Syria’s foreign minister is considering a visit to Baghdad in November — the first by a top Syrian official since the fall of Saddam Hussein and a major step toward restoring diplomatic relations, Iraqi and Syrian officials said Tuesday.
President Bush has called on Syria to help quell sectarian violence in Iraq, and some in the U.S., including former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, have urged the White House to make overtures to Syria to enlist its help. Syrian analysts said the visit could signal Syrian willingness to address the sectarian killings in neighboring Iraq.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem is considering traveling to Iraq, said a Syrian Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give statements to the press.
In Baghdad, an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said the ministries agreed “in principle” that al-Moallem would visit Iraq in November. Both the Syrian and the Iraqi official said no date had been set.
Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a Syrian political analyst, said the visit sends a “clear Syrian message that what is happening in Iraq — the sectarian killing and violence — is a red line for Arab national security and Syrian national security that can’t be accepted by Damascus.”
Damascus broke relations with Baghdad in 1982, accusing Iraq of inciting riots by the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Damascus also sided with Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
No visits for more than six years
Commercial ties improved during the last few years of Saddam’s rule before he was overthrown in 2003, but no Syrian ministers have gone to Baghdad for more than six years.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad said in October that al-Moallem would visit Baghdad after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ended Oct. 23-24, and that he would discuss the restoration of diplomatic ties with senior Iraqi officials.
Syrian officials had said in February that Syria would exchange ambassadors with Iraq once a new Iraqi government was formed, marking the first time Damascus set a time frame for restoring full diplomatic ties.
The new Iraqi government took office in May, but there has been no exchange of ambassadors.
George Jabbour, a Syrian legislator and political analyst, said the “circumstances may be more suitable now” for the neighboring states to re-establish ties.
“This visit is expected as Syria and Iraq need each other, and Syria, no doubt, can play a calming role in Iraq and it has always announced its keenness to help Iraq’s security and stability,” Jabbour said.
Syria has been increasingly isolated and pressured over, among other things, allegations from the U.S. and Iraq that it does not take steps to stop foreign fighters from infiltrating across its border into Iraq.
Syria has denied the charge, countering that the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies are not doing enough to police the border.