Kerry wants Iraq to stop arms shipments to Syria. Why would Iraq agree?

A sharp divergence in Iraqi and US interests was on display in Secretary of State John Kerry's surprise visit to Baghdad.

Jason Reed/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the media aboard an Air Force C-130 on his way back from Baghdad, Iraq on Sunday. Kerry is calling for Iraq to stop sending arms to Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry made a previously unannounced stop in Baghdad today, and in the process unintentionally highlighted the difficult job he's been assigned in advancing the US diplomatic agenda as regards to the Syrian civil war.

The US would like to see the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad fall, and has been expanding "non-lethal" support towards that objective even as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have been arming the rebels.

But Iraq is on the other side of the equation. After the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, a Shiite-Islamist government came to power in the country, with better current relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran than with the US. With Iran backing Mr. Assad, and the likelihood of Sunni Islamists coming to power if Assad falls, Iraq's interests and America's are sharply divergent.

To Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the people fighting Assad look very similar to the Sunni forces, many jihadi, that vehemently oppose his government and continue to carry out mass casualty suicide bombings in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq has already been working with some of the salafi rebel groups in Syria like the Jabhat al-Nusra (ironically on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations) and their dream would be to have a new friend across the border when the dust settles in Syria, arming and supporting them in their unlikely quest to restore Sunni Arab hegemony in Iraq.  

What's more, Iraq has oil. Lots of it. While it also has enormous social problems Iraq already has a fairly well-armed and capable military (Note: May have this wrong; knowledgeable folks on Twitter heavily dispute this and will do more research). There is very little Mr. Maliki needs from the US anymore (one of the reasons he, essentially, kicked US troops out of the country at the end of 2011).

So that's the context in which Mr. Kerry arrived in Baghdad today to jawbone Maliki over tacit support for Assad. Kerry told reporters after he met Maliki that the US would like to see that support end, particularly allowing Iran to fly through Iraqi airspace to help arm and supply the Syrian military. The US also alleges that arms-shipments are being trucked through Iraq from Iran to aid Assad.

"We had a very spirited discussion on the subject of the overflights," Kerry said. "And I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see President Assad step down and to see a democratic process take hold..., for those of us engaged in that effort, anything that supports President Assad is problematic. And I made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President Assad and his regime."

Well, yes. Those flights are not in US interests. Maliki appears to view those flights as in Iraq's interests.

Kerry has a tough job. But it's striking how aggrieved the tone was from him today, and longer-term from other US officials both under the Obama administration and the Bush administration before him, as if the basic divergence of interests aren't understood.

"I also made it clear to [Maliki] that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful – how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the Prime Minister with respect to Syria and President Assad."

The US has some potential leverage with Iraq. It's training largely Shiite troops who answer to Maliki how to better target Sunni groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq to prevent them from arming and aiding jihadis in the Syrian uprising (while the US wants Assad to fall, it obviously doesn't want to see salafi jihadis who view America and Israel as enemies coming to power). And Iraq continues to seek arms purchases from the US.

But Maliki, as the saying goes, lives in a tough neighborhood, and the fallout of Assad's demise could be seriously destabilizing for Iraq, particularly in the predominantly Sunni areas that border Syria. Maliki has generally been noncommittal in his public statements about Iraq's stance on Assad.

In the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, both America and Iraq's nascent leaders were united in their fury at Assad, who at minimum tolerated a flow of jihadis through his territory to feed the insurgency (since senior US officials had mooted the possibility of invading Syria after Iraq, tying US forces down next door made sense to Assad).

Ten years later, the situation has changed. Iraq's government may not have any particular love for Assad, but fears what might come next, far more than the US does.

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