Iraq in the Middle Part IV: Maria Fantappie on Iraq’s relations with Syria

As Kofi Annan presses regional leaders to help form a transitional unity government in Syria, what role does Iraq play in the development of the Syrian crisis?

RT: When we look at Iraqi-Syrian relations since 2003, they begin in a state of deterioration: Maliki furiously blamed Assad for tolerating or even supporting al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq.  Later, when it became clear that the US troops would most likely depart Iraq there was a period of rapprochement. The Syrians felt they no longer had to tolerate al-Qaeda moving across the border to keep the US off balance, and so began cooperation to secure the border, delegation visits, and more recently a planned $10 billion gas pipeline from Iran to Syria across Iraq. Likewise, the Iraqis allegedly tolerated arms flights to Syria from Iran over their airspace and sent a pro-Assad contingent of observers to Syria with the Arab League. To some, this confirms the idea that there is a post Saddam “Shia Crescent.” Looking at the differences between the Syrian government and Iraq (notably that one is Ba’athist and one is more religious) do you think that Iraq and Syria form part of a “Shia Crescent,” or is this term nonsense?

MF: During the March 2012 Arab Summit, it became apparent that Iraq was ambitious in  becoming more a autonomous player with an assertive role in the Middle East, all while remaining a close ally of Teheran. Iraq might find the opportunity to assert its regional status by assuming a key role in resolving the Syrian crisis.

Since the crisis began, Iraq has attempted to maintain a centrist position between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. In line with Teheran’s foreign policy, it has strongly opposed foreign intervention and not called for the fall of Assad. However, Iraq’s leaders have also denounced the use of violence and are calling for a resolution to the crisis through dialogue between the regime and the opposition forces. Throughout the past few months, Iraq’s leaders sought to position the country as a key mediator in the Syrian crisis. While it has maintained a close alliance with Iran, Iraq nevertheless was able to establish talks with the international community over a possible governmental transition in Damascus.  Within Syria, it has opened channels of communication with both the regime and opposition groups.

Iraq has recently shown support for Kofi Annan’s plan concerning the formation of a transitional government in mutual agreement with the government and opposition members. A political solution of the crisis might provide Iraq with an opportunity to assert its role as regional powerbroker by conciliating between the regime and opposition groups and mediating the transition between the international community and Iran. The realization of Iraq’s foreign policy ambitions, still largely depends, however, on the ability of the incumbent government to overcome the on-going domestic crisis.

RT: In terms of Iraqi Kurdistan’s involvement in the Syrian crisis, do you think that Barzani is able to really do anything to assist the SKNC or the SNC? If he does, even with humanitarian aid, he risks damaging the KRG’s hugely improved ties with Turkey. However, Iraqi Kurdistan has been a haven for thousands of refugees from Syria and Irbil has hosted the SNC. How important do you think Barzani’s role is in the Syrian crisis?

MF: The KRG’s political leadership has already played a crucial role in the Syrian crisis establishing its political clout over the some of the Kurdish Syrian parties and supporting their organization in the Kurdish National Council. The formation of a transitional government, in line with Annan's proposal, might provide the KRG with a stronger role in the crisis.  Capitalizing on its influence over the Kurdish National Council, the KRG might acquire a leading role in potential solving the Kurdish issue in Syria:  directing the KNC's moves and demands in the negotiations with Syria's opposition group.

The Syrian crisis is also likely to reshape the relationship between Turkey and the KRG.  As the crisis drags on, Turkey might become increasingly reliant on its alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan as the only alternative to counter the PKK’s expansion over its borders. The Syrian crisis has given the PKK free reins to expand into in northern areas of Syria across Turkey’s western borders and maintain its traditional base: Turkey’s eastern borders with Iraqi Kurdistan.  Confronted with the growing threat at its borders, Ankara might be compelled to rely further on the KRG to combat the PKK presence over the Iraqi Kurdish mountains or even empower the KRG- sponsored Kurdish National Council as the only alternative to counter the PKK’s political grip in the Kurdish populated areas in Syria.

RT: Despite political chaos in Iraq, there is some agreement slowly forming on Syria. Barzani says he opposes backing Syrian Kurds with anything other than moral and humanitarian support, rather than arms (notably now that the PKK are involved.) In Western Iraq, a number of Sunni Sheiks have resisted calls to arm the Sunni rebels, no doubt because some are aligned to Maliki or were a part of The Anbar Salvation Council in the fight against al- Qaeda, their bitter enemy. This is despite the fact that a number of Iraqi tribes have branches in Syria, notably the Albu-Fahd and Albu-Mahal. (It is worth mentioning here that the Iraqi government claims to have solid evidence of AQI fighters moving into Syria, in line with recent anecdotal evidence. Therefore, not all the Sheiks in Western Iraq share the publicly neutral position of the Anbar Salvation Council.)  Maliki himself has now gone from condemning the rebels last year to a more neutral tone of supporting a peace process, and now al-Sadr is keen to stress he is not sending fighters to the rebels. All this suggests Iraqis are worried about the conflict spilling over into their territory. Some have attributed the recent wave of violence in Iraq as stemming from AQI’s involvement in the Syrian crisis, but it is probably more likely carried out by disenfranchised and angry Iraqi Sunnis.  Do you think the Iraqis are now too tired of violence to pick a side in Syria?

MF: In spite of the domestic political tensions, Iraqi leaders have found some agreement over their position on Syria. While Nouri al Maliki and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership remain foes in the political arena, they share a similar strategy towards Syria: both aim to capitalize on the Syrian Crisis towards asserting their role on the regional scene. Maliki may aspire towards placing Iraq back on the map as an influential regional player, while the Kurdish leaders aim at expanding their political influence in Kurdish populated areas neighboring Iraq.

The limited spill over of the Syrian crisis within Iraq’s Sunni populated areas bordering Syria proves that, in spite of the domestic chaos, Nouri al Maliki is in solid control of the country. During the past year, PM Maliki has consolidated control over the state apparatus which has allowed him to expand control over Sunni populated areas through the deployment of army divisions, co-opt even local Sunni political leaders and contain, to some extent, the spill over of the Syrian crisis in these Sunni provinces bordering Syria.

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Like Russia, Iran has previously attempted to mediate between the Syrian government and representatives of the opposition and rebellion. But for a variety of reasons, unlike with Russia, the opposition and rebels have refused to talk with Iran in Turkey. So Iran's "sister state" has assumed the attempt, with which the opposition has at least spoken to the Iraqis. This should be seen as a similar or even shared interest of Tehran and Baghdad to reduce the violence currently raging in Syria.