Thursday, September 6, 2012

Understanding Iraq’s Syrian Policy

When talking about the relationship between Iraq and Syria, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Baghdad is backing Damascus at the behest of Iran. Syria has been one of Tehran’s closest allies in the region. It is therefore threatened by the possible fall of President Bashar al-Assad. Many also see Iraq as being under the influence of Iran now that the United States military is out of the country. This assumes that Iraq cannot act independently, and is basically a proxy of Tehran in the Middle East. This theory overlooks the security concerns of the Iraqi government, which is the driving force being its Syrian policy.

Iraq has passively supported the Syrian government, while criticizing it at the same time. Officially, Baghdad is neutral towards Damascus. Diplomatically, Iraq has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. At the end of August 2012 for instance, it suggested that the Non-Aligned Movement act as a middleman in negotiations between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the opposition. Before that, it backed a United Nations-Arab League initiative led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Officially, Baghdad has also said that it wants democracy in Syria, but only through peaceful means. At the same time, Iraq has done nothing to push Assad to compromise with his opponents. In July, it rejected an Arab League resolution calling for him to step down. In February, it was against an Arab League proposal to arm the Syrian opposition. In December 2011, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that if Assad were to fall, it would cause problems throughout the Middle East, and when the fighting first broke out, he called on the Syrian people to wait for their government to carry out reforms rather than use violence. On the other hand, Maliki has been critical of Assad. Baghdad has said that Damascus needed to give its people more freedoms, and an adviser to the premier called Assad a dictator. Overall, Iraq has given its implicit support to Syria. The Annan plan has proved to be a failure, and Maliki’s suggestion that the Non-Aligned Movement get involved is unlikely to go anywhere as well. Baghdad therefore has given off the impression that it wants to help the situation next door, but is basically allowing Assad to stay in power. This stance has led to accusations that Iraq is doing Iran’s bidding. Several Saudi papers have attacked Maliki as being an Iranian puppet for example. The driving force behind this policy however, is the foreign interference in the fighting, and the fear that it will spill over into Iraq.
Premier Maliki is afraid of what might happen if the Assad government were to fall in Syria (AP)
Iraq’s stance towards Syria is driven by security concerns. Baghdad is afraid that Sunni militants within the opposition will take over after the fall of Assad or at least be able to set up bases there, which will then be used to threaten Iraq. Former National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Maliki Mowfaq Rubaie for instance, said that civil war in Syria could give way to Islamists coming to power there. He stated that they could in turn fuel the insurgency in Iraq, and start a new civil war. Iraqi officials have also claimed that people from Anbar and Ninewa are heading to Syria to fight, that there were training camps in Anbar for Syrian fighters, and recruiting drives in the province. Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Asadi warned that weapons were being shipped to Syria to be used against the government, and that jihadists from foreign countries were heading there as well. Baghdad has also warned of Al Qaeda in Iraq taking advantage of the situation. U.S. officials have made similar claims. Those views have been bolstered by Al Qaeda in Iraq’s umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, calling for jihad in Syria, saying the fight there was a battle between Sunnis and Shiites. These concerns of the growing threat posed by the conflict in Syria seem to resonate amongst many in Iraq. There was a report on Radio Free Iraq for example, interviewing average Iraqis in Karbala who worried that Islamists were taking advantage of the situation next door, and how that would negatively affect them. The son of a leading cleric in Najaf also told the New York Times that his father was afraid of the fall of Assad, and how that would play out in Iraq. A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani stated that he wanted Assad to stay in power, because of the possible negative consequences his removal might have on Iraq. Finally, the Sadr Movement has voiced similar concerns. To add to this, Iraq has accused countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, who Baghdad believes are already trying to undermine Maliki’s government, of arming the Syrian opposition. The fighting in Syria is seen in sectarian terms in Iraq. Baghdad, the Sadr movement, elements of the Shiite clerical establishment, and the street have all voiced fears that if Assad were to go, Sunni militants would take over or at least be able to take advantage of the ensuing chaos to establish new bases. They would then turn their attention back to Iraq. The Islamist elements within the Syrian opposition appear to be rather small, but calls for jihad within and without Iraq to fight Shiites, and the foreign interference of countries, which have also opposed Baghdad, all play upon the country’s recent history. To many, it seems like a repeat of Iraq’s insurgency and civil war. Iraq is just pulling itself out of that chaos, and does not want to see it renewed, because of Syria. That is why Maliki is following his current policy, not because of any Iranian influence. If Tehran did not exist, many Iraqis would still feel threatened by the events occurring next door.

Iraq once saw Syria as a direct threat, because it supported the insurgency, but is now afraid of what might happen if Damascus were to fall to those same types of militants. From 2003-2010, Syria was the main conduit for foreign fighters to enter Iraq. The Assad government helped ferry them through the country, made contacts with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and gave them logistical support. In 2010, relations between the two improved, as U.S. troops began to leave Iraq, and the Assad and Maliki governments attempted to renew ties, and increase trade. When the Arab Spring hit Syria, and Damascus cracked down on it. Baghdad in turn, began criticizing the violence, while giving implicit support to Assad. As the fighting escalated, many elements within Iraq became more and more alarmed, as jihadists and neighboring countries began getting involved. Today, those groups see the Syrian fighting as a direct threat to stability in Iraq. They are afraid that if the Syrian government was to fall, the chaos would spill over, and there would be increased violence in Iraq. A lot of Iraqis see elements of their own civil war playing out in Syria, and want to protect themselves from it. That is the driving force behind Baghdad’s policy, far more than any influence Iran might have.


Agence France Presse, “Iraq accuses some Arab states of helping fund terror,” 2/17/12
- “Iraq, Iran funding Syrian crackdown: former official,” 1/5/11
- “Iraq’s Sadr rejects US call for Assad to go,” 8/19/11
- “Sadr says his followers not fighting in Syria,” 6/8/12
- “Syria under ‘jihadist invasion,’” 2/12/12
- “Thousands of Iraqi Sunnis protest Assad,” 3/2/12

AIN, “Syrian FM: Syria welcomes Iraqi proposal over Syrian crisis,” 8/31/12

Ali, Hussam, “Al-Qaeda trains militants in Nineveh for Syria, says security committee,” AK News, 3/17/12

Ali, Sara, “Shia forces are supporting Damascus and Sunni forces are supporting the opposition, says Kurdish Syrian opposition leader,” AK News, 4/23/12

Alsumaria News, “Governor of Anbar confirms possession of evidence of the entry of armed elements of the Mehdi Army to Syria,” 11/19/11
- “”Jihadists” and weapons from Iraq to Syria,” 2/12/12

Arango, Tim, “Syria’s Sectarian Fears Keep Region on Edge,” New York Times, 2/28/12

Arango, Tim and Adnan, Duraid, “For Iraqis, Aid to Rebels in Syria Repays a Debt,” New York Times, 2/13/12

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- “Iraq says Al Qaeda fighters crossing from Iraq to Syria and carrying out attacks,” 7/5/12

Aswat al-Iraq, “Diplomats warns against Jihadists’ infiltration from Iraq into Syria,” 4/23/12
- “Sadrist Trend renews fears of deteriorating Syria on Iraq,” 2/15/12
- “Syria exports 20 million dollars daily to Iraq,” 1/16/12
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International Crisis Group, “Déjà vu All Over Again? Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis,” 7/30/12
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Kitabat, “Pumping Iraqi financial and travel agencies in Damascus and the interface for the recruitment of two articles to keep the lion,” 6/6/12

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Al-Mada, “Official in Basra calling for the formation of an army of two million to support Assad,” 1/7/12

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Wong, Kristina, “Iraq resists U.S. prod, lets Iran fly arms to Syria,” Washington Times, 3/15/12

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Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...

Great piece, Joel. I have long thought thus about Iraq's Syria policy also, even as many neoconservatives have claimed to me that the Iraqi Foreign Ministry is 'in bed with Tehran' (to quote one of them).

The one thing I am unsure about is this:

***The Islamist elements within the Syrian opposition appear to be rather small...***

I think that in the first months of the revolt this was true but over time it has become much more prominent. For example there are now many videos on Youtube where suspected pro-regime men have been tortured into confessing that they are supposedly Shi'a. Also see this:

But maybe that is partly my own Iraqi mindset ;)

Joel Wing said...


I can't tell how much a role Islamists are really playing in the Syrian conflict. There is a lot of propaganda being made, and they are definitely talking about it, but what's real and just bluster seems hard to decipher.

Joel Wing said...

Aymenn paper by Quilliam Foundation finds jihadists only 10% of SYrian fighters