Maliki Goes to Syria

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Louai Beshara / AFP / Getty

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at al-Shaab palace in Damascus, August 21, 2007.

Washington may be losing patience with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but the Iraqi leader has other friends to cultivate. That seemed to be the message, Tuesday, from al-Maliki's first official visit to Damascus, which was anything but an empty photo opportunity. The entourage that Maliki brought to the Syrian capital included several cabinet ministers and high-level security officials, and they came to do business. Iraqis involved in the talks told TIME that substantial progress was made on a number of security and economic issues. In fact, the understandings hashed out between Iraq and Syria contain clues of what Iraqi regional policy might look like once the U.S. has departed.

First and foremost, the interior ministers of Iraq and Syria agreed to share responsibility for securing their countries' mutual border, a gateway for foreign fighters entering Iraq. As part of broad new cooperation, Syria would also accept and review lists of fugitives sought by the Iraqi government for extradition. U.S. officials have long accused Syria of harboring high-ranking Iraqi Ba'athists, and of allowing anti-American jihadis to come and go freely. And Syria has certainly been happy to see the American adventure in Iraq flounder. But with Washington politicians debating how long to maintain U.S. military commitments in Iraq, there's a new willingness in Syria to cooperate in preventing an awful situation from getting worse.

"People are thinking about the coming year or two or three, and it's going to be a very turbulent time," said Andrew Tabler, editor-in-chief of Syria Today magazine. "In the event of an American withdrawal or troop reduction, there is going to be a security vacuum. Both countries [Iraq and Syria] have a common interest in keeping Iraq from breaking apart."

That may explain another major new agreement between Iraq and Syria, to cooperate in handling Iraq's refugee crisis. One of Syria biggest concerns is the potential tidal wave of Iraqi refugees that could soon head its way. Already some 1.5 million Iraqis now live in Syria — their arrival was a major reason that Syria's population last year grew by about 8%. International aid officials working with refugees in Syria say that Iraqi criminal elements and sectarian feuds are beginning to appear among the refugee population in Syria, according to Tabler. Under the new deal hashed out in Damascus, Iraq will begin paying the Syrian government for its troubles in hosting the refugees, though some of the financial aid will come from the money that the Syrian government still owes Iraq for oil trades made during the Saddam era. In return, Syria will open special centers and schools for Iraqi children, among other support services.

Iraqi and Syrian officials also agreed to reopen an oil pipeline stretching from the oil fields of northern Iraq to a Syrian port on the Mediterranean. Though that would require substantial work and investment — the mid-century pipeline was cut on the Iraqi side by U.S. forces during the 2003 invasion — it would be a windfall for both countries. Syria stands to gain over $1 billion a year in revenue, a boon to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, which faces growing international sanctions. That his deal with Damascus might anger Maliki's American patrons didn't concern the Prime Minister, who said he wouldn't wait for Washington's approval. "This government is elected by the Iraqi people," he said, "not to satisfy the Americans." Maliki has surely done little of that.