Hailed by the Iraqi government as a positive and important step towards improved diplomatic relations, Syria has named an ambassador to its eastern neighbor for the first time in a quarter century. Nawaf Fares, governor of the southwestern Quneitra province, was sworn in by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sept. 16 to be Syria’s representative in Baghdad. Fares was expected to arrive in Iraq within the week where he will be welcomed by a government anxious to establish diplomatic relations with its Arab neighbours.
Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have also named ambassadors to Iraq within the last month.
The relationship between Syria and Iraq has been strained since 1982 during Saddam Hussein’s rule and the start of the Iraq-Iran war. But the diplomatic move by Syria is being viewed by the Gulf region as a major step towards mending ties between the countries. “It is a big step toward developing bilateral relations between Syria and Iraq,” Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi told the Associated Press. “It is an indication to Syria’s willingness to support Iraq. We will have better chances for solving the problems between the two countries.”
Chief among those problems is the Iraqi refugee issue. Thousands of Iraqis crossed the border into Syria to flee the violence in their country after the 2003 United States-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Iraqi officials have, in the past, accused Syria of allowing anti-U.S. foreign fighters to cross into Iraq. The Syrian government has denied that charge, while pointing out the near impossible task of controlling the long desert border that separates their countries.
Abbawi told Al Jazeera that the appointment of Fares “will play a significant role in developing bilateral relations and facilitating entry visas to both countries.”
However, Iraqi officials maintain there will be no progress on economic cooperation between the two nations, including reactivating an oil pipeline linking Iraq’s northern oil fields with Syria’s Mediterranean coastline, unless Syria starts taking serious steps toward stopping the alleged border crossings.
The two nations had restored diplomatic ties in November 2006 to help stop the flow of militants across the border and to cooperate on security issues. However, Iraq has not yet named an ambassador to Damascus.
Still, the further establishment of diplomatic relations between these uneasy neighbors has to be seen as a positive sign toward normalcy, especially when considering the recent history between Iraq and Syria.
In 1982, the Syrian government accused Iraq of inciting riots in Syria involving the banned arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood. The two countries then were ruled by rival factions of the Arab Socialist Baath Party and Syria broke Arab ranks by siding with Iran during its 1980-88 war with Iraq. Relations were further strained when Syria joined the multinational coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991.