While recent reports of a sudden lapse in the health of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein may be unfounded, Iraq's decades of ailing relations with Syria appear on the mend under the new boss in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad.
At the start of this week, the press widely reported claims by Iraqi opposition leaders that Saddam had suffered a stroke during a recent huge military parade in Baghdad. But when he appeared fit and trim on Iraqi TV, those rumors seemed less than accurate. One medical expert familiar with the facts explained that Saddam has been treated by Western doctors for years for chronic lower back pains, and if anything had happened, he may have strained his back while repeatedly firing a rifle one-handed while reviewing the long parade in honor of the Palestinian uprising.
Meanwhile, there are signs of change in the chronic hostility between Iraq and Syria, ever since Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad died last year and passed on his 30-year mantle of oppression to his son, Bashar. The younger Assad was considered a mild-mannered, Western-educated eye-doctor and Internet enthusiast who was expected to progressively lead Syria into a bold new era of engagement with Israel and the outside world. But he looks headed in a different direction.
According to the UPI, a Middle East intelligence source says Bashar "has definitely embraced" a radically new concept for Syria. He has clearly approved a new strategic doctrine of cooperation with Iraq, Syria's historic regional rival, as well as with Iran, to create a powerful regional block opposed to Israel and the United States.
During Hafez Assad's reign, tensions ran high between him and Saddam Hussein. Aggravations between the two included infighting over the waters of the Euphrates River, support for rival Kurdish factions, and vying for leadership of the Arab world. Hostility between the two peaked when Syria symbolically joined the Allied forces that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.
But Bashar has demonstrated a radical reversal of the policies of his father and has given the go-ahead for close military cooperation with Iraq. This involves joint planning for a coordinated response in the event of war with Israel. Late last year, Syria and Iraq held secret joint military maneuvers, the first in their modern history. And Iraq has now moved one of its few and precious armored divisions towards the border with Syria, to be able to respond quickly in support of Damascus if hostilities erupt with Israel.
The new spirit of cooperation extends to economic affairs as well. Iraq and Syria hope to reopen a major oil pipeline, unused since 1982, from the northern Iraqi oil fields through Syrian territory to the Lebanese Mediterranean port of Tripoli in the coming months. Already, Syrian and Iraqi technicians are at work on the pipeline. In fact, Iraqi oil is already being refined in the Syrian city of Banias, Middle East sources said.
Commercial air links are also being resumed between Damascus and Baghdad for the first time in nearly 20 years. Iraq has responded by giving Iran permission to enter its air space when sending plane shipments of arms and ammunition to Hizb'Allah in Lebanon via Damascus airport. Bashar, Middle East intelligence sources told UPI, played the key role in brokering this agreement. Reportedly, this is only the beginning of Bashar's efforts to achieve a rapprochement between historic enemies Iraq and Iran.
Bashar's military and economic bridging efforts with Iraq and Iran place him in a position of direct confrontation with Israel, perhaps much more so than his father, who lost in several wars and skirmishes with Israel and later tried to avoid a direct conflict with the IDF.
Reversing Hafez Assad's historic policies carries risks for Bashar, but it holds major attractions for him as well. The policy of strategic alliance with Iraq is popular with the hawkish Alawite Ba'athists who dominate Syria's army and security services. A strong anti-US and anti-Israel policy is also popular with Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, especially the radical fundamentalists among them who hold particular animosity towards the Assad dynasty after Hafez Assad slaughtered as many as 30,000 in the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Hama in 1982.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.