Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar Abadi appears to be following the same policy towards Syria as his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, but with much less fanfare. Both allowed Iraqi men to travel to fight in Syria. Maliki let Iran fly arms and military equipment over Iraq to Syria. Now Abadi said that Russia could use Iraqi air space to hit targets in Syria. The difference between the two premiers is that Maliki was open about his support for the Assad government, while Abadi has taken a more low key approach.
Under Abadi Iraqis have continued to flow into Syria and the door has been opened to Russian over flights over Iraq. In March 2016 for example, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard called on Iraqi Hashd groups to send fighters to Syria to make up for the withdrawal of Russian forces. In August, Harakat al-Nujaba announced that it was sending around 2,000 men to southern Aleppo to assist in a Syrian government offensive there. Finally, after Russian bombers were deployed to Iran, Abadi said that they could use Iraqi airspace to carry out operations in Syria. Besides the comments about Russia however, Abadi has said relatively little about Syria or the thousands of Iraqis who have joined the war there. He has not even commented when these foreign deployments have hurt Iraq. For example, after Baiji was freed in October 2015 the Hashd said that they would take Shirqat next in northern Salahaddin. That never happened as many of the fighters were called up by Iran to support the Russian intervention in Syria.
Maliki was the one that changed Iraq’s stance towards Syria and came out in support of the Assad government. Before the Syrian civil war, Maliki had condemned Syria’s support for terrorists in Iraq and giving sanctuary to the two main factions of the Baath Party. In 2011 however, Maliki changed his tune saying that he stood with President Assad warning that his overthrow would open the door to jihadists taking power. The next year Iraqi parties and militias began mobilizing fighters to fight for Damascus. In January 2012 for instance, the Badr Organization called for an army of Iraqis to counter Sunni militants in Syria. (1) Maliki also allowed Iran to fly military equipment across Iraq to the Syrian regime. His stance was driven not only by his fears of what might come from the Syrian civil war, but also because he had tilted towards Iran after the U.S. military withdrawal. Tehran and Damascus had an alliance dating back years, and was able to draw Iraq into it.
Maliki is one of Abadi’s main opponents, but the two leaders have maintained the same path when it comes to Syria. While Maliki was inspired by Iran and the growing jihadist presence in Syria, Abadi has another set of issues driving his stance towards Assad. Abadi came into office in a very weak position. For one he lacked a base and didn’t even control his own Dawa Party. He has also had a difficult relationship with the pro-Iranian Hashd factions that have often criticized his policies. With those and other problems putting pressure on him the prime minister chose to pick his battles and decided to leave Syrian policy as is.
1. Al-Mada, “Official in Basra calling for the formation of an army of two million to support Assad,” 1/7/12
Blomfield, Adrian, “Syria: fall of Bashar al-Assad will bring war to Middle East, warns Iraq,” Telegraph, 12/4/11
Fadel, Leith, “Iraqi fighters pour into southern Aleppo,” Al Masdar News, 8/8/16
Iraqi News, “Iraqi airspace opened for Russia, confirms Abadi,” 8/16/16
Al-Mada, “Official in Basra calling for the formation of an army of two million to support Assad,” 1/7/12
McDowall, Angus and Rasheed, Ahmed, “Iraq militia fighters join battle for Syria’s Aleppo,” Reuters, 9/7/16
Morris, Loveday and Salim, Mustafa, “Iran backs battle for Syria’s Aleppo with proxies, ground troops,” Washington Post, 10/19/15
Murphy, Dan, “Deadly Iraq bombings and a reawakening insurgency,” Christian Science Monitor, 7/24/12
The Real BTL, “Iran Mobilizing Iraq Militias To Enter Syria After Russian Withdrawal,” 3/21/16