Friday, April 04, 2003

Syrian maneuvers
A report in Kuwait's daily Al-Rai al-Aam on Wednesday, citing American sources, says U.S. Special Forces blew up part of the Syrian-Iraqi pipeline (between Kirkuk and Banyas), which the two countries had used to illegally transport Iraqi oil to Syria outside the oil-for-food program. The way the system worked was that Iraq would sell the oil at below-market rates to Syria, which would then use it for domestic consumption, releasing its own oil for export (obviously at market rates): this earned Syria a hefty subsidy factor estimated at some $1bn per year.

The report also said that part of the rail link between Iraq and Syria was destroyed--the line had linked Syria to Iran as well, bringing thousands of Iranian pilgrims to Shiite shrines in Damascus.

The U.S. sources told the paper that this signaled the beginning of a political campaign against Syria, after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week accused Syria of supplying Iraq with military equipment (a charge repeated yesterday). There are some questions as to whether Syria acted as a transit point for Russian weapons, something I haven't been able to establish. The Kuwaiti story also noted that U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, William Burns, visited Damascus a few days ago and presented officials there with "firm evidence" of Rumsfeld's charge.

Everything, however, is in the symbolism: the cutoffs were a warning that a postwar Iraq will not look kindly on Syria if it continues to support Saddam--a sanction with an obvious economic cost.

Al-Rai al-Aam also had another very interesting news item yesterday suggesting that the Sharif Ali, the Hashemite pretender to the Iraqi throne and leader of the Constitutional Monarchy movement, secretly visited Damascus for 24 hours last February "in response to a formal invitation. He met officials at the highest level", which means he saw Syrian president Bashar Asad. His visit was supposedly (a) to prepare for the Sharif's transit (and short residence) through Syria before his return to Iraq, (b) to see about Syrian help in setting up meetings with Iraqi tribal chiefs, (c) to see about Syria's facilitating the operations of the Constitutional Monarchists in Syria, and (d) helping them enter Iraq, by way of Mosul.

Many interesting items here: first, it shows that Asad is maneuvering for a place in postwar Iraq, something already obvious late last year when he met with the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani; it also means that, despite the rhetoric, the Syrians are pragmatically dealing with Saddam's possible successors; it means also that whatever the talk of a fundamental rift between the U.S. and Syria, both countries can actually agree on aspects of postwar policy, since the U.S. is not at all hostile to the Sharif, quite the contrary.

And it means that a republican Baathist regime has no basic problem with assisting in the return of an Arab monarchy. That's not only a useful statement on the value of ideology in the Middle East, but perhaps recognition by Asad that he, too, is a republican monarch.

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