Iraq’s Syria policy is probably the most ambiguous foreign policy in the region. From the outside, Iraq seems to have adopted a “dissociation” policy similar to that adopted by Lebanon regarding the Syrian situation. But in reality, Iraq supports the Syrian regime in several regards.
It maintains a direct relationship with the Syrian regime and refuses entry to Syrian refugees, which is in contravention to Iraq’s international obligations and ignores that Syria has hosted millions of Iraqi refugees over the years, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself.
Iraq’s Syria policy cannot be separated from the Iraq-Iran relations in recent years. These relations were marked by an increase in Iranian influence in Iraq to the point that Maliki went from having many differences with Iran and its policies to being one of Iran’s allies. This is after Iran used its influence in Iraq to support Maliki’s continued rule in the face of his opponents both within the Shiite sect and among the Iraqi elite.
The result of this shift in Iraqi politics and in Maliki’s choices is an increased Iraqi tendency to comply with Iranian policies and the network of regional and international alliances. This shift became apparent with Maliki’s visit to Moscow, which resulted in Iraqi-Russian agreements that went beyond the $4 billion Russian arms deal.
The Iraqi-Russian arms deal happened because Iraq wanted to please Iran, which in turn wanted to reward Moscow for its pro-Syria and pro-Iran positions in the face of challenges such as the Iranian nuclear issue and the future of the Syrian regime. The arms deal was part of Iraq’s policy of supporting Iran and its practices, whether those policies are related to Iran itself or to Iran’s allies, particularly Syria, which currently seems to be the most important item on Iran’s foreign-policy agenda.
Iraq is clearly and unambiguously supporting Tehran’s policy, especially with regard to the nuclear issue international sanctions. Credible international reports have revealed that Iraq is playing a role in selling Iranian oil and in providing Iran with hard currency to finance essential purchases that are barred by international sanctions.
What’s more, Iran and Iraq have started collaborating in defense and security matters after the October visit of Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Wahidi to Iraq. Wahidi said, “Iraq has a special place in Iran’s foreign policy and in Iran’s defensive diplomacy.”
With regard to Iraqi support for Iran’s allies, particularly Syria, the Iraqi government has taken steps to support the Syrian authorities. Iraq has allowed the passage of Iranian aid to Syria. That was revealed after it was requested that Iranian aircraft crossing Iraqi airspace be searched. North Korean planes have been searched at Baghdad Airport and one of the planes was forced to go back where it came from.
Iraq is also providing Syria with discounted oil to meet the growing needs of Syria’s military operations. Iraqi authorities are also allowing Iraqi militia volunteers to go to Syria in order to defend the Syrian regime from its opponents. This is all happening while Iraq is preventing the entry of Syrian refugees who fled Deir el-Zour’s bombardment and invasion, and that policy has increased Syrian suffering.
In addition, Iraq is parroting the Iranian position that what is happening in Syria is an international conspiracy to make Syria a hotbed of extremism and an al-Qaeda stronghold, and that the way to solve the problem is to adopt an internal political solution without any outside intervention, which will never happen because of the Syrian regime’s refusal.
The Iraqi invitation for Syrian opposition parties to visit Baghdad and hold a dialogue on the Syrian situation is meaningless and the visit never took place.
All in all, Iraq’s Syrian policy is part and parcel of Baghdad’s ties with Iran and connected to Baghdad’s relations with Russia. Iraq has in effect entered into an international and regional alliance involving Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria, and the latter’s internal crisis is strengthening the alliance.