The Normalization of Syria Continues
Iraqi leader visits Damascus
The leaders of Iraq and Syria met in Damascus today as the region continues to mend fences with war criminal Bashar al-Assad. This is the latest example of governments in the Middle East choosing pragmatism over principle.
The Arab League reinstated Syria’s member status in May after a 12-year timeout because of Assad’s human rights violations against the Syrian people in the wake of the Arab Spring.
It was always a longshot that Assad would be held accountable for his crimes, but odds have diminished further as Arab nations have been reestablishing diplomatic and economic ties with Syria. Basically, their calculus has been that it doesn’t look like Assad is going anywhere, so it’s time to focus on mutual political, security, economic interests, and drugs.
One of the major concerns in the region is stopping the production in Syria of the amphetamine-like drug Captagon, which has been proliferating in the region and enriching the Syrian regime despite its denials. So, containing the drug trade is one of the reasons countries are normalizing relations with Syria.
Thus, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s visit to Damascus doesn’t come as much surprise.According to the Associated Press:
The two leaders told reporters that they discussed fighting drugs, the return of Syrian refugees and the imperative of lifting Western sanctions imposed in Syria. They also talked about Israel’s strikes on the war-torn country and water shortages in the Euphrates River that cuts through both countries because of projects in Turkey.
Al-Sudani's office said in a statement that talks revolved around ways of expanding cooperation in the fields of trade, economy, transportation, tourism, how to combat climate change and collaboration to fight terrorism.
“We are interested in working through official and government channels to solve the issue of refugees and guarantee a safe return for them as soon as the situation becomes stable in places where they reside,” al-Sudani said. Iraq is hosting about 250,000 Syrian refugees.
Deepening ties between Baghdad and Damascus will benefit Tehran and make things more difficult for Washington. The United States’ counter-ISIS mission in Syria runs through Iraq. Assad has long wanted U.S. troops out of Syria, although it hasn’t been a top priority given that would mean having to take responsibility for containing ISIS in the eastern portion of the country controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces—a non-state entity.
So, can Assad pressure Iraq to put more conditions on the U.S. military presence in Iraq that could force the United States to pull out of Syria? Probably not anytime soon, but certainly Iran and Syria are looking for any way to pressure Iraq.
Iraq continues to struggle, and the country can’t afford to alienate the United States, which continues to provide hundreds of millions of dollars of security, humanitarian, and other assistance to Iraq.
And according to a piece in the New York Times today, the Iraqi government is cracking down on social media in an effort to reduce criticism of the government that exploded in 2019 with massive demonstrations against government corruption.
Human rights and democracy advocates say that to prevent any recurrence of the upheaval that occurred four years ago, the government seeks to limit independent voices in the public square, using lawsuits, detentions, online harassment, threats and occasionally kidnapping or assassination. Often it is unclear exactly which acts violate public order and morality, according to the U.S. State Department’s most recent report on human rights, as well as a report by Human Rights Watch and other free speech and human rights organizations.
It has now been two decades since the United States invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Since then, the country has been plagued by political infighting and stagnation. It’s a fragile state that has experienced substantial political and economic turmoil over the last four years in particular.
However, none of this comes as much of a surprise. In April 2009, I took my second reporting trip to Iraq. The security situation was relatively calm, and U.S. forces were focused on training Iraqi forces so U.S. troops could hand things over and leave at the end of 2011.
I produced two stories from that 2009 trip. One looked at the efforts to train the Iraqi security forces, and the other explored how poorly the country was doing in building/rebuilding the electricity infrastructure and providing power to the people.
Both efforts were fraught and plagued by corruption and political infighting.
The following is a draft of a book chapter I wrote about that trip. I ended up cutting the chapter during editing, and I used a few bits of it in the final manuscript. By the way, we are now one month away from the official release of the book, so hurry up and preorder your copy through my author site. Free subscribers can read a portion of the deleted chapter, and paid subscribers get the whole thing. Membership has its privileges!
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I went through the usual embed mortgage application process and also a visa application since I would be flying in and out on a commercial/contractor flight. No more military air nonsense.
Since I was going to do unembedded reporting, I needed a fixer, driver, and security person. I reached out to contacts at the Washington Post Baghdad bureau. They informed me that the bureau had recently downsized and passed along contact information for a former driver and security guy. With those two positions secured, I continued my hunt for a fixer, and a couple of days before my scheduled departure to Iraq, and after a lot of calls, emails, and referrals, I found my guy.
With all the appropriate papers and stamps in hand, I boarded the United contractor shuttle from Dulles to Dubai and settled into my business class seat courtesy of my platinum-status upgrade. United had just started renovating their planes and it would still be a while before their 777s had the new lie-flat seats rather than the early 90s-era Barcaloungers that were far better than economy, but still sucked to sleep in during a 13-hour flight.
I arrived in Dubai and went to the Dnata—the Dubai National Air Travel Agency—desk to buy a ticket to Baghdad. Since Jupiter Airlines, the sketchy contractor airline I was going to fly into Baghdad, wasn’t a traditional airline in the international booking system, I could not purchase a ticket in the United States prior to my trip. However, the Dnata agent told me I had to purchase my ticket the next morning before my desired flight. It made me a little nervous to cut it that close and show up to the airport without a ticket in hand.
Anyhow, I checked into my hotel in Dubai, showered, and met friends for dinner at Al Mallah, my favorite local-style Lebanese restaurant in Dubai. After a little barhopping, I returned to my hotel for a drink at the hooker bar. It was fairly dead, and only one woman tried to hit me up for business. I declined.
The next morning, I got up stupidly early and arrived at Dubai airport’s Terminal 2—aka the Terminal of Lost Souls—at 5 a.m. to make sure I had plenty of time to buy my ticket and deal with any curveballs in the process. I stood in line for 30 minutes. I reached the counter, bought a ticket, and felt like all was well in the world. I breezed through security and then looked for a gate showing a sign for my flight. I didn’t see one, so I checked with an agent who was of course loosening up to throw curveballs.
The agent said that I had an “open ticket” and therefore he wouldn’t check me in for the flight. I asked numerous questions, and the agent provided numerous answers, but the questions and answers did not mesh. Thus, I did not understand what the problem was, but the agent kept saying he could not give me a seat. After some additional back and forth, a solution was presented to me: pay an additional $100 for a business-class ticket and a guaranteed seat. I submitted to the extortion and was assigned a seat. Of course, there wasn’t a business class on the unbranded white plane, but I had a seat that got me to Baghdad.
By that point, the commercial flights were no longer doing the crazy corkscrew approaches into Baghdad. The plane circled a lot, but then came in at a fairly reasonable angle and speed.
After an hour twiddling my thumbs at baggage claim, my giant black duffel emerged among all the other giant black duffels belonging to the international people of mystery who were still roaming around the country. I exited the terminal and met the taxi driver that my guys had sent in to take me out to the last checkpoint where civilian cars were allowed to park.
We drove out and found my team. We stuffed my gear into the trunk of the 80s Mercedes and rolled along the highway into the city. There was a much larger presence of Iraqi forces on the streets than during my visit eight-months prior. There was more traffic as well.
We pulled through the security checkpoint at the Hamra Hotel, and I checked into my “suite.”
The room was spacious and looked authentically 1974. It had two twin bed/couches, a dining room table, refrigerator, and kitchenette with hot plates. On the wall was an odd painting of what looked like a few dozen 18th century ships congregating around some European port city. It was about as non-Iraqi of a piece of art as you could get.
After running through my plans with my team, I grabbed a sandwich in the hotel restaurant and then took a nap. That night I walked around the corner from the hotel to a party, once again at the Washington Post house. And once again I consumed a coronary-inducing quantity of lamb chops.
This party was far more subdued than the one the previous summer, in part because the country was calming down and media organizations had been downsizing and consolidating their offices. In fact, NPR had moved into the Washington Post house. Journalists told me that it had become more difficult to get Iraq stories published or on air and that it was frustrating to see the audience losing interest. Just because violence was way down did not mean that there weren’t important things happening (or in the case of improving the economy and political stability, not happening) that the global public needed to know about.
In 2009, Iraq 1.0 was quieting down, and the writing was on the wall that news organizations were going to be shuttering their bureaus. The fact that many people had already left and that journalists still in Baghdad were confronting downsizing sucked some of the energy out of parties like the one I was attending that night. At least one thing was the same: my usual feelings of envy and inadequacy around the full-time correspondents from the grown-up news agencies. Even though the story was drying up, I was still jealous of the Baghdad-based tribe and the lives they had.