Will Syria's Crisis Take Iraq Down With It?

Sectarian strife that has consumed Syria in all-out war seems to inch ever closer to tipping the balance in Iraq, as international players evaluate their relations with the fragile nation, writes Haifa Zaiter.

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turkish foreign policy, turkey, syrian crisis, syrian-iraqi relations, syrian-iraqi border, syria-iraq trade, shiite, sectarianism, iraqi politics, iraq, iran

Jan 14, 2013

Although the current Iraqi crisis involves structural problems within Iraq's internal authorities, the regional context of this crisis demands a wider analysis,  mainly involving a look at the Syrian conflict as well as at the politics adopted by American, Iranian, Turkish and Gulf parties. Each continues to have vital interests in Iraq.

Since the breakout of the Syrian crisis, Iraq has seemed the best candidate to deal with the political and security repercussions of the uprising. Throughout each stage of the intensifying battle, the news from Baghdad and the Iraqi-Syrian border was worrying. Recent developments in the arrest of Finance Minister Rafeh Issawi's bodyguards, and the subsequent political debate and wave of sectarian protests, have only added insult to injury. The key regional players, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, treated this situation as an internal affair.

Iraqis, mainly government supporters, have raised their voices to warn against regional plots that would devastate the domestic situation and turn the tables on the "Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi resistance fronts." They accused Turkey and Qatar of exploiting the people's "legitimate" demands in order to stir an internal Iraqi war that would reverse the course of the Syrian battle to their advantage and weaken Iran's allies.

On the other hand, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's opponents used this very weapon, accusing the Safavid (Iranian)-backed Shiite Prime Minister of trying to monopolize the government. They also referred to Maliki's attempts to "annihilate Sunni leaders," ranging from Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi (who is a refugee in Turkey to escape the death sentence) to Issawi.

There is also a third party, as in many Arab countries, which fears that the dormant threat of arms may rear its roaring head and drag the country into a fierce civil war, especially once the crisis moved from the political realm into the streets. This party also worries that the major powers might seek to realize their own interests at the expense of those who suffer from chronic negligence and mourn a country lost between the internal conflicts and proxy wars that have taken over Mesopotamia.

The Syrian Front

For a long time, both Syrian and Iraqi fields have stuck together in terms of politics and security. During the American invasion, the Syrian border witnessed waves of militants going to Iraq to support their "brothers" there, eventually facilitating the reverse immigration of jihadists from Mosul, Salah El Din, Al Anbar and Tikrit into Syria. This might explain the material and moral influence of the Syrian crisis on the incidents in Iraq that have been going on for two weeks.

Observers have realized for a while now that the way the Syrian battle ends will determine the future of Iraq and Iran, connecting the existence of the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. On the one hand, the fall of Assad's regime would shake Maliki's grip over Iraq, giving the Sunni forces a driving push to revolt against Maliki, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood attains power in Syria. Consequently, the Iraqi Islamist Party, formerly headed by Hashemi and considered the Iraqi arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be reinforced.

On the other hand, the situation of Kurds in post-Assad Syria will greatly influence trends in Kurdistan. This is what Maliki fears amid rising tensions in Irbil and the absence of moderate Kurdish President Jalal Talabani.

The Iranian Front

If we drew the key players influencing Iraq's present situation, we would get a lopsided Iranian-Turkish-American triangle. If the "soft politics" pursued by Iran and Turkey chose to "agree to disagree" regarding Iraq in the past, that has changed amid the heated Arab-Syrian situation. Clearly, according to Mahjoub al-Zweiri, a specialist in the contemporary history of Iran and the Middle East, Iran is in a critical situation at a time when Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, are trying to benefit from the Arab Spring to incite the Iraqi street and get rid of Maliki.

In an interview with As-Safir, Zweiri states that the US invasion of Iraq gave Iran a historic golden opportunity to reframe its relations with Iraq, once one of its worst enemies. Moreover, Iran took advantage of the long, easily penetrable border and its long-term connections with Iraqi politicians, parties and armed militias to strengthen its position as the strongest foreign mediator in Iraq.

While Iran benefited from the good relations that Maliki has built with Washington in reinforcing his position, it seems that he has lately felt in control and capable of ruling alone. Consequently, Iran has realized it can no longer stop him.

The Shiite division between Maliki and the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr only increases Iranian concerns. Sadr declared his support for the protests as long as they do not become politicized. Moreover, an intense conflict between Sadr’s members of parliament and those of the State of Law Coalition broke out earlier this week in parliament.

According to Zweiri, Iran might try to mediate with all parties. After all, it has managed to maintain its connections with each one, since the movement so far remains peaceful.

The Turkish-Gulf-American Front

As Hashemi’s issue evolved last year, Turkey, represented by its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, publicly accused Maliki of dismissing Sunnis and monopolizing power. Several clashes broke out between both sides in the past, aggravating the sectarian war between "Turkey’s men" in Iraq and Maliki’s supporters.

The Iraqi political analyst Abdel Halim al-Rahimi believes that in the recent crisis, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia did all they could to bring Maliki down. Soon, the “neo-Ottoman” (Erdogan) called for overthrowing the sectarian government, then the Saudi Prime Minister Saud al-Faisal foreshadowed that the tensions in Iraq would last for a long time.

Rahimi, a member of the “State of Law Coalition” headed by Maliki, explains to As-Safir that "some internal political parties, backed by foreign states, have taken advantage of the street." Rahimi also said that there are dangerous official reports which might expose the involvement of Turkey and Qatar in feeding the divisive Sunni conflicts in Mosul and Anbar.

While he talks about Turkish-Qatari interests, Rahimi refers to the Syrian crisis, saying "the armed groups that are supported by those two parties think that power in Iraq and Syria is now in their hands. That’s why they are pushing the battle to the edge."

Rahimi also said that hundreds withdrew from the crowded protests after they discovered the identity of leaders stirring these protests, as well as their interests and foreign connections.

The Americans, as usual, are playing it safe from afar. According to Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the US Department of State, "diplomats are meeting weekly, and sometimes daily, with major Iraqi leaders" to examine ways to resolve the crisis.

The conundrum cannot be avoided: Is this really an "Iraqi Spring," or is it a provoked state movement relying on the demands of the street? Are we facing another Syrian scenario?

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