April first saw the launch of the free trade agreement (FTA) signed between Syria and Iraq two months earlier. The FTA marks the turning of a new page in the relationship of the two neighbors, both ruled by rival branches of the Baath Party.
For over 20 years, ties between the two have been mostly tense, coming to a point where Syria sided with Iran in its 1980-1988 war against Iraq. Yet another low was reached in 1990, with Syria joining the US-led coalition that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
But relations began to thaw in 1996, when the United Nations oil-for-food framework was initiated. According to the program, sanctions-burdened Iraq was allowed to sell its oil in return for basic supplies and services. Bilateral trade ties between Syria and Iraq were restored in 1997, which was also the year in which the border between the two nations was reopened.
During the past year, steps toward economic normalization were significantly stepped up. Preparing for the new FTA to come into effect, Syrian Industry Minister Ahmed Hamo and his Iraqi counterpart Adnan Abdel Majid met Saturday, March 31, in Damascus to discuss ways to “cooperate in the textile, electric and food industries," according to Syria's official SANA news agency.
In August, train services between the two countries were re-established, with the railroad connecting the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and Syrian Aleppo reactivated after a19-year hiatus. In March, the two countries signed a deal which enables Syria to sell its surplus textile products on the Iraqi market. The deal permits Syria to export $30 million worth of textiles to Iraq over an unspecified period.
As part of this newfound spirit of good will, the two former foes also came to an arrangement on sharing the waters of the Euphrates River. Both countries share a common front in this regard, accusing Turkey of averting their waters. However, an attempt to conclude a three-way deal with Turkey, where the Euphrates originates, was blocked.
Also in March, Iraqi transport and communications minister Ahmad Murtada Ahmad signed an agreement with Syria's transportation and communications ministers, Makram Obeid and Radwan Martini, covering cooperation in air, sea and land transport, and communications and data sharing. Earlier it was reported that the Syrian sections of an inactive oil pipeline between Lebanon and Iraq were undergoing repairs. Syria had recently also lifted restrictions on its citizens traveling to Iraq.
The free trade agreement deal is expected to raise trade volume between Syria and Iraq to one billion dollars this year, from an estimated $500 million in 2000. But this will be falling far short of the forecasted potential, largely because Syria is still reluctant to operate outside the restrictions of UN sanctions against Iraq.
However, while economic reconciliation is moving along, it is still not clear how long the process of political rapprochement will take. Syria and Iraq broke off diplomatic relations in 1980, as the Iran-Iraq War broke, and currently both operate mere interest sections at the Algerian embassies in Baghdad and Damascus.
The Iraqi-Syrian FTA should be seen as part of both countries’ interest in establishing a more comprehensive Arab economic cooperation, or as the official Syrian Tishreen paper put it: “"Strengthening inter-dependence among Arab countries will reduce their reliance on the outside world and will enhance the independence of their political decisions.” — (Albawaba-MEBG)
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)
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