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.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters
Members of a Syrian refugee family, who fled the violence back home, walk at the Domiz refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk in July.

As Syria implodes, shock waves from the sectarian conflict are being felt in Baghdad, where a beleaguered Iraqi government is struggling to maintain a hard-won but fragile stability.

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.

“We will not be a party in the conflict between the Free Syrian Army or the government,” said Mr. Maliki, who spent years in exile in Syria under Saddam Hussein’s rule.

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.

Iraq, which is a Shiite majority, has the Arab world’s only Shiite-led government. Shiite flags commemorating mourning for Imam Hussein drape government buildings including the Oil Ministry and fly from police cars in central Baghdad. But Maliki and many senior officials remain convinced they are surrounded by enemies inside and out who want to see their downfall.

Fear and warnings

“We have information that there are regional attempts to destroy the security situation in Kirkuk, Ninevah, and Diyala,” Maliki told a press conference this week. He said a regional security command he had set up for the three northern provinces was aimed not against the Kurds but at extremist forces backed by other countries.

He said those militants were aimed at launching attacks and creating "an imagined ‘Free Iraqi Army.’"

The comment was Maliki’s first public reference to a reported group modeled after the Free Syrian Army and linked by Iraqi government officials to former Baathists, including former Iraqi Army officers, and Sunni extremists – many of them with ties to Syria and Jordan.

It’s not clear whether the group is a genuine force or simply a propaganda tool for recruitment purposes. None of its members have claimed responsibility for attacks against government targets.

Some of Iraq’s allies are concerned the country could be too preoccupied with the fear of Syria becoming a Sunni extremist state to keep its options option.

“Our advice to them is to look ahead. We think this regime is finished, and if they continue to give it support or allow others to give it support then it will be difficult for them to develop good relations with whatever the successor arrangement is,” says the Western diplomat.

The Iraqi government’s efforts to play a mediating role with Assad failed when it became clear that the Syrian government was intent on continuing its military campaign. Opposition leaders have ignored Baghdad’s advice to hold talks with the Syrian government.


“The Syrian opposition is really illiterate in the art of opposition,” says one senior Kurdish official. “They have this zero-sum game – us or them – and in an opposition this is wrong. You have to be flexible. We did it – Saddam was massacring us and led 2 [million], 3 million of our people to flee and our people were talking to him in Baghdad.”

As a sign of Baghdad’s carefully evolving position regarding Syria, government officials have indicated Iraq could support a no-fly zone preventing the Syrian government from launching airstrikes against its people. A US, British and French no-fly zone after the Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s stopped Iraqi government attacks in the north.

While Iraqi officials emphasize the country’s humanitarian efforts in sending food and medicine to Syria, those efforts have not extended to allowing in large numbers of Syrian refugees.

Kurdish Syrians crossing the border in the north are given refuge in camps in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. But hundreds of miles from Baghdad at the main border crossing of al-Qaim, Iraqi forces have closed the border to all but the most desperate of Syrian refugees.

United Nations officials say only six or seven Syrians a day are being allowed across that border in Western Anbar Province, almost all of them sick or wounded.

More than 1 million Iraqis took refuge in Syria during the sectarian fighting here. While the Iraqi government has said it does not have the capacity to care for the Syrian refugees, it has also made clear its main worry is security.

When the Syrian side of the border fell to opposition fighters earlier this year, the Iraqi government immediately sealed its side of the crossing with concrete barriers. A makeshift gate now carefully controls who crosses into Iraq. Every afternoon, Iraqis drop off food and medicine between the two border gates, leaving it for the Syrian side to pick up.

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