Do Shiites in Iraq really fear that extremist Islamic Sunni movements will take the reins in Syria after the fall of the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad? Or does the real fear lie in undermining the chances of Shiite expansion in the Middle East?
In other words, do concerns of national interest control Iraqi Shiite perspectives toward the Syrian crisis, as in fears that this country might become a source of terrorism for Iraq? Or is the issue related to a project that surpasses local considerations and is linked to the location of the Shiites on the region’s map?
At first glance, both justifications seem plausible, and neither hides Shiite reservations over the toppling of Assad. He belongs to the Alawite sect, which is relatively close to the Shiites and is strategically allied with the country that leads the Shiite scene in the region, Iran.
However, these reservations are intrinsically controversial, due to the vagueness of the reasons behind the sympathy with the Assad regime, which embraces the Baath Party’s ideology. Over 30 years ago, Iraq’s Shiites revolted against the Baath Party and blamed it for the political, economic and moral collapse of the country. Given this history, the Iraqi legislature was obliged to include the Baath Party on a list of constitutionally prohibited organizations and ideologies. This step has allowed the implementation of policies of “de-Baathification” in the government’s institutions against thousands of Baathists.
It seems that the Shiite secret word is the term "Salafist," which refers to the extremist Sunni groups that consider Shiites blasphemous. However, this same term suggests two assumptions.
The first assumption
The Salafists will definitely come to power in Syria, and the Syrian revolution will be led by Salafist gangs with the same vision and line of thought as al-Qaeda. This is highly misleading, given that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful and influential Islamic group in Syria — as is the case in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan.
It is worth mentioning here that the Muslim Brotherhood's line — which found its intellectual groundwork in the middle of the last century, and has since widely spread in a variety of interweaving forms throughout the Middle East region today — has become less stringent than the Turkish version in the Justice and Development Party. Moreover, this ideology is associated with the tribal domain (as in Qatar) and the Salafist line (as in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt), aligned with secularist (as in the Islamic Party in Iraq) and nationalist forces (the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan) and maintains a truce with the Wahhabi line in Saudi Arabia.
However, the difference here is that the new Shiite-led Iraqi regime benefitted from the developments of the Arab Spring on the level of foreign Arab relations. The new regime in Baghdad realized that the Brotherhood is more pragmatic and that it was easier to establish contacts with these groups than with the national regimes that ruled the countries before the Arab Spring.
To illustrate the above, Iraqi-Egyptian relations have made huge leaps under the rule of the Brotherhood, compared to what they were during the Mubarak era. The same applies to the friendly relations with Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, culminating in Iraq releasing prisoners from these countries as a sign of good faith. So why would relations be impossible with the Syrian Brotherhood?
The map of Syrian fighters does not indicate that the Salafist groups — which have come together under the name of "Jabhat al-Nusra," the local name for al-Qaeda — have a stronger presence than the Free Syrian Army. The latter is aligned with Brotherhood forces, alongside nationalist, secularist and tribal currents.
The second assumption
The ruling Iraqi body is dogmatically bound to the Iranian line and stance regarding the Syrian crisis. Consequently, it will keep resisting change until the regime’s last breath. However, this vision does not show any political maturity. Iraq’s economic and political situation has solidified alongside the escalation of economic sanctions on Tehran, regarding Baghdad’s ability to resist Iranian pressure. Moreover, the political figures that were affiliated with Iran for a long time have now become part of a country possessing the second-biggest oil reserves in the world and no longer in need of any supposed Iranian support, thanks to the circumstances of the past few years which have allowed it to make huge financial gains.
Above all that, the religious line represented by the Shiite authorities — led by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf — clearly declared that it is adopting “a balanced stance on the Syrian revolution” and that it “forbids Muslim bloodshed regardless of the confessional identity,” which is a completely different stance from that of the Iranians clinging to the Assad regime.
On the sideline of this, the Shiite intellectuals and journalists propose a different vision than the ones trying to market “Salafist phobia.” The defenders of the democratic project in Iraq cannot find justification for any official opinion that does not go in line with the unarguable desire of any people to abolish a dictatorship.
The contradiction might not be evident in the fact that the secular Iraqi trend, despite its limitations, cannot find any intellectual support to defend the Syrian regime, although some Iraqi secular voices with different confessional backgrounds still believe that the Syrian regime is the last bastion of secularism in the Middle East.
Different possible scenarios regarding the nature of the Iraqi political behavior in the post-Assad era are emerging, and all of them concern the way the Iraqi government and Shiite political elite will deal with the changes leading up to the fall of the regime.
If we assume that the current Assad regime will not be a part of Syria's future — whatever the mechanisms used to remove the regime — then Iraq remaining in the category of those states that are "suspiciously impartial" toward the crisis will not serve the future relationship between Iraq and Syria.
There is no doubt that the scenario of Assad’s remaining in power is no longer on the table, politically, not for his Russian allies and possibly not even for the Iranians. This is what the Iraqi Shiites, which have started to adopt different views and readings of the Syrian developments, are currently discussing.
Although the Shiite intellectuals and other figures which have chosen to be classified as non-Islamic parties had previously adopted stances supporting the revolution in Syria, they were only demanding to maintain Iraq’s total impartiality on the political level.
On the other hand, tangible changes started to appear among the Shiite parties that had agreed, at the onset of the crisis, on a discourse that doesn’t clearly support Assad’s regime, but that describes its opponents and rebels as “a bunch of gangs and extremist Sunni organizations that seek to turn Damascus into a base from which to strike Iraq.”
What is shocking is that the movement of the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who was accused by the Free Syrian Army of sending militants from the Mahdi Army to fight alongside Assad’s forces, was the first party to use a different discourse over the Syrian crisis. Sadr and his supporters not only denied their relationship with the militants who went to Syria in Sadr’s name, but people close to Sadr also accused dissident groups with tight relations with Iran — such as the Ahl al-Haq Brigades and the Hezbollah Brigades — of sending the militants there.
Sadr, who left Iran for Beirut during the past few months to live there before returning to Najaf, adopted a stance related to the changes in the Iranian position regarding Iraq. This position was clarified by Sadr in a letter in which he spoke about the circumstances of his joining the Barzani-Alawite front to withdraw confidence from Maliki in the middle of 2012.
In his letter, Sadr not only unveiled the discussion that took place in Tehran between himself, Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but also stated indirectly that the Iranian methodology, which had previously adopted the strategy of mastering the game in Iraq through the protection of conflicting parties, especially Shiites, had changed in favor of the front formed by Maliki. This front includes the Dawa Party, the Badr Organization and the Fadila Party, in addition to independent Sadrists and Shiites.
The remarkable expression, which was the center of the discussion at the time, focused on “higher Shiite interests,” as Suleimani himself put it. Moreover, Sadr reiterated this expression on several occasions in statements preceding and following this letter. To answer the questions of his supporters, he made a reference for the first time to “the politics of Maliki and the exclusion of other national parties which do not serve higher Shiite interests, but undermine their political experience instead.”
This type of discourse was shocking to a great extent because it was uttered by Sadr specifically, knowing that he had previously adopted positions which gave the impression that he was close to Tehran. He even left Iraq for years to live in the Iranian city of Qom.
The first result was that Sadr, through his extensive experience in politics, assumed that his movement might become a victim of Iran’s continuous support for one Shiite party, the Dawa Party, at the expense of excluding the other parties that are not only Sunni or Kurdish. In fact, the Sadr movement will directly pay for the strong position Maliki is expected to take, especially since the prime minister enjoys American support.
The other Shiite party that paid a high price for the Iranian and American-backed extension of Maliki’s power in the Shiite scene was the Supreme Shiite Council. The group is presided over by Ammar al-Hakim, who regressed politically alongside Maliki's political rise. In fact, the latter was able to pave his way through drawing in the military wing represented by the Badr Organization and presided over by current Minister of Transportation Hadi al-Amiri.
Almost two years ago, the young Hakim started to change his movement’s political and religious methods by resorting to linking the movement to the traditional leadership of Sistani in Najaf. Sistani adopts the notion of separation between religion and state, which gradually results in relinquishing the Khomeini-Iranian notion of “Wilayat al-Faqih,” a theory that combines politics with religion and puts them both in the hands of one person, “Al-Wali al-Faqih,” who has to lead in the name of God.
It is difficult to say that this change came only as a reaction to the change in Iran’s vision concerning the “higher interest of Shiites in Iraq” since 2009. It was mainly linked to the results of the district elections in the beginning of that year that led to a dramatic fall in the influence of the Hakim movement in local governments after having been routed in the 2010 general elections.
The second result is that the Hakim movement has become closer to the balanced position of Sistani toward the Syrian crisis, which requests that the post-Assad era be taken into consideration. However, the Sadr movement considers supporting the Assad regime and coupling the name of “Mahdi Army” with the defense of Assad as an attempt to topple him in the post-Assad era and sever the strong ties he had established with Turkey and various Arab states over the past two years.
Furthermore, Maliki — in light of all these Shiite changes, and in the face of US pressure — had the audacity to take a number of steps to prove his "impartiality" toward the Syrian crisis. He opened the border to refugees after having previously decided to close it. He also allowed the random inspection of Iranian cargo planes. However, this did not convince Iraqi supporters of the Syrian regime, led by Sunni Arabs. These supporters have raised the flag of the Free Syrian Army in demonstrations that began late last year and are still ongoing, which has angered Shiites.
Yet Maliki's reactions and Shiite worries in general regarding the future of Syria were not limited to fears of Salafists. In one way or another these fears could be a response to the rush of Sunni Arab states and Turkey to pressure the heart of the Assad regime, increasing their belief in a "Sunni conspiracy."
For the first time since the breakout of the Syrian crisis, Shiite political talks started to take the direction of dealing with the Syrian future with a “state” mentality rather than a “confessional” one. This came at a time when some scenarios of an independent or semi-independent “Alawite” entity on the Syrian coast did not seem likely to maintain the strong Shiite presence imposed by Iran in the Middle East. This presence stretches from Iran to Iraq and Syria, then to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in West Palestine, Houthis in South Yemen and finally to Shiite communities that support the resistance in the Arab Gulf countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Prominent Shiite politicians, including governmental figures, have finally started to talk about the possibility of dealing with the Syrian resistance and sending it invitations to meet, some of which were responded to by figures outside the recently formed Syrian Coalition. After finally succeeding in being recognized by 148 countries, this coalition still sees the Iraqi Shiite stance as supportive of Assad compared to the Syrian and Kurdish position, which supports the resistance on differnt levels. Iraqi Shiites viewed the Syrian opposition's refusal to deal with them — while cooperating with the Sunnis and Kurds — as evidence for the existence of a "Gulf-Turkish veto" pushing for a break with Iraq's Shiites.
According to some Iraqi politicians, the danger of this reality lies in its suggestion that Iraq may not be a part of Syria’s future, which will be highly influenced by Turkey and the Gulf countries.
This last scenario triggers for the first time questions about the strategic use of following Iran’s politics regarding Assad.
However, according to an eminent Shiite politician, this complicated reality is not “close-ended” since “Iraq is capable of opening communication lines based on common interests with the new Syrian regime, regardless of its nature, and no matter how much Iraq is criticized by the Syrian rebels for supporting Assad.”
The prospects of this vision seem negative and fall short of finding a strategic Iraqi methodology in the post-Assad era, where both the communication channels with the resistant Syrian groups and Iraqi participation in the international discussions about the crisis are thus far absent. Thus, the Iraqi decision-maker finds himself confused in the face of accusations of supporting the Assad regime. He would then reiterate the same fears of having “the Salafists at the doorstep,” an expression which is slowly losing ground in both the political and the popular circles not because it lacks credibility, but because it does not answer the question being avoided: “What is next?”
Mushreq Abbas is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. An author and journalist who has worked in the media for 15 years, he holds a degree in political science from Baghdad University.