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Iraq's future will profoundly affect the strategic balance in the Middle East. The battle to dominate and define Iraq is, by extension, the battle to dominate the balance of power in the Levant over the long run. Syria understands this and has made the Iraq file its highest priority since the Gulf War. Belatedly, Jordan has realized the strategic significance of the circumstance and forwarded its Hashemite option for Iraq.
Until now, Syria and Iran have worked together without success to assume the lead role in defining a post-Saddam Iraq. Jordan's Hashemite option for Iraq is another blow to Syria's ambitions and will surely trigger a fierce Syrian-Jordanian competition. Still, Turkey’s recent shift under the Islamist leader Erbakan and that country’s continuing inability to come to terms with its Kurdish problem, as well as Iran’s increasing position as the power broker in northern Iraq, Asad’s close ties to Crown Prince Abdallah, and overall Western and Israeli inattentiveness due to their quest for "comprehensive peace," offer Asad some hope. The United States, Israel, and Turkey should pay particular attention to this circumstance in formulating an approach to the Levant.
The Stakes for the Region and the United States
Syria’s and Iraq’s regimes are based on Baathism, a variant of Nasser’s brand of secular-Arab nationalism. Baathism has failed. Since it is pan-Arab, it holds that all Arabs should unite into one Arab state. This quest undermined the legitimacy and retarded the development of both Iraq and Syria as nation-states. Underneath facades of unity enforced by state repression, their politics are still defined primarily by tribalism, sectarianism, and gang/clan-like competition. It is unlikely that any institutions created by tyrannical secular-Arab nationalist leaders, particularly the army, will escape being torn apart. The leaders of both Syria and Iraq seek to overcome the consequences of this internal failure by engaging in relentless external efforts to control the region.
Iraq tried to take over its neighbor, Kuwait — a catastrophic mistake that has accelerated Iraq’s descent into internal chaos. This chaos has created a vacuum in an area geostrategically central, and rich with human and natural resources. The vacuum tempts Iraq’s neighbors to intervene, especially Syria, which is also driven to control the region. Syria has indeed sought to shift the region’s balance of power by dominating a post-Saddam Iraq and tapping its resources.
Iraq’s chaos and Syria’s efforts simultaneously and provide opportunities for the Jordanian monarchy. Jordan is best suited to manage the tribal politics that will define the Levant in the wake of failed secular-Arab nationalism. The Hashemites alone are adept enough in forging strong tribal, familial and clan alliances to create viable nations in the Levant.
Jordan’s potential endangers Syria. In response, Syria has tried to cobble together a broad coalition, to include Saudi Arabia, to oppose, embarrass, isolate and eventually defeat Jordan. However, Saudi support for Syria, which is crucial for Damascus, is ambivalent. This has led Syria to take an active interest in Saudi succession. Jordan, in turn, tried to forge a Turkish-Israeli-American coalition to buttress its efforts. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of northern Iraq early on August 31, 1996, is the latest manifestation of this strategic competition among the states of the northeast Middle East, or Levant. It marks his reentry as a long-term player in this competition.
The issue is not whether Syria in its Baathist form will survive or prevail in the long run. Like communism, Baathism’s days are numbered. The issue here is whether the West and Israel can construct a strategy for limiting and expediting the chaotic collapse that will ensue in order to move on to the task of creating a better circumstance. The problem is as follows:
If Syria prevails in the short run, then Jordan would be isolated and King Hussein’s regime besieged. Tribal alliances extending across the Levant would submit to Syrian diktat. Jordan, along with the rest of the Levant, would first come under Syria’s sway, and then later be swept up by Syria’s eventual crumbling. Most of the Levant then will crumble into neo-feudalism.
If, on the other hand, Jordan wins, then Syria would be isolated and surrounded by a new pro-western Jordanian-Israeli-Iraqi-Turkish bloc, the first of which can help contain and manage (through its more solid and traditional regime) the scope of the coming chaos in Iraq and most probably in Syria. In the long-run, a Hashemite victory could usher in an era defined by a stable balance of power system rooted to tribal alliances. These alliances, in turn, can form solid bases for the development of states.
Iraq’s future will also determine how the Arab "Cold War" will end. The struggle for Iraq represents a return to the questions of 1958. The divide between traditional, pro-Western monarchies under the Hashemites and perhaps some of the al-Saud family on the one side, and the pro-Soviet secular-Arab nationalists one the other, has reappeared. Only now it is the latter that is in crumbling descent and missing its Soviet patron.
As this competition builds, the United States remains preoccupied with the quest for "comprehensive peace" without reference to regional strategic rivalries and the crumbling nature of the states engaged in them. It is in the West’s interests to make a clean break from this policy. It would be prudent for the United States and Israel to abandon the quest for "comprehensive peace" — including its "land for peace" provision, with Syria — since it locks the United States into futile attempts to prop-up local tyrants and the unnatural states underneath them. Instead, the United States and Israel can use this competition over Iraq to improve the regional balance of power in favor of regional friends like Jordan. Doing so would help expedite the demise of Baathism in Syria and present King Hussein with the opportunity to forge tribal/clan/familial alliances across the Middle East that could become a more stable and solid basis for future Arab nations than the tyranny of the Baathist type. This begins with ensuring that Syria does not prevail in the struggle to define Iraq.
The West should not abandon its victory. It should not position itself to become the protector of Baathism, which is no more than a Cold War enemy relic on probation. The Arab-Israeli peace process is, in effect, doing just this.
The Strategic Consequences of Failed Secular-Arab Nationalism
Strategic planners must consider the political character of nations. American planners anchored their strategy during the Cold War to an appreciation of the nature of communism. America’s strategy toward the Middle East must include a similar appreciation of secular-Arab nationalism, particularly Baathism.
Since the late-1950s, secular-Arab nationalism has been the prevailing political trend in the Levant. Two governments in particular were defined around variants of this school of politics — the Iraqi regime that ousted the Hashemites in 1958, and the Syrian regime that came to power in the early 1960s. Both regimes eventually fell to followers of an extreme form of secular-Arab nationalism, namely Baathism (Syria in 1963; Iraq in 1968).
Baathism seeks to combine Leninist socialism, a concept of "Arab awakening," and even racial nationalism. It is flawed, dangerous, and terminally ill. Some scholars argue that despite their failure, Syria and Iraq can remain united under strong statist institutions, such as a ruling military junta, rather than be ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects, and key families. Some, perhaps most, argue that the leadership in the military has become a case of "riding the tiger." Namely, at the moment of transition, the leadership, even of the military, understands it either hangs together or hangs separately. Thus, the unified army could be expected to assume power and hold at least most of the center of country together.
Some scholars argue that Iraq and Syria can remain united because of Baathism. They would argue that statist efforts have mobilized so broad a spectrum within the state that it forges a national identity. Mobilization gives a large portion of the population a vested interest in the success of the state-building enterprise for which so many have sacrificed. This vested interest develops into a sense of nation.
It is impossible to build solid nations through tyranny. The Soviet Union's collapse into pieces should have alerted the West that the post-Cold War world will be beset not by strong, threatening nations, but by chaos emerging from former tyranny. As a series of articles which appeared in the Arab and Western press after the Cold War indicated, this is also true of the Arab world as well. In 1992, Robert Kaplan wrote, "There is No Middle East." He argued that the artificial post-colonial state structure was yielding to irrepressible, older loyalties. Kaplan noted specifically how vulnerable was the facade of stability erected by secular-Arab nationalist authoritarian rulers and how the Middle East nation-state system could crumble with the violent resumption of history.
While many Arab writers, mostly from the Gulf region, took great umbrage at Kaplan's analysis, some, mostly from the Levant, agreed. Rami Khouri of the Jordan Times conceded over the following months that a combination of supra-national and sub-national forms of identity will define the Middle East in the future. Moreover, Khouri noted that the debate over the crumbling of national identity is vital to understanding the weakness of democracy and pluralism in the Arab world. When the civil war in Yemen erupted in 1994, a number of other Arab writers, notably also from the Levant, joined Khouri in his analysis. Foreign journalists also began to notice how authority, on the grass-roots level, had developed into forms of syndicalism. Even The New York Times Magazine’s Michael Kelly described the Palestinian Authority in Gaza as racked by anti-authority sentiments and disintegrating into feudal warlord-like fiefdoms in refugee camps. And as recently as September 1995, journalists noted that the only real authority capable of functioning on the local level in the Palestinian areas was the old clan and leading-families structures. Others noted the resurgence of ethnicity among minorities in the region. These writers were all impressed by an emerging phenomenon — the crumbling of Arab secular-nationalist nations.
Baathism is perhaps the most extreme and tyrannical form of secular-Arab nationalism. As such, it mostly reflects its failure. For thirty years Syria and Iraq engaged in massive statist repression to erase all loyalties other than to the regime. Instead, their regimes and institutions have prevented the building of nations. The failures of Baathism in the Levant chillingly resemble those of communism in eastern Europe. Both communism and Baathism faltered on the problem of nationality. Just as communism sought to unite all peoples under one ideology, Baathism sought to unite all Arabs under one state. Unity is paramount, and nationalism threatened that unity. Baathism blocked, rather than encouraged, the inhabitants of Iraq and Syria from forging distinct communities. The effort to pursue pan-Arab integration, which failed in every other respect, did achieve its most dangerous purpose: to undermine the legitimacy of nationalism which could be expected to emerge from the voluntary association of factions. Pan-Arabism could not be reconciled with nationalism or factionalism. Nor could statist repression break factionalism down as easily as it could erase nationalism. Baathism instead drove these states into relentless foreign adventures. In the end, Baathism attained neither, leaving the Arab nations to fluctuate between repression and anarchy.
Baathism’s failure is most evident in Iraq. The residual unity of the nation is an illusion projected by extreme repression of the state. While there is a sense of common destiny among many Iraqis in ousting Saddam, the mechanism for doing so most reliably remains working through clan, family, and tribal connections. Indeed, only the most primordial, almost instinctual ties, manage to survive the watchful eye and heavy hand of Saddam. Those ties are resurfacing in the politics even of Saddam’s innermost circle. As one long-time observer of Iraq noted:
The venerated Iraqi academic, Abbas Kelidar, explains the reason for this disintegration:
Military service has been regarded as an imperative process of nation-building in new states....But the primordial ties of kinship — tribal, religious, ethnic, and family bonds — have remained paramount. Often they take precedence over national identity and interest. Group interaction within the armed forces, as in the state at large, has assumed a compartmentalized form, particularly when it comes to power-sharing....Instead, a military-civilian symbiosis has developed between highly-politicized officers and ideological groups of the intelligentsia, whose purpose and function are to dominate the political process. Under their domination, political authority assumes a tribal nature. It becomes segmented and totally dependent on the primordial cohesion of the group and its loyalty to a strong and pervasive leadership. Without group solidarity — familial, tribal, sectarian, and communal — the ruling establishment is reduced to warring factions. Under these conditions, the state is unable to ensure domestic political stability or prevent external interference and sedition. Its survival becomes a matter of speculation for its own people as well as its ambitiously irredentist neighbors.
In the Arab East...the threat of disintegration is inherent to the system itself.
Syria faces the same failure as Iraq. It, perhaps more than any other country in the Arab world, represents the regional danger of Baathism. As one Syrian Baathist noted with candor:
Tribal, ethnic, sectarian, and warlord-like centripetal forces — many of which are shared with the Iraqis — lie seething under the veneer of unity and stability carefully displayed by Damascus’s Baathist regime.
Factionalism is not itself the problem bedeviling the Arab world. Factionalism need not doom efforts to forge nations. Under natural circumstances, these forces could be harnessed through voluntary associations, alliances, and unions as the seeds of real nations. Such was the case in the early 1920s, as the Hashemite King Faisal I of Iraq forged his nation by negotiating tribal alliances and union. Iraq was founded upon, rather than opposed to, these primordial ties which so define Arab society.
A natural state represents elements that can develop into a nation. These factional elements, in their turn civilize and restrain the power of the state. The problem of the nation-state, especially in the Arab world, is that government can quickly become intrusive, a distended clan, or anarchic. The state becomes an instrument of clan domination. Even under the best of circumstances, Arab nations will suffer enduring clan and tribal problems. While the state may need to employ some measure of force to protect the union of the nation from collapse, an intrusive statist presence designed to erase the tribal or clan identity or transform society leads inescapably to wild swings between repression and anarchy.
Factionalism in Iraq and Syria is likely in the short run to erupt into violence and anarchy during either succession or a major regional competition. The Baathist state, rather than serve as the limited, agreed-upon agent of factional alliances, instead became the instrument for unnatural, and eventually futile, repression of factions, intrusion into all facets of society to affect radical change, and exploitation of the entire state apparatus by the ruling faction over all others. Factional allegiance has become synonymous with the fight against Baathist tyranny. Here, then, is an example of a Baathist nation swinging wildly between repression and the anarchy that brings down the tyranny.
Collapse in either Syria or Iraq will affect the other profoundly. On the ideological level, a failure of Baathism in one indicts the regime of the other. But more importantly, the cross-border tribal and clan alliances make it likely that events in Iraq would spread uncontrollably into Syria itself. Syria’s regime is well aware of this weakness. The link between the internal and external is described as follows by a French diplomat:
In this context, both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes seek to avoid internal collapse by insulating themselves from and seeking to control external tribal politics and rival ideas. In short, they are driven to parallel their quest for internal homogeneity with external unity (pan-Arabism), which drives them to match their internal repression with external aggression against neighbors and more distant coalitions. This quest for regional control has hastened the destruction of Iraq already and drives Syria into dangerous policies as well.
Syria compensates for its weaknesses by being unswayable, relentless, cunning, bold and disciplined in its pursuit of regional control. Syria’s opponents, in contrast, have been none of these. They have, therefore, allowed Asad, despite his and his country’s weaknesses, to achieve much.
The very effort to prop Baathism up threatens the region by keeping its nations artificial and fragile. The inhabitants of Syria and Iraq will persevere in defining themselves though their families, tribes, and clans. U.S. and Israeli strategic policy in the Levant must be informed by an appreciation of the crumbling nature of Baathism and the perseverance of tribes and clans. Such a policy includes harnessing voluntary alliances (which serve as barriers to state repression) to forge eventual tribal, familial, and clan unions under limited governments. Such unions and limited governments, in turn, are the hope for the Arab world, since they alone can develop into real nations.
Syria Identifies the Emerging Power Vacuum in Iraq
The Levant now resembles Europe of 1914: crumbling states, like Syria, locked in bitter rivalries over a collapsing entity (Iraq). The prize itself is more powerful than any of the neighbors that covet it. Iraq, a nation of 18 million, occupies some of the most strategically important and well-endowed territories of the Middle East. Given the cross-border alliances of tribes and the fragility of the secular-Arab nationalist states in the Levant, strategic competition over Iraq may well lead to the collapse of some of the engaged regimes. Thus, whoever inherits Iraq dominates the entire Levant strategically.
Syria was the quickest of its neighbors to realize the dangers and possibilities of the circumstances in Iraq. After the Gulf War, Syria focused on shaping the overall regional balance by playing the dominant role in a post-Saddam Iraq. Syria chose not to work through the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the main Iraqi opposition umbrella movement to Saddam Hussein. Syria has never had close relations with the INC. In October 1992, when a major INC conference convened in Salaheddin in northern Iraq, not only did Damascus and Tehran-based groups refuse to attend, but the meeting was pilloried. Damascus’s refusal was based on a policy of "reflecting the ‘regional forces’ displeasure with the American tendency to take hold of the opposition card." When the INC convened another large conference in 1993 in Vienna, Austria, Syria barred Damascene-based representatives of some INC member organizations from attending. Syria opposed the INC because it never came under Syria's control and, in the words of Syrian Vice President Khaddam, the INC includes components that serve as "Western agents." Syria opposed the INC, in fact, because it potentially threatened rather than assisted Syria's regional ambitions.
As a result, Syria has attempted ever since the Gulf War to topple Saddam under the banner of an alternative, Damascene/Tehran-based opposition. Such attempts date back as far as late December 1991. At that time, Syria’s President Asad met with Iran’s powerful agent in southern Iraq, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim of the Shiite Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), who came to Damascus at Asad’s invitation, to coordinate a coup attempt against Saddam. According to the Syrian press, Asad was briefed on December 23 on SAIRI’s plan to launch the coup. Simultaneously, Baqr al-Hakim invited Iraqi opposition leaders to come together in Damascus to chart a plan to oust the Iraqi leader and install a new regime. While other opposition leaders did come, al-Hakim failed to secure their support. In the first days of January 1992, leaflets were distributed to the Iraqi population, asking it to support an impending coup and imploring Iraqi Baathist officials to defect now to avoid death. Soon thereafter reports began to emerge that there were mass arrests by the regime, focused mostly in the areas of Mosul, Salaheddin and the central area of the Anbar province. Mass raids, sweeps, and searches even in Baghdad itself were also reported. As the Syrian regime’s news services began to predict an imminent coup, the official Iraqi press began to warn at the same time against what it claimed were "the Syrian regime’s agents" preparing such a coup. The effort was ill-fated. Syria acknowledged candidly — within a week of Iraq's accusatory warnings against Syria’s involvement — its prior knowledge of an attempt. The coup failed, according to Syria’s radio network, Syrian Arab News Agency, because one of the officers, Mufleh al-Rawi, betrayed the plotters to Saddam.
This first attempt at seizing the initiative, and therein casting Syria as the mentor of the effective Iraqi opposition, failed. Despite all the detailed reporting, it is unclear that such a coup was ever planned. It is certainly strange that Syria, normally cagey and guarded, would so publicly inform all who would listen, which includes Saddam’s security forces, about an impending coup. The only certainty was that the SAIRI head, al-Hakim, did come to Damascus to brief Asad and give the impression of dynamic opposition activity, and that Syria sought to rope the Saudis into their plans.
Syria’s problem was deeper than just al-Rawi’s supposed betrayal, if such betrayal even occurred. Syria, if it is limited to cooperating only with its own and Iran’s agents among the Iraqi opposition, simply lacks the assets or inroads into Iraq to get done what it hinted it would like to do. Syria could not forge an opposition that penetrated the Sunni political and demographic core in the geographic center of Iraq, the power base upon which Saddam's regime rests. Eroding support for Saddam in this Sunni center was vital to any attempt to topple him. Syria had thus to involve an external force that had some currency with the Sunni core to overcome these liabilities. Asad realized that he would have to enlist the Sunni Saudis to give the Sunni stamp of approval to his Shiite/’Alawite (SAIRI/Syrian) initiative.
But the failed 1991 coup did not lead Asad to understand that he needed Saudi help; the reverse may be true. The need to impress the Saudis may have led him to launch a failed, or perhaps even faux, coup. It is worth noting that at the same time as the supposed coup, Syria reached out publicly to enlist Saudi Arabia in its efforts, hoping that Saudi support would lend a Sunni imprimatur. On December 23, 1991, the same day as Syria’s press hinted at an impending coup, it also indicated that Damascus had already broached the subject of holding a Saudi-Syrian sponsored conference on the issue of Iraq, and that Riyadh was interested. Indeed, the Syrians were even reporting that the Saudis wanted to use the conference to set up an Iraqi government in exile.
The publicity surrounding the coup, coinciding as it did with a public campaign to enlist Saudi Arabia to host a conference which would enshrine Syria’s "protective" but struggling lead role in Iraq, suggests that the coup served less to overthrow Saddam, than to illustrate Syria’s vanguard role in the north Levant to the Saudis. It was meant to create the impression that the only plausible attempts to rid Iraq of Saddam are hatched, via SAIRI, from Damascus. Whether the coup worked, or even existed (there was a car-bomb in downtown Baghdad on December 30, 1991 but no other violence), was immaterial. What was important was to make sure the Saudis took note of who is the vanguard trying to get rid of Saddam.
Three months later a summit under Saudi auspices convened. The coup, "fool’s coup," or "Potemkin coup" worked. The point had been made that the key players are Asad and SAIRI alone. Syria convinced Saudi Arabia to host a conference for Iraq, modeled on the Taef accords (the 1989 Taef accords choreographed pan-Arab, especially Saudi, support for a plan which granted Syria the lead role in defining a future Lebanon). As one Arab journalist, citing Syrian sources, described it in March 1992:
The actual Saudi conference in early March 1992 featured Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, according him a warm reception. Not only did al-Hakim meet with King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdallah, and Prince Sultan as a group; he also met alone with King Fahd. Indeed, on parting, King Fahd remarked, "I look forward to the day when al-Hakim would receive him in Baghdad." Al-Hakim met also with Sheikh Mohammed bin-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s justice minister who is the leading exponent of the thinking of the Kingdom’s official Sunni, Wahhabi sect. The al-Hakim/Sheikh bin Jubeir meeting was perhaps the most significant. Saudi Arabia's involvement in staging this conference, especially its willingness to cooperate with al-Hakim and begin a Sunni-Shiite dialogue to reconcile the two with respect to Iraq, was symbolically very important. One of the problems Syria and Iran encountered in their efforts in Iraq was that the Sunni demographic core of Iraq, located in the center of the country, remained fearful of the consequences of Saddam’s fall from power. As long as Iran and Baqr al-Hakim seemed to dominate Syrian efforts, the horrifying prospect of mass retaliation by a new Shiite-run regime against the Sunni loomed and gave any Iraqi Sunni opponent of Saddam pause. As one Iraqi dissident put it:
This is why bringing in the Saudis was so important for Syria. Most of all, the Wahhabi clerical leadership, would give a stamp of approval to Hakim and Syria’s and Iran’s efforts. It was a signal to Iraqi Sunnis that the Sunni/Shia gap can be bridged and that no Shiite revenge would attend Saddam's demise.
And yet, in spite of all this, Syrian persistence did not pay off, even with the involvement of the Saudis. Syria simply failed to muster the assets it needed in the Sunni core of Iraq. Other Iraqi opposition figures continued to ignore al-Hakim. Syria thereafter engaged in nearly annual efforts to form new "front" blocs and coalitions — such as the one which was launched with great fanfare in February 1993 in Damascus, around Abdelamir al-Rakabi, that was opposed to the INC and Western intervention in Iraq. These efforts were all stillborn.
Jordan’s Strategic Shift
In fall 1994, Syria began to encounter a more serious problem: Jordan’s strategic shift. Since Asad’s primary goal was to prevent the solidification of a pro-Western bloc that could serve as an alternative to his regional domination, Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel and its attending warmth challenged Asad’s plans profoundly.
Toppling Saddam around a Damascene-based movement would have made Syria the preeminent regional power and thrown the Jordanian-Israeli cooperative relationship into disarray. However, it was beyond Asad’s reach in the immediate future to accomplish this. Asad had to try another approach to sabotage Jordan’s strategic shift. This came in the form of a diplomatic campaign to isolate and weaken King Hussein among Arabs in order to make the nascent Israeli-Jordanian-American strategic cooperation — which had the potential in Asad’s view of becoming a powerful and dangerous regional bloc opposed to Syria and Iran — a dead letter. To do this, apart from accusing King Hussein of heresy (punishable by death), he took a new, conciliatory tack with Iraq. In January 1995, Asad decided he would tap Baghdad’s power for the purpose of tactical alliance. Accordingly, he called for a summit involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq to convene in Damascus as part of the follow-on to the 1994 Alexandria summit (of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) to coordinate a more resolute stand against Israel. He also called for the resurrection of the Non-Aligned Movement which so plagued and undermined the United States in the 1970s.
But again Asad was stymied. No Syrian-oriented follow-on summit took place; no anti-Western bloc emerged either regionally or globally. Instead, the Cairo Summit a few weeks later, which involved Israel and Jordan but not Syria (by its own choice), dashed those hopes and left Syria isolated. February 1995 found Asad with little more than rhetoric. He accused Amman publicly of upsetting the balance in the Middle East in Israel's favor. This Cairo summit, and the attending warmth of the Israeli-Jordanian relationship that was developing, signaled most clearly the strategic shift in Jordan that would eventually become a major obstacle for Syria’s regional pursuits. Syria after 1995 faced a powerful counter-bloc to its intentions.
Syria’s Efforts Following the Ramadi Unrest in Iraq
Having failed to muster either a local or international anti-Western bloc, and observing growing Jordanian-Israeli cooperation, Asad’s efforts seemed doomed. He had tried almost everything, but to no avail. But events in 1995 quickly presented him with new opportunities which he, in contrast to his pro-Western neighbors, was quick to appreciate and seize.
In spring 1995, infighting erupted among INC factions, especially among its two main Kurdish factions, the KDP and PUK. This fighting preoccupied and weakened that organization. About the same time, serious anti-Saddam unrest exploded in the city of Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni al-Anbar province in the center of Iraq and less than 100 miles from Baghdad. Asad seized the moment of INC inattentiveness and Saddam’s weakness to launch Syria’s most ambitious effort to forge a Damascus-based opposition to Saddam.
The unrest in Ramadi in May and the infighting which plagued the INC helped position Syria to play an active role in Iraqi politics and completely challenge Jordan’s strategic shift. Jordan could hardly exploit such a revolt in its strategic competition with Syria since it was still so tied to the Iraqi military elite. It was seen as largely supportive of Saddam and the status quo in Iraq. The Ramadi unrest led many to believe revolution in Iraq was imminent. Jordan, which would be profoundly affected by such a revolution, could do little more than observe events nervously but passively. Syria, on the other hand, had no such obstacles and was well-positioned to exploit dramatic change. By effectively exploiting the events in Ramadi, Syria could strategically isolate Jordan at the very moment Amman went out on a limb making a warm peace with Israel. Syria moved, therefore, with great speed to exploit Iraqi developments.
The unrest in Ramadi involved the Sunni, one- to two-million strong Dulaym tribe. The Dulaymis are among the largest and most strategically and politically central Sunni tribes. Until that time, they were also considered among the most loyal to Saddam. In the late 1960s, the Dulaymis played a major role in bringing Iraq’s Baathists to power, and in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991, they were among the key tribes that kept the Baathists in power by playing a central role in crushing the Shia revolt in southern Iraq. So identified with the regime were they that the governate in which they reside, al-Anbar province, was referred to as the "White Governate" in reference to their loyalty to the Baathists.
The Dulaym tribesmen are also aligned and friendly with many other Sunni tribes considered loyal to Saddam, such as the al-Rifai. Most importantly, their territorial domain stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad to the Syrian border — implying that the politics of the Dulaym tribe also have an internal aspect for Syria. This was risky for Asad. Were he to align himself with the Dulaym, then he had a "in" in the Sunni core of Iraq. However, if his efforts failed or even backfired, then he stirred up his own tribal problems in Syria. And if he did nothing, then the unrest could eventually slide across the border to simmer and erupt in Syria. So, the unrest presented Syria with an opportunity — generated by the failure of Baathism in Iraq — but also a danger for Damascus — generated by the same failure of Baathism in Syria.
The eroding support for Saddam reflected by the unrest in Ramadi and Abu Ghraib did not necessarily threaten Saddam’s first tier of defense — "Saddam's Fedayeen" units (highly paid mercenaries commanded by one of Saddam's sons, Uday). But it indicated that he was losing control of his second tier of defense: the Special Republican Guard which is staffed largely by Sunni personnel from several key tribes, especially the Dulaymis. Indeed, as Cairo MENA reported in the wake of the Ramadi uprising, "the events at al-Ramadi have led to complete mistrust between the Republican Guards [unclear whether this means the Special Republican Guard or just the Republican Guard], which in the past was the main force upon which the Iraqi president depended and which was completely loyal to him, and Saddam’s Fedayeen units." To topple Saddam, the opposition needed support from at least some Sunni tribes constituting this second tier of defense.
The nature and location of this unrest threw Syria into the center of a new Iraqi opposition movement crystallizing around the Dulaym tribe. The options presented Syria by a large-scale popular defection of the Dulaym tribe were far-reaching: Were the Dulaym to oppose the regime actively and work with Syria, then Syria would become the mentor of a Sunni opposition with a sympathetic local population from its border to Baghdad. Here was an opportunity for Damascus to overcome the obstacle to all its previous attempts: the lack of core Sunni support in Iraq. Syria understood this. It is in the context of the Dulaymi uprising and the crumbling solidity of the Special Republican Guard that al-Hakim's statements on July 26, 1995 aggressively egging Syria on should be understood. It is noteworthy that a day later, it became clear al-Hakim had been in Damascus when he said these things immediately after meeting Syrian Vice President Khaddam.
Syria and its newly found Sunni allies fleeing the crushing hand of Saddam in Ramadi moved quickly. On June 8, 1995 the first reports emerged from Damascus that "the Armed al-Dulaym Tribes Sons Movement" had been formed as was distributing leaflets in Baghdad. Next, Western news agencies began reporting a flow a weapons from Dulaym tribe members in Syria to their brethren in Iraq. By mid-June, the Dulaym revolt seemed to be in full swing. The leadership of the Dulaym clan in Iraq slipped a message out, through Amman, to the West with a stern warning that they had now embarked on a general uprising against the regime in Baghdad.
Syria was now the center of activity for Iraqi opposition politics. The location of the primary actors and the sources of information both suggested the centrality of Damascus to sustaining this revolt. During the mid-June events in Abu Ghraib, the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Republic of Iraq's (SAIRI) spokesman in Damascus, Bayan Jabr, relayed timely information from the Dulaym tribe. By June 13, Ahmad Dulaymi, allegedly the brother of Generals Mazlum al-Dulaymi (whose execution sparked the Ramadi unrest), and Turki al-Dulaymi (who led the mutiny at Abu Ghraib) fled Ramadi for Damascus. Other Sunni tribal leaders joined Ahmad Dulaymi. On June 19, Reuters reported that the Dulaym were negotiating with the leaders of the Nimr and Shammar tribes, which are other Dulaymi sub-clans inhabiting the area bordering Syria north of al-Anbar. Together, these refugees formed the Iraqi "tribes movement" or the al-Majlis al Ri’asi al-’a’la li Ittihad al-’asha’ir al-’Iraqiyyah (The Supreme Leadership Council of the Union of Iraqi Tribes). On June 19 this Council announced that it would meet to coordinate a practical "united military action plan." It called "on the chiefs of the Iraqi tribes in exile to form a delegation to contact all opposition forces." Thus, in early summer 1995, Syria almost effortlessly acquired that which it had hitherto lacked: a Damascene-based Sunni Iraqi opposition movement with tentacles reaching to the heart of Iraq and Saddam’s regime. Syria had penetrated Iraq's Sunni center.
As result, in late June 1995 Syria moved quickly to use its good fortune and set up a series of meetings to forge a new front to replace the INC. This new front united the Sunni "tribes movement" and the Iran-based Shiite opposition in southern Iraq. This coordination is significant considering the Sunni fear that Shiites and Kurds will take revenge on them after Saddam's fall (the same reason why Saudi/Wahhabi support was considered essential by Syria in 1992 in order to give an imprimatur to the otherwise Shia-Alawite axis which the Syrian-Iranian relationship represented). The Dulaym tribe played a key role in Saddam's campaign earlier to crush the Shia opposition in the south. Now it formed the core of the "tribes movement" which Syria was trying to coordinate with al-Hakim’s Shia-based efforts. Table One illustrates the fast pace of intriguing diplomatic activity between Damascus and Tehran which signaled the launching of Syria’s initiative in late June. By mid-July, all the main pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Iraqi opposition actors were present in Damascus. Table Two illustrates the events as they unfolded.
The series of meetings and events revealed that Syria continued to rely primarily on the Shiite opposition — particularly al-Hakim's SAIRI as its main point of contact with the Iraqi opposition — rather than the Dulaym-based tribal movement in crafting its Iraq policy. This was a mistake. Coordination with SAIRI might have meshed well with Syria's strategic alliance with Iran, which provided contact with Iraq's Shia opposition, but it brought into question the very Sunni credentials which a Dulaym-centered tribal opposition offered Syria.
As a result, Syria’s initiative, which culminated in the meetings of the Iraqi opposition groups on July 31—August 1, failed. Baqr al-Hakim’s plan to establish a field command in Iraq itself to direct rebellious activities caused a contentious debate. Khaddam met al-Hakim on July 26, and Asad himself met al-Hakim on August 2, indicating that Asad sought to lend some weight to al-Hakim’s side in the dispute. Even so, al-Hakim did not prevail. In fact, two key nationalist figures located permanently in Damascus, Generals Wafiq Samarrai and Hasan an-Naqib, spurned al-Hakim’s invitation to help set up a field command since they felt it cast the entire opposition,
Al-Hakim tried to put the best face on the meeting's deadlocked results when he stated, "that meeting with Syrian officials and other opposition figures in Damascus recently has provided a new impetus to the anti-Saddam forces." He even claimed that the meeting did achieve one thing: an agreement to reestablish a 1990 committee for coordinating nationalist-Islamist opposition activities. Still, these statements and committees were meaningless. He could not hide the fact that his defunct proposal for establishing a field command was to have been the physical manifestation of the Sunni-Shiite alliance. His field command, and therefore, the alliance, never got off the ground. Damascus and its nascent opposition movement still failed to penetrate the Sunni center of Iraq, as they had failed over the four previous years.
Enter Jordan and the Hashemite Option
After starting off so well in early summer 1995, but then souring by late July, Syria encountered even more serious trouble in August. Al-Hakim’s wish — to find core Sunni officers around which to focus anti-Saddam activity — was realized, but as Jordan’s opportunity, not Syria’s or al-Hakim’s. Hussein Kamal, among the most senior of Saddam’s inner circle, defected to Jordan on August 8, 1995, a week after the failed Syrian conference on Iraq. This defection convinced King Hussein to raise the anti-Saddam standard himself.
When the unrest in Ramadi erupted, King Hussein was placed in a difficult position. While the king’s neighbors could exploit the unrest to the Hashemites’ detriment, Jordan could do nothing. It had not engaged the Iraqi opposition and was trapped in the status quo by its ties to the senior Iraqi leadership. However, when the most senior elements of the Iraqi national leadership themselves defected, it freed King Hussein from having to choose between his ties to the Iraqi elite and supporting a change in Baghdad. Both pointed toward revolt, and Jordan moved, alongside Iraq’s most senior military elite, into the opposition. The "Hashemite option" for Iraq was born.
Shortly after Hussein Kamal’s defection, King Hussein addressed the nation and the Iraqi people. He emphasized that Iraq’s greatness is coupled with its Hashemite past. He spent the bulk of his speech gushing with pride over Iraq’s Hashemite past, noting how bound and beneficial it was to all of Arabdom:
As for us, the tombs of our martyrs are studding the land of Iraq....This has been our history since the days of Ali bin Abi-Talib [the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law], his sons, Hasan and Husayn...and finally in the era of Faisal II and his family, whose precious blood flowed in Karbala.
King Hussein’s effort to woo the Iraqi Shiite community at Iran’s expense is reasonable. While many in the West identify Shiite movements as spiritually tied to Iran, some are in fact not. First of all, there are fissures even within the pro-Iranian movements that leaders like King Hussein can exploit. Even Iraqi Shiite opposition leader, Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim of SAIRI, and the rest of the Shiite opposition, which is more indigenously Iraqi, have been at odds in the past. For example, most Shiites hesitated to involve themselves with plots hatched in Damascus and Teheran such as the failed coup attempt by Hakim in December 1991. On December 23, 1991, an official SAIRI spokesman in Damascus said that Hakim met with Asad to present a "comprehensive politico-military plan to get rid of Saddam’s dictatorship and foreign trusteeship....Hakim’s visit to Syria heralded a drive to implement the plan." But on the same day, the Organization for Islamic Action (OIA), a Shiite opposition faction under the SAIRI umbrella, denied it had a part in plans to topple Saddam hatched by al-Hakim. Moreover, in a slap at Syria’s involvement, its leader noted that "al-Hakim did not represent the OIA which believes that the future of Iraq should be decided by the Iraqi people." The rift is even wider between the pro-Iranian movements and others. Some of the Shiite opposition movements, such as the al-Khoe foundation under Layth Qubbah, are aligned with King Hussein and the West. And the head of the INC and one of the most prominent of the Iraqi opposition figures to Saddam, Ahmed Chalabi, is himself a Shiite and a close, long-time Hashemite confidant. For these reasons, and others such as his lineage, King Hussein can make a credible bid to lead the Shia community in Iraq as well, even though he is a Sunni.
King Hussein also described secular-Arab nationalism as destructive of Iraq’s greatness. He had nothing positive to say about Iraq since 1958, and elliptically accused secular-Arab nationalism of being an agent of foreign conspiracies:
Half a year later, King Hussein was less elliptical. He bluntly blamed the phenomenon of Baathism, which he added was an agent of foreign, namely Soviet policy. Regarding the events of 1958, and all that has gone wrong since in Iraq, he said:
King Hussein’s new strategy was more than rhetoric. Since Hussein Kamal’s defection, and especially since late fall 1995, King Hussein has set himself up as the mentor/vanguard of the effort to oust Saddam and manage Iraq’s eventual implosion through some sort of Hashemite construct. Jordan realizes it has little choice but to engage actively. Iraq has become a battle ground already. As King Hussein noted candidly: