Entering dangerous waters
The Iraqi government may be taking unknown risks by standing behind the Al-Assad regime in Syria, writes Salah Nasrawi
Ever since Syrians erupted in protest against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and the ruling Syrian Baath Party some nine months ago, Iraq's Shia-led government has refused to support the uprising in the neighbouring country, insisting that moves to topple the Syrian regime could trigger a civil war that would endanger Iraq's stability.
This week Iraq defied a US-backed Arab League strategy to isolate the Syrian regime and rejected the regional organisation's decision to impose tight economic sanctions against Syria following the country's refusal to abide by an Arab plan to defuse the crisis.
In so doing, Iraq seems to be charting a course that will draw it closer to Shia Iran, a strategic ally of the Syrian regime, and most likely will pit it against Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey and western nations that have been trying to isolate the Al-Assad regime.
Such a course could be fraught with dangers for Iraq, which is already entangled in the deepening regional crisis. The US troop withdrawal from Iraq at the end of year is also expected to sharpen political instability in the country, possibly creating a security vacuum.
Iraq was the only country to express its reservations about a 27 November resolution by the League's Council to impose economic sanctions on Syria. On 12 November, Iraq also abstained from a vote to suspend Syria from the Arab League.
In defending his government's decision, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said that the events in Syria had a direct impact on his country and he warned that extremists might take over in Syria if the Al-Assad regime fell.
Insisting that Iraq's refusal to join other Arab countries in isolating Syria emanates from fears of a spillover from the upheaval in the country, Iraqi officials have denied that the Iraqi stance reflects backing from the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus.
They have also scoffed at suggestions that Iraq is toeing the line supported by Shia Iran.
Whether it reflects fears that the unrest in Syria could have an impact on Iraq, or whether as a result of confessional motivations, Iraq's Syria policy has raised questions about the way the Shia-controlled government in the country has been handling the crisis in its western neighbour.
A look at Iraq's political spectrum reveals that the country's diverse ethnic, religious and ideological groups are sharply divided over their government's policy towards the Syrian uprising.
The pro-Iranian radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has expressed support for the al-Assad regime and blasted the Arab League as "a subservient consortium" serving the interests of the United States and Israel.
Syrian opposition groups have accused Al-Sadr of sending thousands of his Al-Mahdi Army militiamen to fight with troops loyal to the embattled Al-Assad regime, a charge his aides have denied.
Other Iraqi Shias are opposed to giving any support to the al-Assad regime, accusing it of standing behind the Sunni insurgency that has killed thousands of Shias since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
While Iraqi Kurds, who share national aspirations with fellow Kurds in Syria, have voiced concerns about the crackdown on Syrian Kurds taking part in the uprising, many Iraqi Kurds are wary of Syria's Sunni Arabs, fearing that if they come to power in the country they may treat the non-Arab Kurds even worse than did al-Assad.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs are worried that by siding with Syria, which is ruled by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, the Iraqi Shia-led government intends to help in the crackdown on protesters demanding reforms in Syria, who are largely from the country's Sunni majority.
Some Iraqi Sunnis would also favour post-al-Assad Syria being dominated by Sunnis, who could sympathise with them in what they see as a fight for political control of Iraq with the country's Shias.
Meanwhile, liberal-minded Iraqis blame their government for failing to support the protestors in Syria, accusing it of even having a hand in blocking the success of the uprising.
Domestic political and ethnic complexities apart, Iraq's Syria policy has been affected by uncertainty over what will happen next if Iraq, in the middle of a high-stakes regional power game, becomes further enmeshed in the Syrian crisis.
The crisis in Syria is polarising the region amid fears that the country, a key strategic actor, is heading toward violent escalation or even bloody civil war.
If this happens, it could pit neighbouring Sunni-dominated states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran, a Syrian ally that wields significant influence over the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Shia-led government in Iraq.
Syria has been a cornerstone of Iran's foreign policy, and were Al-Assad to fall, it would be a massive blow to Tehran's regional strategy and would vastly reduce Iran's geopolitical influence.
Tehran has made it known that it is determined to continue its alliance with the Al-Assad regime, calling it a bulwark of resistance against the West and Israel.
Sunni Arab Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian opposition in an attempt to partner with proxies inside Syria and shape events there.
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar took the lead in sponsoring the recent Arab League decisions, and they have warned that they will take the Syrian crisis to the UN Security Council if the violence in the country continues.
Television networks such as the Saudi-owned Al-Arabia network and the Qatari network Al-Jazeera have been focusing attention on Syria in campaigns similar to their backing of the Libyan rebels who eventually succeeded in ousting former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The two countries have reportedly been smuggling cash, satellite phones and weapons into Syria through Sunni tribesmen living along Syria's borders with Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
Turkey, Syria's northern neighbour, has been involved in regional and international efforts to help the opposition remove al-Assad from power, effectively placing Ankara in an alliance with the Sunni Arab nations.
For its part, Jordan, Syria's southern neighbour, which has been receiving money from Saudi Arabia to help it head off a possible popular uprising in the kingdom, has also began tightening the noose around the al-Assad regime.
Lebanon's Sunnis have been expressing their support for the Syrian opposition, joining the emerging regional Sunni alliance against the Syrian Alawite regime.
All this tightens the screw on Iraq's Shias, forcing them to tread carefully amid Syrian geopolitical and sectarian minefields that have a direct bearing on Iraq's own religious and other divides.
Iraqi Shia leaders are aware of the dangers, even if they do not seem to be working on solutions. By siding with the al-Assad regime, they are being pushed into a tripartite Shia axis that could include them with Iran and Hizbullah in a potential confrontation with the regional Sunni powers.
Instead of being caught in the crossfire, Iraq's Shia-led government still has the opportunity to chart a different course, one which could help both Iraq and Syria to navigate through the tricky waters ahead.
The Iraqi Shia-led government could offer to mediate between the al-Assad regime and its opponents, paving the way for democratic reforms and a peaceful transition of power.
It could also make diplomatic moves by cooperating with countries like Russia, China, India and Brazil in order to find a peaceful path to solving the Syrian crisis.
It is above all important that Iraq's Shia-led government persuades its neighbours that its intentions are benign and that it is not harbouring sectarian intentions.