The Syrian Ba’ath (‘renaissance’) party and the Iraqi Ba’ath Party split in the 1960s. Syria saw Saddam as an expansionist. There was a transfer of supporters – some Syrians supported Saddam (including the Ba’ath Party’s founder Michel Aflak, a Christian), and some Iraqis supported Hafez al-Assad. Saddam’s Syrians joined him in Baghdad. The Iraqis who favoured Hafez were shot.
The crossover of supporters meant that the hardline facists ended up in Baghdad, while a more watered-down Ba’ath Party ended up in Syria.
Things reached a head in 1990. Syria supported the American-led Gulf War, they even sent troops. Meanwhile, Jordan’s darling of the West King Hussein vehemently cosied up to Saddam.
Iraq and Syria cut off diplomatic relations and the border was firmly shut.
In 2002, Syria – which was on the UN Security Council – supported Resolution 1441 which sent Weapons Inspectors back into Iraq – and according to Bush and Blair, provided a legal justification for the war. A few months later Bashar Al-Assad visited Downing Street effectively giving the Arab seal of approval to the war.
In the run up to war, there were demonstrations on the streets of Damascus, but these were tightly controlled. The joke was that police outnumbered protestors. Military police also formed a shoulder-to-shoulder human shield for weeks outside the American Embassy (one of the biggest Embassies in the city) and along the road leading up to the embassy. Taxis could not even stop to let passengers out.
In the days before the war the Syrian mukhabaraat (intelligence) started turning people away who were entering towns on the road towards the border with Iraq. Why? Yes, they were probably worried about Jihadists. But I think they were more worried about Syrians seeing the preparations for war.
The Syrian Red Cresent (effectively an arm of the government) had been building refugee camps near the border capable of housing hundreds of thousands.
In the event these were barely used: maybe Iraqis thought they’d face a closed border as they had done for decades. But the situation in Jordan was very different.
To this day Syria and Jordan deny the camps existed.
The Syrian and American Forces admitted that Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay entered Syria – but were ‘escorted’ out within hours of crossing the border. Rumours suggest Saddam faced the same fate.
At first Syria refused to recognise the Occupying Authorities. But then in 2004 Syria hosted a regional meeting, which the members of the Iraqi Interim Government attended.
Syria’s home to the largest number of Iraqi refugees in the world – about three-quarters of a million. Many of them Shia’a fleeing Saddam’s persecution. The Saida Zaynab area in Southern Damascus is home to many of them.
So all eyes were on Syria in January. Internationally-verified ‘free and fair’ elections took place on Syrian soil – and that was essential to the success of the Iraqi elections.