Western media frequently refer to the effects of the Syrian war on Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and even Israel. But, curiously, the most critical country on the verge of disintegration and a nationwide civil war has widely been ignored. Naturally, that country is Iraq.
Experts who know the region are concerned with events in Syria mainly because of their relevance to Iraq. Recently our foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu also spoke of his deep concerns regarding the same issue. The civil war in Syria is becoming increasingly more sectarian in nature. When you add an ethnic dimension due to the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq, the situation becomes even graver. Syria is disintegrating because of sectarian and ethnic issues.
The country most affected by this process is not Turkey, Jordan or Israel, not even Lebanon. The real shocks are felt in Iraq as it tries to cope with extremely sensitive Shiite-Sunni balances. You may recall that the 2004-2007 Shiite-Sunni clashes in Iraq were much more violent than what is happening in Syria today. That civil war never ended. Although Baghdad came under Shiite domination, the low-intensity sectarian war in Iraq has continued until today. There is again risk of nationwide civil war. About a hundred people are killed every week.
This Syria-Iraq connection has been noticed by Washington. According to prevalent analysis in Washington, the true objective of radical Sunni elements that are most effective in the Syrian field is to take over Baghdad, as radical elements closely associated with al-Qaeda and Salafist groups cannot tolerate a Baghdad under Shiite control. Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is aware of the situation. Washington, diverging from Ankara, believes that Maliki doesn’t wish to fall under Iranian influence but seeks Tehran’s support in light of the growing Sunni threat. For Turkey on the other hand, Maliki and Iran are one and the same. In a nutshell, Washington thinks that Maliki is forced to be close to Iran because of the Sunni threat.
The sectarian divide in the Middle East is actually fanned by the geostrategic power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Although Syria is thought to be the most critical scene of this struggle, the real ground of the Sunni-Shiite conflict and Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry is in Iraq.
That is why a Sunni rule following Assad will pose an existential threat to Baghdad and Tehran. For Iran to lose Syria would be a stark reminder that Iraq is next. Those who think that Russia is the key country for Syria should spend some time reflecting on this Iran-Iraq dimension.