Will Iraq play to the US tune in Syria?

Obama wants Assad gone, but can US ‘ally’ Iraq be persuaded to turn on the Syrian regime?
James Denselow
18 August 2011

This week the world briefly remembered Iraq when the worst bombings of the year left 70 dead and 300 wounded across the country. With civil war in Libya, civil strife in Syria and Yemen, and partial revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Iraq has been largely in the shadows of events elsewhere in 2011. Yet out of the glare of international attention a crucially important transition has been taking place in the country. 2011 is the year in which all US troops leave Iraq, despite the continued fragility of the security situation leading to an ongoing debate about whether or not the Iraqi government will ask some to remain. However, despite the US having one of its largest embassies on the planet in Baghdad, their ability to influence the often gridlocked Iraqi body-politic is questionable. This has been highlighted in the case of dealing with Syria.

The US has raised the stakes on Syria considerably. Secretary of State Clinton explained that ‘the United States has been instrumental in orchestrating [pressure on Syria]’ days before Obama himself decided that, with over 2,000 dead and tens of thousands missing, imprisoned or refugees, the time had come to abandon any hopes that Assad should remain in control.

However, the Obama administration will be painfully aware of its limited ability to influence Syrian behaviour. Syria is fairly sanction-proof after enduring tough US-led isolation during the terms of President George W Bush, who had labelled the country a junior member of the ‘axis of evil’. Today, with Syria likely to be protected at the United Nations by the Russian veto, Washington sees bilateral pressure on its allies as the best means to suffocate and help topple the Damascene regime.

Hilary Clinton has made it clear that the US is ‘pushing for stronger sanctions that we hope will be joined by other countries that have far bigger stakes economically than we do.’ Iraq, though, is currently in the process of doing exactly the opposite of what Washington wants by actually enhancing economic ties with Syria.

Indeed, last month Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki hosted a Syrian delegation of business and government figures to agree on the construction of a gas pipeline between the two countries and the sales of subsidised oil to Syria. Oil, as always in the Middle East, may play a pivotal role in forthcoming events. It is no surprise that Obama’s announcement included specific reference to Syria’s petroleum industry. Syria produces 380,000 barrels per day, which brings in some $4bn annually, almost a quarter of the government’s budget. Oil accounts for about 28 to 33 per cent of Syrian exports, with 96% of those exports bought in Europe: the simultaneous announcement affirming that Assad must go from Germany, France and the United Kingdom is an important development.

Syria Comment author Joshua Landis has said that ‘Prime Minister Maliki has fallen into line with Iran’s desire to help bolster the Assad regime’. But with the US and the Europeans joined by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Jordan against Assad, why is Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki so reluctant to join the international condemnation of Syria?

There are three main reasons: the first is his own vulnerability to the Arab Spring’s protests. Since February, tens of thousands of protesters have participated in demonstrations every Friday across Iraq. Maliki, like Assad, has approached the demonstrations with his own variety of carrots and sticks. He cut his $350,000 salary in half, announced the reduction of the government to 25 ministerial positions, and has sought to make a constitutional change to ensure a two-term limit to the office of prime minister. Yet Maliki has also unleashed Western-trained security forces who have tried to bar street protests and confine them (unsuccessfully) to football stadiums, as well as attacking and killing protestors including a bloody encounter on the 25th of February, in which twelve people were killed and over 100 injured.

A second reason for Maliki’s reticence to abandon Assad is the warming of bilateral ties over the past six months. This is in contrast to the general poverty of recent relations that were soured by claims from Baghdad that Damascus has been harbouring insurgents who were coordinating operations in Iraq. However, this January Damascus announced that it would start granting Iraqi visitors visas at the border. In a sign of the two countries’ improving relations, in February Syria’s Minister for Petroleum, Sufian Allao, and visiting Iraqi Minister for Oil, Abdul Kareem Luaibi, met to discuss ways of further bolstering bilateral cooperation in oil, gas and mineral resources.

In mid-March, as the protests that swept away the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak reached Syria, Damascus announced that their security forces had seized a large shipment of weapons, explosives and night-vision goggles in a truck coming from Iraq. The Iraqi government responded by promising better security on the border, a bizarre irony considering the long history of US/Iraqi concerns over the trafficking of weapons and insurgents in the other direction. The Syrian-Iraqi border region subsequently became an area of severe unrest as the protests in Syria spread in scale and momentum. July saw a combined Syrian military force attack the border town of Albokamal, with reports of dozens of Syrian soldiers defecting. Meanwhile in August operations coinciding with Ramadan commenced around the larger Euphrates town of Deir el-Zour, with dozens reported killed.

The third element determining Maliki’s actions is the shadow of Iranian influence. Maliki is close to Iran and Iran is Syria’s closest ally, with Clinton claiming that Assad “can look only to Iran for support”. However according to Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi Iran ‘has established influence within the Iraqi territories the extent of which it never dreamed.’ Tehran has stood by the Assad regime offering advice and lessons from its own recent protests on how to quell demonstrations.

Obama’s announcement that Assad should stand aside is the starting gun of a diplomatic offensive against the Syrian regime. Speaking ahead of the announcement, Hilary Clinton admitted that ‘it’s not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go, O.K. Fine. What’s next? If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.’ A critically important battle is whether or not Washington can isolate Syria from its neighbours by persuading Baghdad to support its, not Tehran’s, agendas. It is surely in US interests for Iraq to stay out of events in Syria.  

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