Iraq/Syria: What’s behind Baghdad’s support of Bashar al-Assad

The civil war in Syria further exacerbates divisions within Iraqi society.

The neutrality displayed by the Iraqi government regarding the Syrian crisis is often interpreted as complacency toward the government of Bashar al-Assad. However, at the start of the Syrian crisis, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, openly displayed strong hostility towards the Syrian regime.  The risk of contagion of violence in Iraq got the better of this opposition. The policy of non-interference adopted by the Iraqi state since then aims, above all, to contain an escalation of hostilities between different ethno-religious groups exacerbated by the Syrian conflict.

The neutrality displayed by the Iraqi government regarding the Syrian crisis is often interpreted as complacency toward the government of Bashar al-Assad. However, at the start of the Syrian crisis, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, openly displayed strong hostility towards the Syrian regime.  The risk of contagion of violence in Iraq got the better of this opposition. The policy of non-interference adopted by the Iraqi state since then aims, above all, to contain an escalation of hostilities between different ethno-religious groups exacerbated by the Syrian conflict.

Cet article a été publié initialement en français : Irak - Syrie : les raisons derrière le soutien de Bagdad à Bachar al-Assad

 

The specter of an American invasion of Iraq hovered this past summer over reactions to a call by the United States to form an international coalition for intervention in Syria. It is, however, the Syrian crisis that, for the moment, may weigh heavily on Iraq’s fragile situation.

Iraqi reactions to the Syrian crisis are complex, because they are influenced by profound sectarian and political conflict in Iraq’s society. This aspect was the subject of a study by Professor Hosham Dawod, a specialist in political anthropology and scientific director of the program for the Near and Middle East at the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme, in Paris. Published in open access in the HAL-SHS repository last month, it puts forward a dark prognosis. “Whatever the outcome is, Iraq will not emerge unscathed,” he writes. The preexisting fractures in Iraqi society between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds have found new grounds for discord.

The war in Syria aggravates divisions within Iraqi society. (Flickr/Normand 2012)

Shia political currents tend to support the Syrian regime. Shiite militias have even enlisted alongside loyalist troops. This may seem surprising when Damascus did not hesitate to support Sunni Muslim militant groups following the American intervention in 2003. As for Iraqi Sunnis, they tend to see in the rebel cause the privileged expression of community solidarity, as well as a way of opposing the al-Maliki government in its support of the Assad regime. At the same time, it is not a matter of true, Sunni cohesion across borders. Only jihadist movements go so far as to send reinforcements. The Kurds support, above all, the idea of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, modeled on their government in Iraq. Some of them support the rebels while others temporarily ally themselves with Damascus.

Iraqis all keep in mind, however, the arrogant position of the Syrian government regarding the recognized infiltration of Sunni terrorists from across the Syrian border. Syria may also have deliberately sheltered leaders of Saddam Hussein’s party after his fall. Adding to the provocations, the Syrian president also declared before a delegation that his and Saddam Hussein’s regimes respected the same Ba’athist ideology. 

If, today, the al-Maliki government is willing to overlook these pre-crisis quarrels, it is mainly out of fear that the fall of Bashar al-Assad would favor the creation of a Sunni coalition on both sides of the border—a fear that pushes Nouri al-Maliki to associate the Syrian popular uprising with an insurrection led by Sunni extremists. This is why, in 2012, he rejected the Arab League plan demanding that the Syrian president step down. This view was further reinforced by last April’s merging of the Iraqi branch of Al Qaida with Jabhat Al-Nusra, Syria’s main armed jihadist organization (and the principal armed force behind the rebellion.)

“For the Iraqi government, the Syrian rebellion is more and more divided, increasing the risk that an extremist faction will emerge and spread to Iraq and Lebanon,” writes Hosham Dawod. The hundreds of thousands of dead and the millions displaced during the terrible years of 2005 to 2008 remain in the memories of all. The fear of a new denominational war is at the heart of Iraq’s wariness surrounding the Syrian crisis.

The strategic rapprochement between Baghdad and Tehran that has been going on for several years is also visible in this situation. Having been in exile in Iran during the 1980s, today Nouri al-Maliki is sensitive to the strategic vision of the Middle East that the Islamic Republic holds dear. Beyond the denominational schism between Shias and Sunnis going back to the Umayyad dynasty, the desire also exists to counteract the Sunni influence of the Gulf Arab countries looking to impose a new project on a post-Assad Syria, protected from Iranian influence.

All the same, these precautions and strategies have not convinced Pierre-Jean Luizard, a research director with the CNRS in society and religions, and a specialist on Iraq and contemporary history of Islam. In a 2012 article (in French), he was already pessimistic regarding the evolution of the Iraqi situation: “The denominational divisions in Iraq can only get worse (with the Syrian crisis): the return of large-scale anti-Shiite terrorism and increasing tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous region are to be expected. The current paralysis of Iraqi institutions illustrates the inability of the Iraqi political system to bring the country out of the infernal spiral it seems trapped in.”

The Iraqi authorities fear for their survival. A serious internal political crisis has shaken the country since the flight, in 2012, of the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi. The internal tensions have only worsened since then and aggravate all the more the divisions within the society. Especially since the post-Ba’athist reconstruction put in place by the Americans has been compromised from the start. It is perhaps this vulnerable position that made Baghdad one of the first governments to foresee the severity of the crisis. As early as 2011, it maintained that, in the long term, the Syrian conflict would develop into a civil war.

 

Thank you to Jonathan Hassine, author of a thesis on the Syrian crisis, for his valuable help.

Hosham Dawod’s article (in French), available on the site of the FMSH: http://www.fmsh.fr/fr/c/1488