Tuesday 5 March 2013

Assad cedes provincial capital, is ambushed in Iraq

The ambush was near Akashat (center), inside Iraq, not far from the Syrian border (Map from Euronews)

The Damascus and Baghdad governments were dealt a spectacular body blow each yesterday.
In one blow to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syrian militants scored one of the biggest gains of their two-year revolt by capturing the strategic northern city of Raqqa.
Situated on the highway to the major northeastern towns of Qamishli, al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor, Raqqa is the first Syrian provincial capital to fall into opposition hands.
In another blow to Assad and his ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, 48 Syrian and nine Iraqi soldiers were killed in an ambush near Akashat, inside Iraq, not far from the Syrian border.
Iraqi officials said the Syrians had sought refuge through the Rabi’a border crossing in northern Iraq during recent clashes with rebels and were being escorted back home through a different crossing farther south when the ambush occurred.
The fact the Syrian soldiers were on Iraqi soil at all raised questions about Baghdad’s perceptible willingness to help Assad’s embattled regime by stealth.
Maliki told The Associated Press last week a victory for Syrian rebels would spark sectarian wars in Iraq and Lebanon (see my Feb. 28 post, “Iran proxies growl: Hands off Assad”).
“If truth be told,” political analyst Elias Harfouche writes today for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, “what risks destabilizing Iraq is its prime minister’s prejudiced meddling in the Syria crisis,” his corruption and his blackballing of Iraq’s Sunnites and Kurds.
Noting that this month marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Harfouche evokes the expression “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
In the same vein, he says, you can rid a country of a tyrant, but you can’t turn it into a democracy if its regime balks at the concept.
To prove his point, Harfouche cites the case of Iraq, where he says Maliki’s “democracy” is worse than Saddam’s dictatorship. He also quotes from the first two of a six-part series on “today’s Iraq” penned by Patrick Cockburn for The Independent.
According to Cockburn:
Iraq is disintegrating as a country under the pressure of a mounting political, social and economic crisis, Iraqi leaders say.
They add that 10 years after the U.S, invasion and occupation the conflict between the three main communities – Shiite, Sunnite and Kurd – is deepening to a point just short of civil war...
The record of failure of post-Saddam governments, given the financial resources available, is astounding. One of the reasons many Iraqis welcomed the fall of Saddam in 2003, whatever their feelings about foreign occupation, was that they thought his successors would restore normal life after years of sanctions and war. To their astonishment and fury this has not happened, though Iraq now enjoys $100bn a year in oil revenues. In Baghdad there is scarcely a new civilian building to be seen and most of the new construction is heavily fortified police or military outposts. In Basra, at the heart of the oilfields, there are pools of sewage and heaps of uncollected rubbish in the streets on which herds of goats forage...
Theft of public money and incompetence on a gargantuan scale means the government fails to provide adequate electricity, clean water or sanitation. One-third of the labor force is unemployed and, when you include those under-employed, the figure is over half. Even those who do have a job have often obtained it by bribery...
The rule of Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister since 2006, has become a near dictatorship with highly developed means of repression, such as secret prisons, and pervasive use of torture. He has sought to monopolize control over the army, intelligence service, government apparatus and budget, making sure that his supporters get the lion’s share of jobs and contracts...
As the pre-eminent leader of the Shiites, three-fifths of the population, he alarms them by suggesting that their political dominance is under threat from the Sunni, a fifth of Iraqis, once in charge under Saddam but now marginalized. Last year, Maliki sought to unite Sunnite and Shiite Arabs against the Kurds, another fifth of the population, by massing troops and threatening to invade Kurdish-controlled but disputed areas.
The Sunni had suffered shattering defeats with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the formation of a Shiite-Kurdish government and loss of the sectarian civil war. But the conflict in Syria marked a change for the better in Sunni fortunes. They have been emboldened by the bid for power of Syria’s Sunni majority just across the border from their own heartlands in Anbar and Nineveh provinces...
Maliki may employ a million men in different branches of the Iraqi security forces. In most countries this would guarantee government control, but in practice Maliki only has full authority in about half the national territory. He has no power in the northern third of the country held by the Kurds and increasingly limited influence in Sunni areas...
A few months before the invasion, an Iraqi civil servant secretly interviewed in Baghdad made a gloomy forecast. “The exiled Iraqis are the exact replica of those who currently govern us… with the sole difference that the latter are already satiated since they have been robbing us for the past 30 years,” he said. “Those who accompany the U.S. troops will be ravenous.”
Many of the Iraqis who came back to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion were people of high principle who had sacrificed much as opponents of Saddam Hussein. But fast-forward 10 years and the prediction of the unnamed civil servant about the rapacity of Iraq’s new governors turns out to have been all too true. As one former minister puts it, “the Iraqi government is an institutionalized kleptocracy”…
Last week, Harfouche recalls, Maliki warned that a victory for the opposition in Syria would lead to “a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian conflict in Iraq.” His warning echoed Assad’s earlier threat – namely, that sparks from his regime’s fall would ignite the entire region.
Harfouche says the alarming trade-off being proposed is this: we [Assad and Maliki] shall keep the peace in Syria, Iraq and the entire region if you let us keep our sectarian hold on power in Damascus and Baghdad.
“If truth be told,” Harfouche writes, “what risks destabilizing Iraq is its prime minister’s prejudiced meddling in the Syria crisis and his piloting the de-structuring of Iraq through corruption and the exclusion of large numbers of Iraqi Sunnites and Kurds from public office and the decision-making process.
“The Americans can’t be blamed for backing Nouri al-Maliki’s rise to power. Nor are they supposed to crave for Iraq’s destiny more than Iraq’s prime minister.”