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EU tries to change iraq’s mind on syria

Haider Najm
Visiting EU foreign ministers recently put pressure on Iraq with regard to the official position on Syria. But what does the EU really want the Iraqis to do? And what will they do if Iraq doesn’t agree?
28.06.2012  |  Baghdad

Recently three foreign ministers from the European Union met with high ranking Iraqi politicians in Baghdad and Erbil. The foreign ministers of Sweden, Bulgaria and Poland – respectively Carl Bildt, Nickolay Mladenov and Radek Sikorski – met with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari separately. They also met with the Minister for Energy Hussein al-Shahristani and Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament. And in Erbil, they met Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The European officials came directly from meetings in Beirut where, according to news agencies, they had been talking to Lebanese politicians about preventing the violence in Syria from spilling over the borders. A similar topic was on the agenda in Iraq.

The meetings were held over a period of two days between Baghdad and Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Various topics were covered but one of the main subjects up for discussion was Iraq’s relationship with neighbouring Syria.

"The talks with Iraqi and Lebanese officials in Beirut and Baghdad will focus on the situation in the region, including the conflict in Syria, as well as prospects of cooperation between the two countries and the European Union," a statement from the Polish foreign ministry said.

And according to one anonymous diplomatic source in Baghdad who was present, the Iraqi meetings seemed to be “an attempt to practice a kind of carrot-or-stick diplomacy in order to convince the central government in Baghdad to change its position with regard to what is going on in Syria”.

Currently Iraq’s official position is best described as neutral. However behind the scenes, observers suggest al-Maliki’s government seems more sympathetic toward the Syrian regime.

In the recent past the Iraqi government has invited Syrian opposition parties to Baghdad to discuss potential solutions. However the Syrian opposition accused the Iraqis of covertly supporting the Syrian regime.

And, as the insider says, “the visiting ministerial delegation alluded to the fact that the European Union wanted to use all possible means to pressure Iraq to change its stance regarding the crisis in Syria.”

This would involve delaying some cooperative ventures in a number of sectors, including education, investment, commerce and energy. The delivery of armed vehicles from Bulgaria to Iraq might also be delayed. However Bulgaria would deliver military equipment ordered by the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to the source, a high ranking official who was unable to go on the record with sensitive comments from behind the scenes at the meetings, the EU foreign ministers listened attentively to Iraqi politicians and said they understood their concerns. But they also made it clear that the EU was aware of, and opposed to, Baghdad’s tacit support of Syria. Such things as the easement of economic sanctions, money laundering of currency from Syria through Iraqi banks, the supply of oil and other equipment and Iraq overlooking arms and combatants as they passed through Iraq, bound for Syria.

In Erbil, the EU foreign ministers were apparently told of a number of conditions upon which the Kurdish Iraqis would consider joining any international effort toward Syria. Although no official comment was made on these, those conditions apparently concern the rights of Syrian Kurds and the desire for Kurdish representation on any new Syrian governing organizations.

During the foreign ministers’ meeting in Baghdad, a press conference was held by the Iraqi Foreign Minister and his guests. During this, analysts noted a small but significant change in the Iraqi language.

“Baghdad supports the process of democratic political change in Syria,” Zebari said. “Iraq is a neighbour of Syria and the changes there are of concern to us. We remain neutral but we want the change to be well thought out and implemented in a way that takes into consideration the interests of concerned countries - in order to avoid any negative impact or spill over on neighbouring countries.”

Similar statements supporting a democratic transformation in Syria were repeated by other Iraqi officials; for example, official Iraqi government spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, reiterated something similar when he was interviewed on Russian television a few days ago.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still opposes any foreign interference in Iraq’s foreign affairs. Nonetheless, al-Maliki did say that Iraq “supports any international effort to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria, that guarantees the Syrian people their legitimate rights and that avoids further bloodshed and destruction in the region.”

Observers say that this statement is significantly, slightly different from previous statements, in that formerly al-Maliki had said he was against any international interference in the Syrian crisis.

When asked whether the EU ministerial trio had indeed put subtle pressure on Iraqi politicians to change their position on Syria, the EU’s ambassador to Iraq, Jana Hybaskova, told NIQASH that “this is just speculation”.

“The talks in Baghdad and Erbil were straight and to the point and characterized by frankness and openness,” Hybaskova says. “The major issue discussed during this visit was the situation in Syria,” she agreed. Hybaskova also told NIQASH that the Iraqi government had denied assisting the Syrian regime in any way.