Following the liberation of ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reestablishing ties with regional actors as a means to mobilize Arab support for the Palestinian cause. On his recent two-day visit to Iraq, Abbas emphasized key Palestinian political concerns to counteract U.S. pressure on the Arab world to accept the prospective “Deal of the Century” — the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) increased outreach to Syria, conversely, is primarily aimed at addressing domestic party politics. The PA-led rapprochement with the Syrian regime seeks to preempt Iranian mediation in the Hamas-Syria conflict and, with that, the prospect of a successful reconciliation between Hamas and Syria.
On March 3, President Abbas visited Iraq for the first time in seven years and only the third since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Under Saddam, the Palestinian issue played a central role in government rhetoric and policy. During the first Gulf War in 1990-91, the Ba’ath party leader even suggested that Iraq would only withdraw from Kuwait if Israel withdrew from all occupied Palestinian territories. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent outbreak of a sectarian war in 2006, however, Iraqi-Palestinian relations have been characterized by fluctuations and instability, not least due to persecution of the Palestinian refugee community by the Shi’ite Muslim majority in post-Saddam Iraq. The worsening social conditions since 2003 – including the Iraqi government’s 2017 repeal of key social benefits to Palestinian refugees decreed by Saddam – have led the majority of Palestinian refugees to flee to camps along the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border. Only about 4,000 Palestinians of the former 43,000-strong community remain in Iraq today.
Rather than seeking assurances from the new Iraqi government on Palestinian rights, Abbas’ meetings with Iraqi leaders were principally aimed at expanding Arab support in the face of U.S. pressure. During their visit to the Middle East last month, Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Trump, and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt sought to promote the forthcoming “Deal of the Century” while highlighting Iran’s threat to regional stability. Despite Washington’s ardent anti-Iran stance, Iraq has been committed to maintaining ties with Iran, as demonstrated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent visit to the country and his audience with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Abbas, it seems, is hopeful that Iraq will follow a similar approach in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. In the wake of meetings with Abbas, both Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi stressed the importance of the Palestinian cause to Iraq’s foreign policy and their support for Palestinian statehood. While not directly confronting U.S. foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this development may foreshadow potential pushback from Baghdad to Washington’s upcoming deal.
In an attempt to secure Iraqi support, Abbas offered Palestinian “expertise and companies” to aid Iraq with its postwar reconstruction efforts and war on terrorism. The Palestinian president, who is only the second Arab leader to visit Iraq following last year’s general elections, used his meetings with the Iraqi leadership to indicate his readiness to enhance bilateral relations and, at the same time, participate in rebuilding Iraq, a massive undertaking that is expected to cost approximately $90 billion. To this end, both sides agreed to invigorate the Iraqi-Palestinian ministerial committee, which was formed in 2017 to enhance economic and political cooperation between the nations, and to encourage partnerships between Iraqi and Palestinian entrepreneurs. While Abbas did not elaborate on the form – or extent – of Palestinian assistance efforts, it is unlikely that the PA will be able to offer any substantial resources to Iraq’s reconstruction beyond human capital. The Palestinians have sponsored limited aid projects in the past, including last month in Venezuela, where an official Palestinian delegation of 16 doctors arrived to provide medical aid. Nevertheless, the Palestinians’ own reliance on shrinking international assistance and the Israeli government’s recent decision to withhold about $138 million in PA tax revenues have left it severely cash-strapped.
The PA – under Abbas’ leadership – is also seeking to expand its influence in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has secured his regime’s survival as part of an Iranian-Russian axis. According to speculative comments made by Palestinian officials, Abbas intends to visit Damascus in the near future. If confirmed, such a visit would follow months of heightened engagement between the PA and the Syrian regime. In early February, Abbas told Sputnik, a Russian state-run news agency, that the Palestinians – similarly to the majority of Gulf Arab states and Iraq – would support the readmission of Syria into the Arab League. The PA has also taken part in bilateral engagements in recent months: Abbas met with at least three Syrian officials last year during foreign trips and in January, the PA inaugurated the headquarters for its official news channel, Palestine TV, in Damascus. Both Syrian and PA officials, including members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Fatah Central Committee, attended the official ceremony.
The PA’s increasing ties with the Syrian government cannot be divorced from the inter-Palestinian strife and Abbas’ attempts to curb Hamas from gaining international legitimacy. Abbas’ Fatah faction never cut ties with Assad’s government after its violent crackdown on demonstrators in 2011 that led to the civil war. Conversely, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has been engaged in a civil war with Fatah since 2006, after much internal deliberation, broke ties with the Assad regime and left Syria in February 2012. With the political bureau’s departure from Damascus for Egypt and Qatar, Hamas distanced itself from the regime that had offered it a haven in 1999, when the Syrian government welcomed the group and provided it with weapons and money to continue its armed struggle against Israel, a common enemy. Hamas paid a significant price for joining the axis of Syrian opposition supported by the Gulf states, as well as its decision to stand by the internationally-recognized government in Yemen. In response, Iran significantly reduced its financial and military support to Hamas. Since the May 2017 Iraqi elections, however, relations between Tehran and Gaza have been growing warmer, especially under the leadership of Hamas strongman Yahya Sinwar. As such, Iranian attempts to mediate a Syria-Hamas reconciliation cannot be excluded.
By seeking out regional parties that have taken decisive stances against U.S. efforts in the Middle East, Abbas is continuing his international lobbying campaign to keep the Palestinian issue alive and to secure his party’s political longevity. Syria and Iraq’s ability to influence – let alone dictate – regional and international politics on the Palestine issue, however, is scant. Despite deepening tensions between Baghdad and Washington over Iraqi acquiescence to – and energy-dependence on – its Shi’a neighbour, Baghdad has repeatedly called on the U.S. to maintain a troop presence in Iraq. Even upon its budding return to the Arab League, Syria will be drowned out by regional influencers, such as Egypt and the Gulf Arab nations. As last year’s tepid response to the Jerusalem embassy move made clear, their foreign policy will likely be more closely aligned with that of the United States.
Grace Wermenbol is a non-resident scholar at MEI who specializes in the contemporary geopolitics of the broader Middle East and North Africa region. The views expressed in this article are her own.
Palestinian Presidency - Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images