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Iraq: Baghdad And Damascus Moving Rapidly Toward Full Ties

Baghdad and Damascus are moving closer than ever toward re-establishing full economic and political ties after decades of hostility. For Syria, that could mean distancing itself from prospects for better relations with the United States. But RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports that Damascus also sees clear benefits in the move.

Prague, 30 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- During the last three years, Iraq and Syria have been inching closer to restoring the ties they cut off when Damascus sided with Iran during the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war.

But they have rarely moved as fast as they did in the past month (November), when the two sides announced a whole flurry of new cooperative steps.

At the start of the month, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Shara told reporters in Damascus that his side would welcome an upgrading of Iraq's interest bureau in Damascus to full diplomatic status. He gave no dates but said the upgrade would be part of a step-by-step process in warming relations, which had been further strained by Syria's stand against Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis.

Next, in the middle of the month, Syrian officials announced Iraq had suddenly begun pumping 150,000 barrels a day of crude oil through a long-disused pipeline into Syria. That move marked a surge in business between the two states, which have enjoyed only modest levels of trade since they reopened their border in 1997.

Then last week, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz flew into Damascus aboard the first direct flight from Iraq to Syria in nearly two decades. The flight not only brought Aziz for high-level talks, it also showcased Syria's readiness to help Baghdad defy the United States and Britain over UN flight bans on Iraq. Until Aziz's trip, the only Iraqi flights taking Iraqi officials out of the country had been for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Analysts say that by moving rapidly to restore full ties with Iraq, the new government of Bashar Assad appears to be motivated by strong Syrian popular support for ordinary Iraqis hard hit by a decade of sanctions. And, they say, Damascus seems to have decided it can gain more domestically and regionally by reaching out to Iraq then it might lose from any missed opportunities for better ties with the United States following the death of Bashar's father, Hafez Assad.

Marius Deeb, a Gulf regional analyst with Johns Hopkins University near Washington, says most Syrians feel a deep sympathy for the Iraqi population.

"The people in the region think of the sanctions as unfair, especially that they hurt the elderly and the sick rather than the people of the regime. So it is something that is popular. It is good for public opinion domestically [for Syrian officials] to say that they are helping their Iraqi Arab brethren who are under sanctions from Britain and the U.S."

Britain and the United States argue that strict sanctions are necessary to force Iraq to prove it has no weapons of mass destruction. But many Arab states -- as well as Russia, France, and China -- have called for easing the sanctions to encourage Iraq to cooperate over disarmament.

Analysts say that Syrian popular support for Iraq -- and resentment of the United States and Britain -- has also risen with the renewed tension in the Mideast over the Israeli-Arab peace process.

Baghdad has won much popular praise in Syria for taking a lead role in calling for Arab support for the Palestinians as they and Israeli security forces engage in daily clashes. The violence has killed some 280 people during the last two months.

At the same time, any prospects of U.S. help for Syria's troubled economy have largely disappeared following the breakdown of Israeli-Syrian peace talks earlier this year. The U.S.-backed talks have shown no signs of resuming since Israel unilaterally pulled out of South Lebanon in May and Hafez Assad died in June.

As Iraq and Syria move toward restoring full diplomatic relations, both sides are downplaying ideological issues that have created many tensions between them in the past. The countries are ruled by rival factions of the pan-Arab Baath Party which have frequently sought to intervene in each other's affairs and could well do so again.

But for now those ideological differences are taking second place to the broad Syrian popular support for Iraq and a keen interest in boosting trade across the border. Analyst Deeb says:

"The regimes are different from the people, and the people have nothing against each other. And actually many [Syrians] want open borders. The idea of having regimes which close borders and have no trade is not good, especially for the eastern part of Syria -- which naturally is a trading route -- and merchants like to do business with the Iraqis."

Iraqi and Syrian officials have said that they want to see trade -- which resumed three years ago within the framework of the UN's oil-for-food program -- reach the level of $1 billion a year.

That goal now seems more attainable thanks to the re-opening in the past few weeks of the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline, which had been closed since 1982. Oil industry analysts say that Iraq has offered to provide its oil to Syria at a discount attractive to Damascus. Syria will use the Iraqi oil domestically, freeing it to export equivalent amounts of Syrian crude to the world market and to profit from the price difference.

So far, both Iraq and Syria have ignored the question of whether the newly opened pipeline will be included under the UN's oil-for-food program. That program controls all Iraqi oil sales to be sure the proceeds are used only to buy humanitarian goods. But Iraq has repeatedly sought ways to sell oil outside the program, including by smuggling oil overland to Turkey and by sea through the Gulf.