Iraq and the Syrian Civil War


2012-09-05 By Richard Weitz

Despite the widespread civil disorders that began in Syria in March 2011, the Iraqi government has pressed on with its policy of rapprochement with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Maliki initially refrained from taking a position on the violence in Syria, saying only that Iraqis want to see a stable and peaceful Syria. He refused to endorse the protesters’ democratic aspirations or condemn the Syrian government’s use of violence against the demonstrators.

On May 31, 2011, al-Maliki warmly received a Syrian government delegation led by Syria’s foreign minister that discussed further economic cooperation. In August 2011, the Prime Minister publicly supported the Syrian regime despite growing condemnation of its repressive tactics from GCC and Western governments.

The Syrian civil war has a dynamic effect on Iraq. Developments in Syria and Iraq are symbiotic. And if al-Assad is overthrown and the Syrian state disintegrates, then the Iraqi government and state might soon follow. Credit: Bigstock

Since then, al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials have made some public criticisms of the Syrian crackdown. And the Iraqi delegation to the U.N. General Assembly voted for a resolution condemning the Syrian government.

But especially since the Arab League Summit in March, they have supported the position of China, Russia, and Iran that the Syrians should be left to resolve their internal differences through dialogue and political reform, with the international community providing only mediation and monitors of a ceasefire.

Iraqi officials have strongly opposed the GCC, Turkish, and Western campaign to organize and arm the Syrian opposition. As the Syrian conflict has grown more sectarian and the suspected role of al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists have increased, so has Baghdad’s alarm.

Al-Maliki’s naturally fears how conflicts in neighboring countries could adversely affect Iraq’s explosive ethnic and sectarian balance. For example, the flow of arms to the Sunni-dominate insurgents in Syria through the border regions in Iraq allows Iraq’s own Sunni militants to obtain weapons and combat training that they likely will later use against the Baghdad government.

Furthermore, after years of tense relations, Iraqi-Syrian ties had finally seemed to turn the corner and were on the upswing in the year before the Syrian revolt began. Now the conflict has paralyzed planned economic projects and raised the specter of further chaos spilling over into Iraq. In addition, the unrest is spurring thousands of Iraqi refugees to return to Iraq.

The additional people will further strain Iraq’s already overextended government services and add to its unemployment crisis. The collapse of al-Assad’s regime would bring to power a Sunni Muslim government that would align with GCC countries against Iraq’s Shiite-led government.

Conversely, if the al-Assad regime successfully quells the rebellion, the Syrian government would probably punish Iraqis for any support they give to the Syrian opposition by revitalizing support for Iraq’s insurgents.

Iraq’s policies toward the Syrian crisis both reflect and amplify Iraqi internal divisions and competing external alignments, with different Iraqi factions maneuvering to exploit the conflict to advance their specific interests.

Iraqi Kurds see the Syrian crisis as a double opportunity. For now, it could serve as a means of strengthening ties with Turkey, their main ally against the Baghdad government, since they can demonstratively contribute to Turkish security by using their influence to moderate the policies of Syria’s Kurds.

And if al-Assad is overthrown and the Syrian state disintegrates, then the Iraqi government and state might soon follow, creating the possibility of greater ties among Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and potentially Iran.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Sunnis support the efforts of the Sunni monarchies and their Western allies to overthrow the Syrian government. The narrative propounded by some of these GCC governments—that what is occurring in Syria is an oppressed Sunni population finally overthrowing an oppressive Iranian-back regime—resonates well among Iraqi Sunnis. Their security forces also benefit from the flow of weapons, money, and fighters into Syria since some of these assets remain or later return to the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq.

If Assad falls and a Sunni-led regime takes charge in Damascus, then the Iraqi Sunnis will receive even more assistance since they could benefit from the direct support of the new Syrian government as well as the assistance of many returning Syrian veterans and renewed enthusiasm for Sunni-based insurgencies.

Even unaffiliated Iraqi politicians and analysts are unsure how to respond to the Syrian crisis. Some of them see the current situation as an opportunity to establish a more benign regime in a neighboring country, perhaps establishing another Arab democracy there. But others fear that the collapse of the al-Assad regime in Syria will empower Islamic fundamentalists throughout the Middle East.

In any case, the fighting has already adversely affected the Baghdad government’s regional security environment and conditions could worsen in coming years. The Syrian conflict has contributed to Baghdad’s continuing alienation from the GCC governments.

It has also made al-Maliki more dependent on Iran, his only solid foreign ally, than he would prefer. Preserving a pro-Tehran regime in Syria is one of Iran’s most important foreign policy objectives and Iranians have pressed Iraqi officials to follow this course as well.

The Syrian issue could also strain Iraqi-U.S. relations, though both parties have sought to avoid focusing on the Syrian question.

Despite its professed neutrality, the Iraqi Security Forces are reportedly collaborating with the Syrian government to limit the activities of Sunni militants in their border regime.

Nonetheless, from a long-term perspective, comprehensive regime change in Syria would benefit Iraq since the current regime in Damascus would consider any plausible intervention scenario in Iraq threatening. A stable, democratic, prosperous, and pro-Western Iraq would constrain Syrian influence and would encourage Syrians to strive to establish the same type of regime.

But if Iraq were to collapse into renewed sectarian civil war or disintegrate into separate ethnic states, this development could embolden Syria’s Kurdish minority and perhaps other Syrian groups to seek greater autonomy.

In turn, this result could lead to the establishment of an Iraqi Sunni entity that would pursue its own irredentist agenda in Syria beyond the control of a Baghdad government and with the assistance of the GCC monarchies.

Only if Iraq were to fall under Iran’s complete control and become a Shiite satellite of Tehran would an authoritarian Syrian government be pleased—but few others would wish such suffering on the Iraqi people.