Iran’s Long Leash
Although Syria’s neighbors have been negatively impacted by the country’s crisis, Iraq’s sectarian tensions and the religious, historical and cultural bonds between Syrians and Iraqis connect the two states’ political fates. While many of Iraq’s Sunnis support the Syrian opposition, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki continues to lend considerable support to Damascus, not only as a proxy for Iran but also fearing that Al Qaeda affiliates and anti-Shia groups may gain safe haven in a post-Assad Syria, and in turn wage war against Baghdad. Recent events suggest that the Syrian crisis may ultimately push Iraq back to renewed sectarian civil war.
Given Mr. Maliki’s orientation toward Iran and Syria, Washington realizes that Baghdad is not aligned with the interests of the U.S. and its regional allies. Despite the Obama Administration’s efforts to convince Iraq to deny Iran its airspace in an attempt to impede the flow of weapons to President Assad, Iraq continues to allow Iran’s shipments to occur.
Baghdad has every reason to continue to support the transfer of Iranian weapons into Syria, because the rise of Sunni Islamists with an extremist ideology in Syria pose an existential threat to the post-Saddam Shia-led order in Iraq.
Any doubts about the interconnectedness of the Syrian crisis with Iraq were eliminated at the beginning of March following a bloody exchange along the border. Fighters from the Syrian Army sought refuge in Iraq and were escorted by an Iraqi military convoy to the al-Walid border crossing when they were attacked by Iraqi jihadists linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq. Damascus and Baghdad view the Sunni-majority Anbar Province with grave concern, considering that Jabhat Al-Nusra and like-minded Salafists in western Iraq have mutual interests, both within the two countries and the greater Middle East. There is every reason to expect further turmoil to arise along the Iraqi-Syrian border as the Syrian crisis continues.
During the U.S. occupation, the Iraqi and U.S. governments claimed that Damascus sponsored jihadist militants inside Syria for the purpose of waging deadly attacks against coalition forces in Iraq. Assad responded that the situation could not be controlled by the Syrian state given that the border is porous. The tables are now turned, and Assad must address the jihadists’ exploitation of the same porous border. Baghdad is today cooperating with the Assad regime to combat some of the same groups that threaten to turn Syria into a Wahabbi theocracy.
Beyond sectarianism, the Baghdad-Damascus alliance should be understood in terms of energy politics. Shortly before the commencement of the Arab Awakening, Qatari officials approached President Assad and proposed a natural gas pipeline that would transit Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, targeting European markets. To Doha’s disappointment, President Assad instead opted for an Iran-Iraq-Syria “Islamic Gas Pipeline” that would strengthen Damascus’ international alliances by aiding Tehran’s efforts to undermine western-imposed economic sanctions and promote Russian leverage over natural gas prices for the European Union, rather than seeing competition from Qatar put pressure on gas prices.
Considering that Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field (South Pars/North Dome), President Assad’s inclination toward Iran was not well received in Doha, which envisions a Muslim Brotherhood-led political order replacing the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, thereby making the Qatari pipeline more likely to become a reality. Prime Minister Maliki knows that a Qatar/Saudi/Jordan/Syria pipeline would exclude Iraq and further isolate Iran in the process. Evidence of Baghdad and Doha being opposing stakeholders in Syria was evident when Iraq’s national security advisor traveled to Washington in early March and accused Qatar of sponsoring Jabhat Al-Nusra – designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department — in Syria.
The Syrian crisis has certainly added a new dimension to the complicated historical relationship between Iraq and Syria, as well as complicating regional energy issues and strengthening Iran’s hand in influencing events in the region. There is little reason to expect that either Iraq or Syria will stabilize in the near to medium term. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the diverse ethnic, religious and tribal mosaic that comprises both countries will only serve to make it less likely that a peaceful or predictable outcome is possible under current circumstances. Iraq and Syria will remain a battleground, and Iran will continue to spin its web of influence in both countries and throughout the region.