March 21, 2012 Edition 12

Bitterlemons International

Syria and Iraq have been at odds for the last 50 years. Since the early 1960s, both countries have been ruled by two rival wings of the Baath Party. Both wings seized power in their respective countries via a military coup. This inter-party rivalry caused the two countries to be at each other’s throats for most of this period. Both countries nurtured opposition to the other’s regime. Bashar Assad’s Syria hosted the Iraqi opposition in all its political and religious colors in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, while Saddam Hussein’s Iraq hosted and supported the Syrian opposition, be they members of the rival Syrian Baath Party, pan-Arab nationalists or Sunni Islamists (usually members of the banned fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood).
After the fall of the regime in Iraq in 2003 and the coming to power of Syrian and Iranian-backed, and later American-supported, Iraqi opposition parties, one would have expected that the Syrian regime would back the new Iraqi government led by its former ally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was exiled in Syria for 15 years. But that didn’t happen. 

Instead, Assad’s Syria facilitated the passage of (and perhaps trained and armed) hundreds of jihadists and suicide bombers that have crossed the border into Iraq since 2003. They spread havoc, death and destruction across the country, with Iraqi civilian casualties running into the hundreds of thousands. At the same time, Syria has given refuge to rank and file Iraqi Baathists who fled Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, launching frequent armed operations from Syrian soil into Iraq. 

This old friction between the two countries worsened. The Syrian regime took active steps to destabilize the new Iraq for fear of democracy. Iraqi leaders continuously appealed to their former allies to halt the movement of terrorists and armed groups across the border, but this fell on deaf ears in Damascus, which had an interest in the failure of the new Iraqi experiment. Iraq’s prime minister, fed up with false Syrian promises, filed a complaint against Syria at the United Nations and asked for an international enquiry into Syrian involvement in his country’s security problem. He said he had strong evidence of Syrian involvement in major bombings that targeted the Iraqi foreign and finance ministries and left many casualties. 

Al-Maliki tried later to appease the Syrian regime by sending several delegations to Damascus, one of them headed by him personally. He offered trade deals to woo the regime away from his archrival for the Iraqi premiership in 2010, Ayad Allawi. Maliki’s success was only partial, but he did manage to hang on to his job. 

All this happened before the “Arab spring”, but by the time demonstrations began in Syria, everything had changed. Iraqi leaders stood strongly by the Syrian regime for fear of the alternative, which is perceived to be the ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslim Brotherhood that is hostile to followers of Shiite doctrine in general and critical of the American-backed Shiite regime in Iraq in particular. This stance of the Iraqi government is also in line with the policies of its other regional ally, Iran, which has been a backer of the Assad regime since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Many believe there is a religious bond between the Alawite-controlled regime in Syria, the largely-Shiite Iranians and Iraq’s new leaders, but this tie is likely exaggerated. Shiite and Alawite beliefs are really quite different. The Shiites, at least, do not approve of Alawite doctrine and regard it as renegade. But both may share a common fear of a strong Sunni-dominated regime in Syria that they believe would be allied to their common rival, Saudi Arabia. Judging by what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, no one believes change in Syria will be democratic in the long term since it will bring to power a sectarian Islamic fundamentalist party. This very thought instills fear in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, as well as among religious minorities in Syria itself, including Alawites and Christians.

Given the above, regime change in Syria will have adverse implications for Iraq, especially after the position the al-Maliki government has taken towards the Assad regime. The new Syria–presumably Sunni-dominated–will certainly host and nurture an Iraqi opposition, especially one with similar political and sectarian leanings. With Iran increasing its influence in Iraq, and Syria newly fighting back against Tehran’s efforts to undermine its regime using Iran’s influence in Iraq, the latter will be a certain loser since it is able neither to hold back Iran nor to counter a possible Saudi-backed fundamentalist Syrian regime that is also supporting an Iraqi fundamentalist and nationalist opposition. This is a recipe for long-term instability in Iraq. 

Is this scenario inevitable? Certainly not. But it’s the nightmare scenario for Iraq and Iran, among others. The Iranians have proven themselves to be very pragmatic, especially while under international pressure over their nuclear ambitions. They could change alliances and establish good relations with the new Syrian fundamentalist regime, especially when it is bound to be weak and under threat from Israel. They have been allies of Hamas, which is the Palestinian version of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Also, with all these shifting alliances, Iraq has an interest in adjusting its position to have a normal relationship with the new Syria, especially when the new regime is weak and in need of economic help that Iraq and Iran could provide. It’s a period of changing ties, although one thing is fixed: instability will continue to be the order of the day. -Published 22/3/2012 ©