Iraqis struggle to keep Syria's war out

Iraq succeeded in bringing sectarian tensions and violence down from their 2006 and 2007 high – until war broke out in Syria.

Haider Ala/REUTERS
Syrian refugees play with a tire at the Domiz refugee camp in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk, September 2, 2013.

In a recent video produced by a Syrian jihadist group, several men believed to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria stop three Syrian truckers transporting goods through Iraq’s Anbar province, which borders Syria.

The Sunni militiamen quiz the truckers about how they pray, trying to determine if the men are Sunnis or Shiites – the two Muslim sects have slightly different prayer practices.  When their answers reveal them to be Alawites, a Shiite offshoot predominately loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the gunmen force the three men to kneel on the side of the road before executing them.

Scenes of sectarian violence like this one used to be common in Iraq during the peak of its civil war in 2006 and 2007. Though Iraqi society never really healed and the country remains a violent place, the situation appeared to be improving up until the point the civil erupted next door. 

As Syria’s civil war drags into its third year, Iraqis fear that their fate may be inextricably linked to their neighbor’s. Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites back rival sides in the conflict, militants from both groups have crossed the border to fight on behalf of their allies, and many now worry that it’s only a matter of time before Syria’s civil war engulfs Iraq, which was only beginning to recover from its own war when the anti-Assad uprising began.

“What’s happening in Syria is contributing to the issue of sectarianism, unfortunately, which we believe can be very catastrophic, not only to Iraq but to the whole region,” says Ayad Allawi, a prominent Iraqi politician and former prime minister. “Already we have a sectarian political landscape prevailing here in this country.”

Bringing war home

Iraq’s population is predominantly Muslim, and divided between Sunnis and Shiites. Sunnis enjoyed an outsized influence in government during the rule of Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni. After the American invasion, Shiites were given a greater share in the Iraqi government and now many Iraqis accuse Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of trying to consolidate power for his fellow Shiites and exclude Sunnis.

Last December, thousands of Sunnis in western Iraq’s Anbar province protested, alleging that they were being ignored by the Maliki government.

Syria’s civil war has evolved along similar lines. The opposition is made up primarily of Sunnis who were discriminated against by Assad’s Alawite government. When the uprising turned violent, some of Iraq’s Sunnis began crossing the border to fight alongside the rebels. Shiites sided with Assad and also started sending fighters.

Many Iraqis now fear that these fighters may return to Iraq when the Syrian conflict ends, bringing war with them. In July, Al Qaeda organized a jailbreak from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison that freed at least 250 militants. Among Iraqis, there’s much speculation many of these militants who were not recaptured have gone to fight in Syria, says Nada Ibrahim Aljubori, a member of the parliament's foreign affairs committee.

“There are a lot of e-mail messages that say Al Qaeda coalitions are sending messages to Iraq saying that when we finish in Syria we will come back to Iraq to get rid of this government and of all politicians and we will fight in Iraq,” she says. “Sectarian tension in Iraq is very high. If it continues like this, I’m afraid Iraq will go to a civil, sectarian war.”

Embracing Al Qaeda

Even without the traffic of militants moving between Iraq and Syria, the outcome of the Syrian war is of serious concern to Iraqis.

The removal of Assad would almost certainly result in a Sunni government in Syria, disrupting the region's balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites. The discord already prevalent among Iraq’s Sunnis, many of whom have family and tribal ties to Syrians just across the border, would make it easy for any new Sunni government in Syria to gain influence and potentially incite unrest in Iraq.

“Sunnis are feelings oppressed by Maliki and they’re opening up their areas to Al Qaeda again,” says Yassen S. Al-Bakri, a professor of political science at Nahrain University in Baghdad. “If Al Qaeda-linked groups topple the regime, Maliki is concerned that they will make a conservative Sunni government that will be actively involved with Anbar and make difficulties for Iraq.”

Amid this climate, there is growing concern among Iraqi Shiites that an American intervention that either weakens or removes Assad could be disastrous for Iraq.

If Assad’s government appears to be on the verge of collapse, Iraqis say they worry that Iran, a close ally of Assad, would try to send more resources through Iraq to the Syrian government. This could in turn create clashes with Sunni groups. Already, some analysts speculate that recent bombings targeting Shiite areas in Baghdad could be retaliation for the Shiites' support of the Assad government.

“If we don’t isolate Iraq from Syria, Iraq will always be in danger and the future will be unpredictable,” says Ihssan al-Shamari, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “If we put the Syria issue aside, Iraq will have a future one day, but it will take decades and decades to achieve this.”

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