No policy shift?
Iraq's balancing act on the Syrian crisis seems more confused than confusing, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari surprised delegates at a conference of the Syrian opposition groups in Cairo recently by describing the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as a revolt against injustice and tyranny.
Zebari also declared that Iraq was not neutral in the Syrian crisis and that the Syrians had every right to self-determination and to choose their future.
For many regional observers Zebari's remarks signalled a drastic shift in Iraqi policy towards Syria, which for a long time has been believed to be sympathetic towards the Al-Assad regime and wary of the danger that the Syrian crisis might spill over into Iraq.
Although Zebari stressed in his speech that he was only expressing his personal views, observers insisted on the significance of his statement as a sign that the Iraqi government was changing its attitude towards Al-Assad as the Syrian leader steadily loses ground in the 16-month uprising.
To anyone with a sense of Iraq's fledgling political system, the apparently diplomatic rhetoric used in Zebari's address to the sceptical Syrian opposition leaders and their Arab League hosts, who had avowedly called for Al-Assad's ouster, could hardly be missed.
The Shia-led government in Baghdad has repeatedly voiced concerns that the violence in Syria could spill over into Iraq and that the overthrow of Al-Assad's Alawite-dominated regime in neighbouring Syria could embolden Iraqi Sunnis and exacerbate sectarian tensions in Iraq.
In April, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, in one of the strongest Iraqi policy statements on Syria, said that the al-Assad regime would not fall and warned that attempts to overthrow it by force would aggravate the crisis in the region.
Zebari sought to play down any Iraqi policy change on Syria on his return to Baghdad. At a press conference in the Iraqi capital, he asserted that the violence in Syria was being fuelled by Al-Qaeda militants flooding across the borders from Iraq.
Zebari also said that a Yemen-style power transfer, which had earlier allowed former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power after months of anti-regime protests, was unlikely in Syria because Al-Assad would refuse to quit.
In these words, which could hardly be dismissed as empty verbiage or mere political rhetoric, Zebari seemed to be reiterating Baghdad's policy on the Syrian crisis, which considers it to be a threat to Iraq's security.
In another policy statement Zebari also dismissed the western and Arab League-backed scenario of offering Al-Assad exile as a way out of the crisis.
As a result, there seems to be no sign of a real shift in the Iraqi strategy on the Syrian crisis, which is largely determined by security considerations and how to prevent the growing instability in Syria adding to concerns over the volatile situation in Iraq.
Iraq is already gripped in a wave of Al-Qaeda orchestrated violence, and one of its worst nightmares would be that the organisation would be able to establish a stable presence inside neighbouring Syria as a result of the Syrian crisis.
On Monday, Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for some 40 deadly attacks in Iraq last month, mostly targeting Iraqi Shia pilgrims and security forces.
Even before the uprising against Al-Assad began last year, many Al-Qaeda suicide bombers and fighters used to slip into Iraq from Syria. In recent weeks Baghdad has deployed hundreds of Iraqi national security forces to the country's 400-mile border with Syria, making it the most heavily guarded of the country's frontiers.
However, Iraq's Shia-led government's policy towards Syria is far from clear, which might explain why observers have read positive signals into Zebari's statements to the Syrian opposition groups.
In the words of Al-Maliki, Iraq opposes any foreign interference in Syria's internal affairs. Nonetheless, Iraq also says that it supports the UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan to end the crisis, even though Annan himself has admitted that the international community's efforts to find a political solution to the crisis have failed.
Iraq also says that it is in contact with Syrian opposition groups, but it has opposed their military operations and has imposed strict measures to monitor the country's border to prevent weapons from reaching rebels who are fighting Al-Assad's army.
Nevertheless, apart from what seems to be deliberate ambiguity Al-Maliki's Shia-led government's strategy seems to have been consistent since the uprising started in Syria in February last year.
Its main goal remains to protect Iraq as much as possible from the impact of the violence in Syria.
Al-Maliki is treading a very delicate line because he does not want to be seen as supporting Al-Assad against the wishes of the Syrian people and most of the international community, but at the same time he is trying to ensure that no Sunni-dominated regime hostile to his government takes over in Damascus after Al-Assad's downfall.
Al-Maliki knows that the political imperative to deal with the crisis in the neighbouring country will have to be weighed against the sheer practicalities of the domestic, regional and international calculus.
Internally, Al-Maliki has indicated that he is acting according to Iraqi national interests by trying to head off any adverse implications of regime change in Syria along sectarian lines on Iraq's stability and unity. However, he has also got to be prepared to bear the costs and face the risks of such an outcome, which seems inevitable.
At the regional level, Al-Maliki does not want to be seen as acting out of sectarian motivations and of backing the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus. He has tried to avoid being seen as following Shia Iran's line of supporting Al-Assad. Still, Al Maliki realizes that Arab sunni regimes, who are financing and arming the Syrian opposition groups are not only seeking Al-Assad's downfall but also his own .
At the international level, Al-Maliki does not want to be seen as supportive of the Syrian regime either, and he is already under pressure to tighten the noose on Syria by stepping up economic sanctions and halting cross-border oil supplies and weapons transfers to the country.
Yet, Al-Maliki is aware of the divisions in the international community over outside military intervention and regime change under foreign pressure in Syria, and he might prefer to await a solution at a cost he can accept.
Among all Syria's neighbours, the stakes of the Syrian crisis are highest for Iraq. The Iraqi position should be seen in the context of the detrimental effects the Syrian upheaval could have on its fragile domestic situation and the choices of regional and world powers.
This could explain the confusion created by Zebari's address to the Syrian opposition. Observers will need to carefully watch and evaluate the behaviour of the Iraqi leadership towards Syria, which so far has been reactive rather than proactive even at moments when it is most needed to actively participate, if not to lead.