Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for March 13th, 2012

A Plan for Baghdad? Iraq and the Arab-Russian Peace Initiative for Syria

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 13 March 2012 19:23

With an Arab foreign minister meeting completed, a website launched and an official emblem designed, it now seems the Arab League meeting in Baghdad on 29 March may actually become reality.

The significance of that fact, in itself, is not to be underestimated. Only months ago, few analysts found the idea of having the Arab summit realistic. The notion of substantial high-level representation was certainly dismissed.

On the surface, one can easily get the impression that a Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement has enabled the summit preparations to go ahead in recent weeks. However, the appointment of a Saudi non-resident ambassador to Iraq and the articulation of the word “change” in Iraqi discourse on Syria are long overdue baby steps. And one could also argue that these moves are above all cynical tactics: Iraq wants the summit simply to celebrate its return to normalcy after the US withdrawal, whereas Saudi Arabia is eager to maintain momentum in multilateral cooperation on the Syria issue.

Nonetheless, one should not dismiss the slight improvement in the regional climate as necessarily a transient phenomenon. When Iraqi Sadrists deliberately tone down their criticism and say AL summit participants should be welcomed to Baghdad, that in itself is a significant move which takes away some of the punch in the “Shiite crescent” theory as a framework for understanding the regional behaviour of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Egypt has recently settled debt issues with Iraq; Wednesday this week Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is headed to Kuwait with a similar objective.

One of the most interesting recent developments in this respect is the joint Arab–Russian initiative for Syria. This is so because Russian influence has taken the AL in the direction of a plan for Syria that Iraq, too, might sign up to. The emphasis on non-interference and the focus on an impartial supervisory mechanism for Syria, in particular, are things the Iraqis can approve of. It does not matter in this respect that nobody knows exactly what the supervisory mechanism will look like: Cynically disregarding the plight of the Syrians, as far as regional diplomacy is concerned the process is to some extent an aim in itself.

Of course, the Russian-Arab plan is a far cry from what countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar wanted for Syria. Perhaps the more important aspect is the fact that it did come into existence despite objections from some GCC countries. Going forward, the key question for Iraq’s return to the Arab fold may well be how it interacts with other Arab states that are less hawkish on Syria than Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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