A wary Iraq weighs its options as Syrian civil war deepens
Fears in Iraq of a spillover of Syria's fighting, or a victory for Sunni Islamists hostile to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, have Iraq weighing its options.
In Pictures Reaching a critical juncture in Syria
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Iraq has said it is trying to play a neutral role in the conflict next door. But escalating violence, involvement by regional players, and the Shiite-led government’s unique fear of a more hostile successor than the Syrian president appears to have made neutrality impossible.
“We think the regime is finished, but we are afraid of what comes next,” says a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be identified.
For now, there are concerns that Iraq is tolerating military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Baghdad’s sincerity in agreeing to intercept Iranian military shipments to Syria has again come under scrutiny due to limited efforts on its part to inspect Iranian aircraft using Iraqi airspace. Iraq has searched only two Iranian flights since it began the inspections two months ago, according to diplomats and government officials. One of them was returning from Damascus rather than heading there.
“The biggest concern we have is the facilitation of the Iranian air bridge,” says a Western diplomat. “They know what’s in those flights, we know what’s in those flights, and they’re continuing. The inspection process is a charade.”
The diplomat said Iranian flights to Syria had increased significantly over the past few months at the same time the West was seeing evidence of an increased Iranian intelligence presence in the fighting. He said the flights were believed to include surveillance equipment and technical personnel allowing Syria’s secret police to more effectively find and kill opponents.
Arms to Syria
While Iran is believed to be providing support to the Syrian government, countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar are widely believed to be channeling weapons to opposition forces. Diplomats say Gulf states though have so far refrained from providing strategic weapons such as antitank missiles in fear that they could eventually be used against the countries that provided them.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week said Iraq did not have the capacity to search every plane but emphasized that his country is committed to not being a transit point for weapons to Syria.
While the Arab uprisings have upended repressive regimes, they have also threatened historical alliances. Russia fears not only losing its main foothold in the Middle East if Mr. Assad falls but it also fears the potential spread of Islamic militancy to the Muslim populations of the former Soviet republics.
The ties to the Muslim Brotherhood of many figures who until recently dominated the Syrian opposition have also fueled fears by the Iraqi government that Assad could be replaced by a hard-line Sunni government.
While Syria turned a blind eye to Al Qaeda fighters transiting through their country to launch attacks in Iraq during the sectarian war here before the uprising, the Iraqi and Syrian governments had begun to improve relations.