ISTANBUL, Turkey – Syria (search) announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Iraq more than two decades after ties were severed, boosting regional hopes for securing borders and signaling a willingness to change its policy toward the violence-torn country.
With Iraq's neighbors concerned that violence and ethnic instability in Iraq could spread throughout the region, they pledged Saturday to cooperate with Iraq's newly elected government on "overall border security."
The neighbors — which include Syria and Iran (search), two countries accused by U.S. officials of failing to prevent insurgents from crossing their borders — also planned an upcoming meeting of their interior ministers to discuss how to better monitor their borders.
The announcements were made during a two-day meeting of the foreign ministers of Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Saudi Arabia's deputy foreign minister also attended the meeting, held at a former Ottoman palace overlooking the Bosporus.
The neighbors stressed the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, and "pledged to support and cooperate with its newly elected" government, which is dominated by Kurds and majority Shiites at the expense of Sunni Muslims, who made up the elite under Saddam Hussein.
But Syria's decision to re-establish ties after 23 years of severance could be key to easing the insurgency in Iraq and boosting regional security, given Syria's 310-mile shared border with Iraq and its strong ties with Iraq's Sunni tribes, analysts said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa (search) told delegates in the closed meeting Saturday that legal measures to resume diplomatic ties with Iraq would be taken "at the earliest possible time," Syria's official news agency SANA reported.
Syria is interested in Iraq's stability, unity and security "so that it can play its full role in the Arab and international arenas," he was quoted as saying.
The announcement, signaling a change in Syrian policy toward Iraq, could help quell Iraq's insurgency, said Iraq expert Gamal Abdel Gawad (search).
"Syria may be more able than any other (neighbor) to play an important role in convincing the Sunni Arabs to show some flexibility regarding the political process," Abdel Gawad said by telephone from Cairo. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have less influence on the tribes in Iraq.
At the same time, Syria is at juncture "when it needs to offer a positive gesture to reduce the pressure and to show that there is response to pressure and it needs no more," Abdel Gawad said. "If it weren't for American pressure on Syria, I doubt the Syrians would have done such a gesture."
The United States has long accused Syria of sponsoring terrorism and letting terrorists slip through its borders with Iraq. But Washington, along with the United Nations and other Arab states, tightened the screws after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon, and now Syrian and Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon are asked to disarm.
Syrian-Iraqi relations deteriorated after Syria sided with Iran in the 1980 Iraqi-Iranian war, and diplomatic relations were severed in 1982. Since then, Syria became home for anti-Saddam dissidents. Several years before the fall of Saddam, however, economic and trade relations between Iraq and Syria dramatically improved, including resumption of cross-border trade and flow of oil, even though there were no embassies in both countries.
As a strong opponent of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Syria was accused of hosting Saddam loyalists who bankrolled the insurgency and allowing infiltrators through its borders. Syria denies the claims.
The neighbors, in their final communique from the meeting, agreed in coming weeks to discuss details for stemming illegal infiltration, including "effective monitoring of borders, strict controls at border entry points and cross border movements and exchange of intelligence."
It was the eighth such gathering since Turkey initiated the first in 2003 before the war.
"I believe the neighbors should be concerned," Abdel Gawad said. While Syria's political concerns over Iraq have not dissipated, including the increasing power of Kurds or the American presence at its border, "everyone needs Iraq, but an Iraq that serves his own needs."
Turkey also is concerned about the growing power of Kurds, saying no ethnic group should hold sway over the new Iraq or try to carve up the country. The neighbors also called for a more active role of the U.N. in post-election Iraq, leading up to the writing of the constitution.
Iraq's parliament approved the country's first popularly elected government on Thursday.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayar Zebari appeared confident after the meeting Saturday, telling reporters: "Iraq's position is much stronger. We are here as an elected government."