2003, after Sharaa's hard-line policy on Iraq had become dangerous for Syria. Khaddam was given permission to pursue a more pro-American policy. Assad let Khaddam try to recruit the Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq to Syria’s side.

Khaddam organized at least 10 meetings of Iraqi tribal leaders at the Ebla Sham Hotel on the airport road during 2003 and 2004. This may have been Khaddam’s way of trying to make Syria useful to the Americans and to bring Syria into the center of the Iraq political drama. Khaddam’s policy of taming the Sunnis and delivering them to the Americans proved useless, however.

The secular Prime Minister of Iraq's interim government Iyad Allawi lost out in the power struggle in Iraq. The Iraqi resistance grew at a dizzying pace, and America moved ever closer to the Shiites and away from the Sunnis. Bremer dissolved the Army and moved forcefully against all the old Baathists in Iraq, which doomed Khaddam’s ability to organize and domesticate the Iraqi Sunnis in order to deliver them to the Americans and show Syria’s utility and good intentions.

Khaddam’s strategy may have been doomed by Bashar, who was happy to see him fail, but it was also doomed by the ideological narrow-mindedness of the US administrators in Iraq and ultimately the Bush administration. Bashar allowed Khaddam to try out his Iraq policy, but when it failed, Khaddam also failed. Washington would not cut Syria any slack on the Iraq front. Khaddam was wrong – or perhaps just too late. When the US began to demand greater independence for Lebanon as well, Khaddam could only propose to give it. Bashar over-ruled him at the last minute and extended Lahoud’s presidency and definitively took Lebanon away from Khaddam and from Hariri, something he had been trying to do for years. In this interpretation, Bashar gambled on losing Lebanon in order to gain power in Damascus.

Here is Oweis' Story:

23 July 2007
Reuters News
DAMASCUS, July 23 (Reuters) – A large meeting of Iraqi rebel groups that was due to be held in Damascus on Monday was cancelled at the behest of Syria, delegates said.

Hundreds of delegates, including members of the banned Iraqi Baath Party, officers in Saddam Hussein’s now defunct security forces and anti-U.S. tribal leaders, had gathered in Damascus to work out a joint programme for groups opposed to the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.

“The Syrians gently made it clear that this is not the time for this,” a senior Baath Party member told Reuters.

“The Americans and their Iraqi government clients are intensifying their lies that Syria is behind terrorism and attacks on innocent Iraqis, which we all condemn.”

He was speaking at a meeting to announce the cancellation of the conference at a hotel in the outskirts of Damascus. The decision did not go down well with most participants, especially those who had travelled from Iraq.

Some delegates linked the meeting’s cancellation to the visit last week to Syria by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A communique issued after a meeting between Ahmadinejad and President Bashar al-Assad last week said the two leaders were adamant about the need to end U.S. occupation but back the Iraqi government and “condemn terrorism against the Iraqi people and their institutions”.

Envoys from Shi’ite Muslim Iran and arch foe the United States are due to hold a second round of talks on Iraqi security in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Syria’s secular government, which has been reinforcing links with Iran, took steps last year to improve ties with Iraq.

Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi is expected to visit Damascus next month.


With a 360-km (225-mile) border with Iraq and some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, Damascus has said that a descent into an all out civil war there would have “devastating consequences” for the region.

Thousands of Iraqi Baathists and former security figures have made Syria their base since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The Iraqi government says they play a major role in supporting the insurgency. Washington accuses Syria of letting fighters cross its borders into Iraq, a charge Syria denies.

Damascus says its influence with rebel forces in Iraq could help the United States achieve an “honourable withdrawal” for American troops.

“We should not see a contradiction between raising the gun and negotiating an end to the occupation,” a tribal leader from Iraq’s western Anbar province addressed the delegates.

He acknowledged, however, that the rebel groups lack a unified political front.

Comments (3)

ausamaa said:

“WHY”, the headline asks!

I guess, to show who can “host” meetings and who can “cancel” such meetings in Iraq. In slang, it is called something like demonstrating who can “calls the shots (or some of the shots) when needed.

Maybe Damascus is in a somewhat charitable and accommodating mood for some reason nowadays.

Mind you, the usual “Syria-friendly” analysits will swear on their mothers graves that Syria backed down from allowing the meeting to be held because Bush the Second has threatened to nuke Syria to kingdom come or to “hold Damascus Airport” if Syria allowed the meeting to take place!

July 24th, 2007, 9:29 pm


Mark Eichenlaub said:

Are they maybe trying to regain favor with the U.S.?

August 4th, 2007, 4:37 am


Peter Sawiris said:

The U.N. refugee office in Damascus said his agency wants to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees by year’s end. In mid-February, the United States announced will let in about 7,000 Iraqis, and Sweden has admitted more than 18,000.

December 4th, 2007, 10:47 pm


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