The government of Nouri al-Maliki has positioned itself as a firm supporter of Bashar al-Assad, notably out of fear that his defeat would empower similar Sunni opposition forces in Iraq. But Iraq’s Sunni actors and Kurds are using the crisis in Syria to assert their own ambitions.
This essay forms part of an eight-part ECFR series exploring the regional responses, dynamics and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. These essays have been drawn together in the ECFR report - The regional struggle of Syria.
- - -
Although Iraqi-Syrian state relations have been very bumpy over the past decade, the Arab uprisings, particularly the battle now being waged in Syria, and the increasingly sectarian nature of regional politics, has provoked a new rapprochement. Today, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki has positioned itself as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad, as he struggles to face down a Sunni dominated rebellion, largely out of fear that it will empower similar forces in Iraq. Although much is made of Iraq’s close ties with Iran, Maliki’s positioning reflects his own strategic and political calculations, rather than obedience to Iranian diktats.
Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria, wary of a US military presence in a bordering state, particularly given growing noises in Washington DC that Damascus should be next in line for imposed regime change, worked to sabotage the new political process. Syria turned a blind eye to – and even facilitated - the flow of foreign jihadists pouring into Iraq across its border to fight the US occupation forces. Despite the fact that many of Iraq’s new political elite, including Maliki, had resided in Syria during Saddam’s rule as Syria sought to strengthen the hand of Iraqi dissidents against its Baathist rival in Baghdad, Syrian fears about the US military presence trumped any historic links. Having provided a sanctuary for Shia Islamists seeking to overthrow the Baathist regime before the 2003 war, it thereafter hosted Baathist officials seeking to undermine the new order. In 2007, Iraq stated it had evidence that fifty percent of terrorism was entering the country from Syria. The Assad-Maliki relationship reached its political and personal nadir in 2009 when the Iraqi government blamed huge bomb blasts in Baghdad on Syria. For Maliki, Assad was playing a dirty game in Iraq by conspiring with jihadists to destabilise Iraq and keep the Americans bogged down there.
Despite this decade of hostility, the revolt in Syria has forced a significant change in the strategic thinking of the Shia Islamists who now dominate in Baghdad under Maliki. Given the Iraqi prime minister’s increasingly authoritarian grip on power, forged on the back of a brutal civil war and a sectarian-dominated government formation process in 2010, and the perception of an ongoing threat from both internal militant groups linked to al-Qaida as well as hostile regional Sunni powers, namely the Gulf states, Maliki quickly supported Assad once the uprising broke out. Having previously been seen as threat to Maliki’s rule, Assad, faced now with a Sunni-dominated and regionally backed uprising, emerged as a natural ally and bulwark against that same hostile Sunni block.
A diplomatic incident in Damascus sheds some light on how events in Syria are being seen by Baghdad. In the summer of 2011, the Qatari ambassador to Syria invited several Arab ambassadors as well as the Syrian foreign minister to his residence. Whilst sitting around the dinner table the Iraqi ambassador remarked, “The same people who conspired against Iraq are now conspiring against Syria.” This enraged the Saudi Arabian ambassador, who responded, “I dare you to name them. I dare you!” The Syrian foreign minister attempted to calm the situation by saying, “The Iraqi ambassador is referring to al-Qaeda and the Salafis, not Saudi Arabia,” but the undertone of the message was clear.
The Iraqi government now believes that a victory for the rebels in Syria will mean not just a post-Assad neighbour under the influence of hostile Gulf forces intent on destabilising Maliki’s rule, but also a resurgent al-Qaeda at home. A jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the most effective opposition fighting force in Syria and has already established strong links with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Although there are some tensions between the leaders of the al-Qaeda franchises, they both admit to links and to having supporting each other. Iraqi security officials regularly cite al-Qaeda fighters who have left Iraq for Syria; Iraqi politicians fear their return once they finish their mission in Syria. Iraq is still facing a serious security threat and does not want to see the gains that were made since 2003 be undermined, or worse, entirely reversed. Already in Baghdad there are growing fears – probably correct in their assessment – that the insurgency in Syria is helping to revitalise, materially and ideologically, Sunni militants in Iraq based in the Sunni-majority province of Anbar that borders Syria. This comes at a moment when Sunni discontent and protests have increased dramatically given Maliki’s intensified marginalisation of Sunni political actors and forces over the past eighteen months, providing fertile ground for widening Sunni popular support for armed action against the government. The month of May 2013 witnessed a dramatic upsurge of violent attacks in Iraq, mostly blamed on Sunni militants, with more than 1,000 people killed – the highest number since the height of the civil war in 2006/07.
Maliki believes that the same states that are supporting the rebels in Syria, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are playing nefarious roles in Iraq by supporting his rivals and even terrorist elements within the country. In a recent interview on state TV, Maliki accused “states” of being behind the recent wave of terror attacks across the country. Though he did not mention specific names, he referred to those who want to intervene in domestic Iraqi affairs on the pretext of protecting the Turkmen and Sunnis, a clear reference to Turkey. Given that Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have backed Maliki’s domestic political rivals in the past, their support for the Syrian opposition has served to cement Maliki’s fears that the Syrian uprising is part of a broader advance also directed against him.
As a result of Maliki’s almost existential fears associated with the Syrian uprising, he has maintained a dual-track policy since it began. Publicly, the Iraqi leadership has repeatedly called for dialogue between Assad and the Syrian opposition because a negotiated political solution offers the most viable way to end the conflict – and, at the same time, is likely to necessitate a power-sharing compromise that will ensure that Syria does not fall completely under the influence of potentially hostile Syrian and regional Sunni forces. Privately, however, Iraq’s government has increasingly acted in ways that indicate it wishes to see Assad prevail, including by permitting Iranian over-flights allegedly delivering weapons and supplies to the Syrian military. It has also hosted and provided medical help to Syrian regime fighters and even engaged the Free Syrian Army from across the border. Baghdad is also alleged to be providing ongoing economic assistance to the Assad regime. This financial support is reported to include traders buying up hard currency auctioned by the Central Bank of Iraq and smuggling the cash to sanctions-hit Syria (in a process that has not been stopped by the government). Maliki has also supplied Syria with crucial fuel oil at a discount of fifty percent under the market price, in a deal not even Iraq’s foreign minister was aware of.
At the same time Baghdad has done little to stem an increasing flow of Iraqi Shia fighters travelling to Syria to fight on behalf of the Assad regime. Most of these militias are believed to be affiliated with the Iran-backed Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous. Motivated by sectarian interests, these Shia militias have mobilised around a call to protect the Sayyida Zainab shrine (one of Shia Islam’s holiest), located in southern Damascus. Defending the Sayyida Zainab shrine is seen as a legitimate battleground for many Shia because of its historical religious importance and the growing fears that as the conflict in Syria becomes increasingly sectarian, Sunni actors – specifically Al-Qaeda – will target it. Iraqis remember only too well the wave of sectarian violence that followed the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra by al-Qaeda jihadists. Fears of similar attacks in Syria today are mobilising Iraqi Shias behind the Assad regime. Indeed, a victory for the rebels in Syria could weaken Maliki’s Dawa-dominated government and provide a boost to domestic Shia opponents. On Syria, Maliki’s main Shia rivals – the Sadrists – have publicly stated that Iraqi fighters have “no right” to fight in Syria “on any side.” Though the Sadrist militia – the Mehdi Army – has been deactivated, it could easily be mobilised if Baghdad loses control of the security situation, thus weakening Maliki vis-à-vis Sadr. This being said, in the event of a new civil war in Iraq, it’s likely that Shia rivals would temporarily unite against a common Sunni threat.
Although there are widespread claims that Maliki has taken this pro-Assad position out of deference to Tehran – which is whole-heartedly backing Assad and which holds significant political influence in Iraq - it is important to understand Baghdad’s strategic mindset. The actions taken by Maliki over the last two years reflect fears of Syrian spillover, in the form of a resurgent Iraqi Sunni movement that would directly threaten his grip on power and ability to maintain control over Sunni provinces neighbouring Syria. If Assad were to fall in Syria, some Iraqi politicians believe that Iraq’s international border would eventually lie at Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad. They envisage the entire western region of Iraq (currently home to large-scale anti-government protests) being lost to tribal elements, Al-Qaeda fighters, and forces sympathetic to the new post-Assad Syrian government. At a recent conference in Qatar, a Sunni cleric who is a spokesman for the protests in Anbar pleaded with Sunnis to support their brethren in Iraq to turn the western region into a “shield for Syria.” He even suggested that a revolution in Iraq is underway that will “complete what our brothers have started in Syria.” As well as playing to sectarian fears among the Shia community, this also highlights ongoing challenges to central control that have affected Iraq since 2003. While the autonomous Kurdish Region is the clearest example of this, Maliki fears that growing Sunni contestation will strengthen the voices of those agitating against a strong central state, and possibly even push Iraq towards break-up.
Although Iraq’s interests under Maliki are in many respects aligned with those of Iran, with the two Shia states facing a common perceived hostility from Saudi Arabia in particular, they are not one and the same. Iraq abstained from the Arab League votes in November 2011 to suspend Syria’s membership and impose sanctions, but it also voted in favour of the August 2012 UN resolution to end the violence (Iran was one of the 13 nations that voted against). Iraq’s fear of a Sunni-dominated and unstable post-Assad Syria is an entirely different issue to that of Iran, which risks losing a vital regional ally in Assad, and a corridor to Lebanon and Hezbollah. The Iraqi government is primarily worried about its own stability. This is not to say that Maliki is independent of Tehran per se. Iran remains one of his most powerful foreign allies – alongside the United States – and has repeatedly given him vital political support in his domestic struggle against his rivals that has kept him in power. However, on Syria, Maliki and Iraq’s Shia Islamists need little nudging from Tehran, as sectarian polarisation intensifies across the region.
Not surprisingly, these fears are shared by the US government – at least within the context of concerns about Iraq’s fragile stability. The CIA recently ramped up its support for Baghdad’s Counter-Terrorism Forces (which report directly to Maliki’s office, bypassing the military chain of command) in their fight against (largely Sunni) insurgents within Iraq. Paradoxically, Washington is simultaneously working to strengthen Syria’s rebels, including helping to facilitate the flow of Saudi and Qatari weapons purchases into the country via Turkey, thereby strengthening the very forces in Syria that it is working against in Iraq.
Given Iraq’s recent civil war and its increasingly sectarian fragmentation, it is unsurprising, however, that not everyone in Iraq views the Syrian conflict in the same light. Where the Shia dominated government sees a threat, Iraq’s Sunni actors and Kurds see an opportunity.
Some high-profile Sunni politicians, including the parliamentary speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, have demanded that the Iraqi government take “bold and courageous steps” to stop the bloodshed, reflecting genuine humanitarian concerns present across the political divide. But other Sunnis are actively taking part in the conflict on the side of the opposition, both out of religious affinity with Sunni fighters in Syria and because they view it as an opportunity to reverse the balance of power in Iraq, reconstituting the Sunni dominance that was overturned by the US invasion in 2003. With over 100 Sunni tribes living on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, it is no surprise that much of this support has come through tribal channels. Many members of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, for example, were battle-hardened after fighting Iraqi and American security forces over the past decade. Arab tribes in Syria are now calling upon their brethren in Iraq to return the favour, and aid them in their struggle against Assad. Jabhat al-Nusra has admitted to having Iraqis amongst their ranks. In March 2013, in Anbar province, Iraqi militants associated with al-Qaeda ambushed and killed 48 Syrian soldiers – and nine Iraqi guards - that had taken refuge in Iraq.
The president of the autonomous Kurdish Region, Massoud Barzani, has meanwhile publicly revealed that he is providing support, including military training, to Syria’s Kurds. Iraqi Kurds see the Syrian conflict as an opportunity to increase the autonomy of their brethren in Syria and to widen Erbil’s regional influence by gaining a stake in any post-Assad settlement. This has served to pit them against both Assad and the Syrian opposition. It has also harmed relations with Baghdad, with Maliki fearing that Iraqi Kurds will use the Syria crisis and their growing influence over Syrian Kurds to strengthen their domestic hand on issues of longstanding dispute with Baghdad, including questions of autonomy and control over disputed territories and oil resources.
Given that the potential fall of Assad would empower Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, directly playing to Maliki’s real and conspiratorial existential fears, Shia forces would be expected to play some form of ongoing spoiler role in Syria should Assad fall, to try and avoid a consolidation of hostile forces on Iraq’s border. This in turn would probably see the Iraqi government seeking tighter ties with Tehran, to guard against a growing Sunni threat in a region that was becoming more militantly sectarian. Conversely, Iraq would become increasingly important to Tehran if Syria falls out if its influence. This intensification of the already emerging regional map, pitting a Shia Tehran-Baghdad axis against a Sunni Levant and Gulf, would perhaps be the most significant geo-political regional effect of the Syria crisis.
Hayder al-Khoei is a researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi'a Studies in London. He writes widely on Iraqi affairs in publications including Foreign Affairs and the Guardian. Follow him on twitter @hayder_alkhoei
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.