An Iraq Security Framework Via Its Neighbors

By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 13, 2009

How can America help a fragile Iraq as U.S. troops and influence there decline? The Obama administration should revisit one of the good ideas proposed by the 2006 Baker-Hamilton commission -- namely an "international support group" that can draw together the neighboring countries to keep Iraq from blowing apart.

The Baker-Hamilton recommendations are mostly forgotten, swept away by President George W. Bush's 2007 surge of U.S. troops. That certainly improved security, but the recent bombings in Iraq are a reminder that the surge didn't usher in a new era of peace and love. Political reconciliation is still more slogan than reality -- and the neighbors are more a lurking menace than Baghdad's partners.

This is where America still has the leverage to help, by drawing together all the volatile powers on Iraq's borders -- Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and, yes, Iran. A regional security framework will aid Baghdad, but it can also reduce tensions in an area that resembles a ticking time bomb.

In the "be careful what you wish for" department is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. For several years, the United States has wanted him to be a strong leader who could assert Iraqi sovereignty. But Maliki's erratic behavior in recent weeks has complicated the regional dynamic. Rather than working to solve problems with his neighbors, he's making new ones -- despite U.S. efforts to mediate.

An example of the tricky regional dynamic is Syria. The Obama administration has been working carefully to rebuild U.S.-Syrian relations. Representatives of Central Command made two visits to Damascus this summer to discuss security cooperation on Iraq. This led to a tentative agreement that U.S. and Syrian military representatives would meet Aug. 20 on the Iraq-Syria border. U.S. officials proposed including Iraq, as well.

Not so fast, protested Maliki. He warned Chris Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, that policing Iraq's border was an issue for Iraq, not America.

When Maliki visited Damascus on Aug. 18, he told President Bashar al-Assad that he opposed the Syrian-American plan to discuss Iraqi security and would boycott the Aug. 20 session. Maliki also demanded that Assad turn over Baathist leaders who were living in Syria. Assad refused, saying that these Baathists had opposed Saddam Hussein's regime and posed no threat. The Maliki-Assad summit meeting "was a failure," says one Arab official.

Then things exploded, quite literally. On Aug. 19, terrorists in Baghdad attacked the Iraqi Foreign and Finance ministries, killing more than 100 and wounding at least 500. Maliki's government quickly blamed Damascus, and Iraqi TV broadcast the alleged confession of a Sunni Baathist named Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim, who said the attack was planned in Syria. On the morning of Aug. 20, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus informed Syria that the planned meeting that day was canceled. Maliki has since demanded an international tribunal to assess Syria's alleged complicity.

But several senior U.S. officials say that the evidence doesn't support Maliki's charges. Instead, they say, the Aug. 19 bombings were most likely the work of al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Given everything that we know, it seems very unlikely the plot was hatched in Syria," says one U.S. official.

Why is Maliki picking a fight with Damascus? The most likely answer is Iraqi domestic politics. With parliamentary elections scheduled for January, Maliki wants to show that he's a tough guy -- and it's easier for him to stand up to Syria (and Washington) than, say, to Iran. His anti-Syrian blasts are also said to have earned him grudging respect from other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia.

U.S.-Syrian bilateral relations are still moving forward. U.S. officials have given Syria intelligence about terrorist cells operating inside the country that allegedly are moving "foreign fighters" into Iraq, and the Syrians have indicated they will take action. Meanwhile, the two countries are discussing a gradual relaxation of existing sanctions against Damascus.

What's missing is a regional security framework that would allow postwar Iraq gradually to regain its place with Syria, Iran and the rest as a power player. Building such an architecture would be the diplomatic equivalent of a three-cushion shot in billiards -- drawing all the fractious neighbors into a constructive dialogue.

This is the kind of game-changing diplomacy that is possible only for a superpower such as the United States. It's the last big thing that America can do for Iraqi security as the United States withdraws, and, mercifully, it doesn't involve any troops. Henry Kissinger would be on the plane already. Any takers in the Obama national security team?

davidignatius@washpost.com


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