Syria is experiencing a bloody Arab Spring, which Iraq might be involved in. Starting in March 2011, protests broke out in Syria, which the government immediately cracked down upon, but was not able to stop. By the fall, there were demonstrations across the country, and Damascus was responding with more and more force; leading to defections from the army. Beginning in the summer, reports emerged that the Iraqi government, along with leading Shiite parties were backing Damascus with political, economic, and military support.
|Syrian protesters outside mosque in Daraa that was raided by government forces leading to the deaths of several activists (Reuters)|
In March 2011, Syrians took to the streets against President Bashar al-Assad. The southern city of Daraa became a center of anti-government activity. On March 18, there were protests there, and four other cities including Damascus. The security forces were sent into Daraa, and ended up killing 3-5 people. This happened despite the claim by President Assad that Syria would not experience the Arab Spring. A few days later, the security forces raided a mosque in Daraa, which had been used as a center for activists, and killed six of them. These events would go on to galvanize the anti-Assad movement in the country. In the following days, there were marches in cities and towns across the country, with several more people ending up being killed by the government. In September, the Free Syrian Army was announced, made up of defectors from the military, which placed the country on the verge of civil war. Syria was one of the more repressive regimes in the Middle East, and therefore it came as no surprise that it would react to demonstrations the way it did. The Assad family has been in power since 1970 when the president’s father staged a coup against fellow Baathists, and it has been wholly unwilling to reform much since then, let alone allow dissent. Instead, it has responded with an iron first the Baath Party is known for.
|Army disserters such as these that have gone over to the opposition are likely the forces the Mahdi Army are fighting in Syria. (AFP)|
The Iraqi government and some of the leading Shiite parties responded by supporting President Assad. The first hint that Iraqis might be involved in Syria came from a UPI report in early June 2011, which claimed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was training the Mahdi Army to work in other countries. One of the countries mentioned in the article as a possible destination for the militiamen was Syria to support the regime there. The next month, former Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi passed a note from President Jalal Talabani to President Assad, which said that Iraq supported his government. This was just one of many high-level political and economic meetings the two countries started having last year. By August, Moqtada al-Sadr issued a statement rejecting calls for President Assad to step down from power. Sadr previously said he supported the Arab Spring in the rest of the region, but said that Syria was different, because it opposed the United States. Sadr’s words of support were followed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saying the people of Syria should wait for the government there to reform, something unlikely to happen anytime soon. An aide to the premier told reporters that Baghdad was worried that the problems in Syria would spill over into Iraq, and claimed that secretly it wanted regime change in Damascus, but could not say so publicly. Iraq’s actions however, would undermine those statements. In November for example, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria, but Iraq abstained. A few days later, Sadr again said that he stood by Damascus, and then the governor of Anbar claimed that Mahdi Army fighters were infiltrating into Syria through his province. (1) (2) One of the main opposition groups, the Syrian National Council said as much in a November statement. Reports also emerged that Baghdad was secretly backing Assad as well. Niqash magazine ran an article claiming that Internet filtering devices, sent from the United States and meant for the Interior Ministry, mysteriously ended up in Syria. That equipment was being used by Damascus against the opposition. As added support, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that enforcing sanctions against Syria would not be possible. In 2010, trade between the two countries reached $2 billion, and in 2011 it was supposed to hit $3 billion. In December, Maliki again expressed his support for Assad, and said that he was worried that if the government fell in Syria that it would lead to civil war, sectarian violence, and Sunni militants would take over who would threaten Iraq. That same month, a member of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria accused Iran of using Mahdi Army and Hezbollah fighters to prop up the government. That was followed by an interview on Al Jazeera with a former Syrian official who said that Iraq and Iran were sending money to Damascus. Finally, in January 2012, an official from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Badr Brigade called for an army made up of Badr and Mahdi Army militiamen to organize in Basra, and then depart to fight in Syria to back up the government. He said this force was necessary to counter Sunni militants from taking power, and he went on to blame Saudi Arabia for destabilizing Damascus. All together, these reports painted a picture of how both the Iraqi government and two of its leading parties came to back President Assad. This was quite a change from the two countries previous relationship. Syria use to be the main transit point for foreign fighters and money entering Iraq for the insurgency, and many leaders of the banned Baath Party took up residence there. In the last several years however, the two have been trying to improve their ties, sending delegations two each other’s capitals, signing economic agreements, improving security along the border, and increasing trade. Iran likely played a role as well, applying pressure upon Baghdad and parties friendly to it such as the Supreme Council and the Sadrists since Syria is one of its most important allies in the Middle East. All together, that led Iraq to defy international sanctions, the majority of the Arab League, and stand by while hundreds of people were gunned down by the Assad regime.
|Today, Iraq's Premier Maliki (Left) and Syria's President Assad (Right) have become allies (Tehran Times)|
Iraq and Syria were once long time rivals, but that has changed now. In the past, the two Baathist governments vied for control of the party and leadership in the Arab world. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Syria became one of the main opponents of the new government in Baghdad. Ties eventually thawed between the two. That has led Baghdad to oppose international sanctions against Syria, provide intelligence equipment to Damascus, and allegedly send money as well. Not only that, but the Mahdi Army appears to be fighting for President Assad. That is quite a change in relations. Whether it was because of pressure from Iran that wanted friendly relations between the two or because the governments simply found common ground on certain issues, Syria and Iraq today are standing side by side. That has led one of the regions only fledging democracies to help one of its last repressive regimes.
1. Alsumaria News, “Governor of Anbar confirms possession of evidence of the entry of armed elements of the Mehdi Army to Syria,” 11/19/11
2. A group in Anbar that supports the opposition claims that it has created a militia to attack Mahdi Army fighters travelling through the province on their way to Syria.
Agence France Presse, “Iraq, Iran funding Syrian crackdown: former official,” 1/5/11
- “Iraq’s Sadr backs embattled Syrian leader Assad,” 11/17/11
- “Iraq’s Sadr rejects US call for Assad to go,” 8/19/11
Alsumaria News, “Governor of Anbar confirms possession of evidence of the entry of armed elements of the Mehdi Army to Syria,” 11/19/11
Blomfield, Adrian, “Syria: fall of Bashar al-Assad will bring war to Middle East, warns Iraq,” Telegraph, 12/4/11
Dehghanpour, Slamak and Gorji, Babak, “Free Syrian Army calls for Immediate International Action,” Voice of America, 12/18/11
Faraj, Salam, “Syria trade ties pushed Iraq to oppose sanctions,” Agence France Presse, 11/29/11
Guardian, “Syrian police seal off city of Daraa after security forces kill five protesters,” 3/19/11
Habib, Mustafa, “why iraq didn’t vote on syria: vested interests incapacitate foreign ministry,” Niqash, 11/17/11
Haddadi, Anissa, “Syria: Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr Reported Sending Fighters to Prop Up Assad Regime,” International Business Times, 11/23/11
Landis, Joshua, “Syrian Pound Falls to 59.4 to the Dollar,” Syrian Comment, 11/29/11
Al-Mada, “Official in Basra calling for the formation of an army of two million to support Assad,” 1/7/12
Marsh, Katherine, “Syria unleashes force on protesters demanding freedom as unrest spreads,” Guardian, 3/25/11
Al-Rafidayn, “Talabani Reassures Syrian President Of Iraq’s Support For His Reform Program,” MEMRI Blog, 7/27/11
Schmidt, Michael and Ghazi, Yasir, “Iraq Calls for Change of Syrian Regime,” New York Times, 9/20/11
Sly, Liz, “In Syria, defectors form dissident army in sign uprising may be entering new phase,” Washington Post, 9/25/11
UPI, “Iran ‘grooms Mehdi Army for gulf ops,’” 6/9/11
Waleed, Khaled, “what was iraq’s role in the export of banned us-made web watching gear to syria?” Niqash, 11/24/11
Yilmaz, Muzaffer Ercan, “The Syrian uprising and the future of Turkish-Syrian relations,” Turkish Review, 10/5/11
Zahra, Hassan Abdul, “Iraq says sanctions on Syria ‘not possible,’” Agence France Presse, 11/26/11