A history of Iraq-Syria relations

A history of Iraq-Syria relations
The two countries have gone through their ups and downs, with probably more downs than ups, writes Paul Iddon.
12 min read
08 November, 2018
Hafez al-Assad salutes a crowd in Damascus next to a young Saddam Hussein [AFP Archive/DateUnknown]

Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari led a delegation to Syria "in order to discuss matters of mutual importance" last month. At the meeting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad urged both sides to enhance what he called the two countries' "historic relations".

Even a casual look back at Iraq-Syria relations, especially over the past 50 years, aptly demonstrates that Baghdad and Damascus have been through numerous thaws and upheavals together.

The aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War is a good point to begin any general history of Iraq-Syria relations. The Iraqi Baath Party took power in a coup in 1968. In Syria, Hafez al-Assad, a member of that country's Baath Party, seized the reins of power in November 1970.

The two separate Baath parties were the product of a February 1966 split within the socialist pan-Arabism movement, which advocates the creation of a single unified Arab state. Nevertheless, both regimes got along in the early 1970s largely as a result of their common opposition to Israel.

In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War - when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israeli forces to reclaim the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, which Israel had captured from them back in 1967 - Iraq sent a 60,000-strong expeditionary force that fought alongside the Syrians.

While they failed to reclaim the Golan, Iraqi participation did nevertheless help prevent the Israelis from advancing on Damascus itself, a mere 40 miles away.

Relations quickly soured after Syria ceased battling the Israelis and instead accepted United Nations Resolution 338, which brought about a ceasefire and essentially ended that war. Iraq also refused to restore relations with the United States at that time, unlike both Egypt and Syria, given its close support for Israel.

In the following two years, Syrian and Turkish dams reduced the flow of the Euphrates River into Iraq. Baghdad became so frustrated with Damascus that it openly threatened to bomb Syria's al-Thawra dam unless the flow of water into its territory was increased. It massed troops along the border in order to intimidate Damascus.

Were it not for the intervention of Saudi Arabia convincing the Syrians to release additional water to end the standoff, the two countries could potentially have clashed militarily or even gone to war over water.

Relations thawed later in the decade. Both Iraq and Syria opposed the Camp David Accords that eventually forged a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Their mutual desire to sabotage that effort briefly brought them together.

In October 1978, Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Syrian President Assad began discussing the establishment of a united entity of both their countries which would forge closer economic, political and military ties that would more effectively challenge Israel in the region.

As one report from the time noted, both dictators vowed "to marry Iraq's army and oil wealth to Syria's front-line position in opposition to the American peace initiative and the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks".

Both dictators vowed 'to marry Iraq's army and oil wealth to Syria's front-line position in opposition to the American peace initiative and the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks'

Furthermore, a joint committee was to be formed to establish "a formula for a joint defence pact that will provide a basis for total military unity" between the two countries.

This never came to be, since Bakr's then-vice-president, Saddam Hussein, the real leader of Iraq behind the scenes, seized power in a brutal purge on July 22, 1979, forcing Bakr into early retirement. Hussein justified his action as an essential step to foil a coup by the Syrian Baathists.

As Adeed Dawisha explains in his book Iraq: A Political History, Saddam sought to prevent a successful Iraq-Syria union since it could well have seen him destined to continue as little more than the deputy leader of Iraq - given that Hafez al-Assad was "older and more experienced, and whose stature in the Arab world could not be matched by" Saddam.

By the end of 1979, Iraq-Syria relations were essentially suspended, with both sides withdrawing their diplomats from each other's capitals.

After Iraq launched a ground invasion of western Iran in September 1980, Baghdad became embroiled in a lengthy war with Tehran that lasted eight years and left about one-million dead in its wake. Given its antagonism towards Baghdad, Damascus became the only Arab country to support Iran in that war.

In April 1982, Syria closed the Iraqi pipeline that ran through Syria to the port of Banias, costing the Iraqi economy billions of dollars. Walid Hamdoun, Syria's deputy prime minister at the time, called Hussein the "butcher of Baghdad" and a "traitor to the Arab cause". Saddam fired back by claiming Assad's regime had abandoned "elementary values of Arab honour".

This exchange underscored the deep-seated hostility between the two regimes. Syria's closure of the pipeline and alignment with Iran in the war led to the long border between the two countries being completely shut.

Hussein got his revenge on Syria for closing the Banias pipeline in a very roundabout way a few months later. Knowing the Israelis were itching for any excuse to remove the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanon, Baghdad gave it to them by organising the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom by the Abu Nidal group, a PLO rival, on June 3, 1982.

Israel launched an enormous invasion a mere three days later, using that incident as its casus beli and shortly thereafter clashed with Syria there. Israel shot down nearly 100 of Syria's air force jets over Lebanon's Beqaa Valley.

In May 1984, Saddam said in an interview that Assad had acted "in a hostile way" towards Iraq, but nonetheless affirmed, "that does not make Syria an enemy as such".

"If the ruler of Syria changed his position towards us, then Iraq would have good relations with Syria," he claimed.


Many other Arab states welcomed a rapprochement. Assad and Hussein met for two days in April 1987 in the town of Al Jafr in the south of Jordan as a result of mediation between King Hussein of Jordan and then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Their meeting was cordial, with both leaders, among other things, agreeing to stop supporting covert efforts against each other's regimes and verbally attacking each other in their respective state-owned media mouthpieces.

Saddam could not, however, compel Assad to end his alliance with Iran. It was not such a simple thing for Damascus to do. Assad argued that his country could no longer exert any influence over Tehran if it abandoned its alliance, which would have proven counterproductive.

Syria worried that if it ended up antagonising Iran it could face problems with Tehran's Shia proxies, primarily Hizballah, in neighbouring Lebanon. Furthermore, Iran was supplying Syria's economy with badly needed discounted oil.

Even with all this being the case, Assad also opposed any collapse of Iraq brought on by an Iranian victory in the war, fearing it could unleash sectarian violence that could eventually spillover into Syria. He even implied that were Iran to advance too deep into Iraq "it might push Syria back into the Arab fold".

The April 1987 meeting did lead to a brief thaw. During the following summer, a Syrian MiG-21 fighter jet accidentally strayed into Iraqi airspace and was promptly shot down. Syria lamented the incident saying it was "unjustified", but it did not lead to any increase in tensions. As analysts noted at the time, had it happened before the April meeting in Jordan it could have had a dramatically different outcome.

At the end of 1987, further signs of a thaw were marked by trade talks between the two, with Syrian nationals visiting Baghdad for the first time since they were banned a few years earlier.

That thaw ultimately proved short-lived. By 1989 the two sides would once again be at each other's throats. After the Iran-Iraq War ended in August 1988 as a result of a UN Security Council ceasefire, Iraq focused its attentions on opposing Syria's continued troop presence in Lebanon.

Saddam could not, however, compel Assad to end his alliance with Iran. It was not such a simple thing for Damascus to do

Baghdad sought to isolate Damascus at the 1989 Arab League Summit by calling for its withdrawal from Syria in favour of a combined Arab peace force.

"Each of you knows that you want the Syrians out of Lebanon, but you dare not say it here - and if this is not true, then tell me I am a liar," Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said at the summit. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa reportedly retorted: "You're a liar."

Verbal exchanges weren't the only sign that fundamental disagreements continued to exist between Baghdad and Damascus. Iraq also armed the Lebanese Christian militia leader Michel Aoun to put more pressure on the Syrian Army in Lebanon. In the summer of 1989, clashes between Aoun and the Syrians "reached levels that shocked the most war-hardened Lebanese".

With the Iran-Iraq war over, Saddam had more resources freed up to focus on trying to fight this proxy war with Syria in Lebanon. This proved short-lived, since the Iraqi dictator would soon thereafter make the critical blunder of invading Kuwait, bringing the wrath of the United States upon him.

Iraq's annexation of Kuwait in August 1990 essentially was the death knell of the pan-Arabism ideology which Baathism sought to promulgate. Also, by choosing to confront the US, Saddam led Iraq into a war that saw a large part of its military pulverised and its ability to threaten its neighbours hugely reduced.

While Hussein's arch-enemy, Iran, remained neutral in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, Syria did not. Instead, it joined the US-led coalition and sent troops to assist in its efforts to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

Throughout the rest of the 1990s, another significant thaw in Iraqi-Syrian relations would gradually come into being. As early as March 1992, little over a year after the Gulf War ended, there was some talk of conducting limited trade between the two states, something Iraq direly needed since it was suffering under a crippling United Nations economic embargo.

In June 1997, the two began opening border crossings for trade for the first time since 1982. Tariq Aziz even visited Damascus in November 1997 and appealed for Syrian help in getting the crippling embargo on Iraq lifted.

As the century came to an end, bilateral relations gradually improved. Syria even helped Iraq circumvent the embargo by illegally importing crude oil at discounted prices for its own domestic use.

In October 2000, in a goodwill gesture, Syria sent its first plane to Iraq in almost 20 years. It brought doctors, nurses, officials and 10 tons of humanitarian and medical aid. "We are Arabs… and we are here to show our support to our brothers in Iraq," said Mohammed Mufdhi Sevo, the leader of that delegation.

Hafez al-Assad died at the age of 69 in June 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar, who has ruled Syria ever since.

Iraqi-Syrian ties thawed so substantially that on March 2001 the US even expressed worries that Syria could undermine its efforts to isolate Saddam's regime and keep him weak militarily. Analysts correctly noted that neither country was capable of posing any significant threat to Israel or any other regional US ally.

Less than a year after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, and the beginning of the subsequent American war in Afghanistan, President George W Bush lumped Syria together with Iraq in his controversial "Axis of Evil" speech - although Syria was designated as a secondary member of the axis while Iraq took centre stage alongside Iran and North Korea.

Bashar al-Assad opposed the ensuing Iraq War. His regime felt threatened, given a lot of rhetoric coming from Washington that indicated that the same fate could soon have befallen his regime.

Upon the onset of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, several jihadists in Syria crossed the border into Iraq to fight the Americans. By many accounts, the Syrian regime facilitated this, releasing many known jihadists from jails and sending them over the border. One likely motive was to help keep the Americans embroiled in the neighbouring country, reducing the likelihood that Washington would expand its anti-regime efforts into Syria itself.

One major bone of contention the US had with Syria during the Iraq War was its inability - or worse, unwillingness - to secure its border and prevent jihadists from crossing with impunity. Damascus, for its part, often pointed to the fact that it sheltered hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, something which took precedence over designating vast resources in order to secure a lengthy porous border from being used by about 150-or-so jihadists per month.

In a major breakthrough in November 2006, described at the time as "historic", then Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari met with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem to normalise relations between the two neighbours, which they successfully did. In the following month the two countries reached an agreement to cooperate on security as well as to conduct more trade.

Five years later, the US reduced the number of troops it had in Iraq from a peak of 180,000 in the 2007 surge period and in December 2011 officially withdrew every last remaining regular soldier from the country. By this point, Syria had descended into chaos as a result of Assad's brutal response to the uprising against him which began in March 2011, sparked by the region-wide Arab Spring.

Bashar al-Assad opposed the ensuing Iraq War. His regime felt threatened, given a lot of rhetoric coming from Washington that indicated that the same fate could soon have befallen his regime

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki voiced no support for the uprising. Around the same time, Maliki was forcibly suppressing demonstrations against his governance by Iraq's restive Sunni minority. He therefore did not have any desire for Syria's Sunni majority to prevail against the regime, the leadership of which comes from the country's Alawite minority.

Several Iraqi Shia militiamen crossed the border to fight on behalf of the regime. Iraq was also one of the few countries not to close or even relocate its embassy in Damascus, nor did it join other Arab nations in removing Syria from the Arab League.

The Islamic State group used the large parts of Syria it managed to seize in 2013 as a springboard to invade one-third of Iraq, infamously capturing the country's second city, Mosul, in June 2014 and declaring its self-styled caliphate. The group also symbolically dismantled the border between the two countries.

Iraq, primarily with the help of the United States-led multinational coalition, managed to wrest control of Mosul back from IS by July 2017. The Iraqi Air Force has also bombed IS targets in Syria, claiming each time it did so in full coordination with Damascus.

Today, shortly after Assad made his recent comments about improving bilateral relations, Iraq is once again devoting resources to secure its border amid an uptick of IS attacks from Syria. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which currently controls large swathes of the Syrian border, has recently suffered heavy casualties and major setbacks in their efforts to rout well-entrenched IS forces from their remaining border redoubts.

Iraq deployed troops to the Syrian border early this month to interdict any IS incursions into the country.

Despite all this, Damascus is downplaying the seriousness of the security situation along the border. In October it spoke of "speeding up" the reopening of its border crossings with Iraq.

For its part, Baghdad has reiterated its opposition to Syria being isolated and even says it will advocate for readmitting Syria into the Arab League.

All of this indicates that relations between Iraq and the Syrian regime remain cordial, and may grow closer in the near future. However, if history is to serve as any indicator, relations between the two have long proven anything but predictable.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon