09 Sep 2009

When the Arabs lose initiative

After the shocking bombing of the finance and foreign ministries on August 19, the Iraqi government immediately scrambled for an answer to the deadliest bombing to hit Iraq in almost 18 months. Many inside the country pointed to lax security and said it was far too easy for the attackers to drive an explosive-laden truck through Baghdad.

The government initially arrested a former police chief who claimed to have masterminded the attack in conjunction with Syrian Baathists, and this led to a diplomatic row between Iraq and Syria. The two countries withdrew their respective ambassadors, and relations remain soured. Syrian President Bashar Assad denied any Syrian involvement and called the accusations “immoral”, given that Syria is housing more than a million Iraqi refugees.

It has recently come to light that the bombers may have had help from Iraqi security forces. This would explain how the trucks could have passed through security checkpoints without being stopped. In addition, recent reports claim that the attackers had been recently released from the Bucca jail, near Basra, where they were being held in United States custody. These accounts contradict the confession given by Wissam Ali Kadhem Ibrahim, the former police chief who confessed to masterminding the attacks in cooperation with Syrian Baathists.

This “confession” was the cornerstone of Iraq’s accusation that Syria has been sponsoring terrorists operating in Iraq, but Iraq claims to have more evidence to support its accusations.

Considering that these are two Arab states, logic would lead one to expect a third Arab state to act as a mediator. However, no Arab state stepped in, as probably expected. Instead, Iran and Turkey had to act as intermediaries to facilitate negotiations. Turkey is assuming this role despite an ongoing row with both Iraq and Syria over water rights and Iran is acting as an intermediary in a foreign dispute while it has plenty of problems at home.

Neither of these states is ideally situated or better suited than the Arab states to assume these roles, so why is there a pronounced absence of Arab intervention in the problem?

The lack of Arab mediation in this dispute speaks volumes about the current disunity among Arab states. Sadly, this situation has existed for some time; Turkey had to play a similar role in the Gaza conflict in early 2009, and during the summer war between Israel and Hizbollah. While it is not unexpected that Turkey should be involved, Iran’s entry into the talks is very interesting.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki described Tehran-Damascus relations as strategic, adding that the relationship is helpful in maintaining stability and security in the region. Given that Iran is recovering from the election crisis of June 12, it seems that Iran is already trying to reestablish its role in the region and cement its influence.

Can the Arab states reach a consensus and move forward as a bloc? It seems this decades-old question still persists.

Jordan Times, 10 September 2009

Middle East Politics 4 Comments

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