Over the past few weeks, the Iraqi government did its best to convince Arab leaders that their personal security is assured should they attend the Arab summit in Baghdad. Despite tremendous efforts to prove this point, car bombs continued to rip through Iraqi cities and Al Qaida affiliates and local militias remained active. Political chaos and differences among Iraqi factions also made many Arab leaders turn down the invitation
Regardless, the mere holding of the summit in Baghdad yesterday is seen by many Iraqis as a signal of their reintegration into the Arab world. For Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki it serves other objectives. It symbolises recognition by the entire Arab world, including those who opposed his rule for the past six years, of his leadership. The summit will also strengthen his hand vis-a-vis his political rivals. He has already been using security forces and the courts to target Sunni political rivals and consolidate his power.
The Arab summit will lend him badly needed legitimacy to continue with this policy. Iraq's chairmanship of the Arab summit for a year will also satisfy Al Maliki's lust for leadership. No wonder the Iraqi premier made every effort to ensure that the summit took place on time. To this end, he offered key concessions that would not have been made under different circumstances. He, for example, visited Kuwait and tried to solve political and financial disputes with his Gulf neighbour. To draw more support from the Gulf states, he tried to distance himself from the Syrian regime, abide by the Arab League resolutions on Syria and agreed to list the Syrian crisis on top of the Arab summit agenda.
Most analysts wonder however if Iraq would continue this rapprochement with the Gulf states after the summit. The biggest question mark is raised about his policy towards the Syrian crisis. Earlier this month, US and other intelligence officials charged that Iran was flying weapons to Syrian government forces through Iraqi airspace. The Al Maliki government did not deny the charge. Instead, Iraq's government spokesman, Ali Al Dabbagh, on March 17 said the country won't allow any other state to use its land or skies as a passage to ferry weapons to Syria. A day before Al Maliki stated that Iraq will ensure that all cargo passing over its skies for Syria is carrying humanitarian aid.
In fact, for domestic and regional reasons, Al Maliki might not be just able to make a genuine shift in his position on Syria. He needs the Syrian regime as much as the Syrian regime needs him. Al Maliki is fearful that a regime change in Damascus would embolden his Sunni opponents, who have openly expressed their support for the protest movement in Syria. Following the withdrawal of US troops last December, sectarian tension ran high in Iraq with sectarian-based secession tendencies reaching a tipping point. Al Maliki is already having trouble with his coalition partners who want to replace him or go for early elections.
Extradition from Syria
He believes that Syria could help neutralise some of his opponents. But that cannot come without a price. Having been strangled by Arab and European economic sanctions, Syria needs an economic partner that can cancel out the disastrous effects of the sanctions. An implicit quid pro quo agreement has hence been reached. According to this agreement, Iraq would extend an economic lifeline for Damascus in return for continued Syrian support for his rule.
There are already reports that Syria has turned in some of the former Iraqi regime's officials who had taken refuge in the country following the collapse of the Saddam Hussain regime. Al Maliki has for years been asking for their extradition but to no avail. Others have been asked to leave. The anti-Al Maliki TV station, Al Raai, which has been airing from a location nearby Damascus, has also been shut down. Last summer, Syria denied western reports that it had received billions of dollars in aid from the Al Maliki government to support its waning economy. Regardless of the authenticity of these reports, the Syrian daily, Al Watan, reported that Syrian exports to Iraq exceeded $20 million daily in December 2011, meaning that Iraq is taking the lion's share of Syria's overall industrial products.
Regionally, in the new alignment, which has been taking shape since the start of the Syrian protest movement, Damascus and Baghdad have found themselves in one camp. Both are strong allies of Tehran. They both suspect that the Gulf states, in coordination with Turkey, are attempting to bring them down. In fact, the two Arab neighbours constitute today the cornerstone of the Iran-led axis. For all these reasons, one is tempted to say that the concessions made by Al Maliki for the Arab summit in Baghdad is no more than a little ploy that will end when Arab representatives leave Baghdad.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Syria.