Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Does Saudi Arabia have a game plan in Iraq?

Saudi Arabia may have interests in Iraq, but its strategy towards its northern neighbour seems to be a risky gamble, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir sparked uproar in Baghdad when he described Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) as a “sectarian militia organisation” with affiliations to Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat also accused the predominately Shia PMF as causing problems and divisions and committing ethnic crimes against civilians in different areas in Iraq.

Al-Jubeir’s remarks came ahead of a military push to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and the rest of Nineveh Province from the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Regional Sunni powerhouses, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have warned against PMF participation in the campaign to liberate Mosul, claiming that they may fuel sectarianism in Iraq.

“If they enter Mosul, there will be catastrophes. They committed horrible crimes in Fallujah that increased the sectarian tension,” Al-Jubeir said during a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of strategic talks between foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Turkey.

“The Iraqi government should use its national army and the sons of the areas concerned and elements who are not considered pro-Iranian if it wants to confront Daesh,” Al-Jubeir said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “All sects and ethnicities should participate so that they will feel included.”

Iraqi Shia leaders, who hail the PMF as an iconic force formed by a fatwa, or religious edict, of Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, dismissed Al-Jubeir’s remarks as “worthless” and vowed that the PMF would continue its conquest against IS despite the opposition.

Iraqi-Saudi relations have taken on a new twist following Al-Jubeir’s barrage, as the crisis in Iraq has begun to draw the oil-rich kingdom closer to Turkey, which has been signalling its intention to send its military into Mosul to protect its Sunni coreligionists against what it describes as possible Shia control of the city.

The emerging Saudi-Turkish alliance in Iraq, coupled with threats from Turkey that its army will enter Mosul despite Baghdad’s objections, has raised the stakes, as many analysts believe that such sectarian policies could further increase the instability in the region.

As yet, it is unclear how Riyadh will respond to the Mosul campaign and if it will join Turkey in its drive to cash in on the offensive to advance its security and geopolitical agenda in Iraq.

From Riyadh’s perspective, an assertive Saudi role in Iraq is a necessity, but the key question remains what power or potential the kingdom has to influence geopolitics in Iraq without at the same time undermining its security and stability.

Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations with Baghdad in 2015 after a 21-year hiatus. Riyadh severed diplomatic ties and closed its Baghdad mission after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The kingdom joined the United States and other Western countries in tightening a UN sanctions regime and diplomatic efforts to isolate Saddam’s regime.

After Saddam’s fall in 2003, Riyadh kept its embassy in Baghdad closed as tensions between the conservative Sunni kingdom and Iraq’s new Shia rulers grew increasingly tense. Saudi Arabia remained sceptical of the new Shia-led government in Iraq, which it considered to be sectarian and pro-Iranian, its main regional enemy.

Iraq has welcomed the Saudi gesture to restore diplomatic relations, expressing hopes that it will end the kingdom’s containment policy. Yet, a fully-fledged rapprochement to end the two-and-a-half decade freeze between the two countries has turned out to be far-fetched.

Soon after he started his mission in Baghdad, Riyadh’s ambassador, Thamer Al-Sabhan, a former army officer, began irritating Iraqi officials when he began making statements seen by Shia politicians as provocative.

He also resorted to social networks to make online statements asserting the kingdom’s traditional policy of confronting the influence of Shia Iran as well as Iraq’s Shia militant groups and political parties that Riyadh considers to be Iranian proxies.

For many Iraqis, Al-Sabhan’s statements were provocative and stoked divisions in a country already plagued by sectarian conflicts. They viewed Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness as a matter of provocation and petulance.

Judged against the objectives Al-Sabhan had apparently set for his loaded comments, Saudi Arabia’s new aggressive diplomacy backfired. In August, Baghdad asked Riyadh to replace Al-Sabhan, whom it described as being an “obstacle to the development of relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia”.

The two countries have also faced each other in international forums over regional conflicts such as that in Syria, Iran’s regional influence, and the increasing role of Iran’s Shia allies in Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.

The Iraqi-Saudi relationship took a dive in January when Riyadh announced the execution of the Saudi Shia religious leader Nimr Al-Nimr. The execution sparked mass protests in Iraq and furthered inflamed the existing tensions.

Saudi Arabia last week announced it was downgrading its diplomatic mission in Baghdad and named an army officer as chargé d’affaires to replace its ambassador to Iraq who was asked to leave the country in August.

Hours later, Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that its main Website had been attacked by a Saudi hacker. In a post he left on the Website with a Saudi flag in the background, the anonymous hacker addressed the Iraqi government as a “slave of Iran and the devil”.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia said it had named Al-Sabhan as minister of state for the Arab Gulf region. The new post seems to have been created to annoy Iran, which disputes the name and insists on calling the waterway the Persian Gulf.

On the surface, Saudi Arabia seems to be continuing to play hard ball with the Iraqi Shia-led government, hoping that this approach will put pressure on Baghdad to distance itself from Tehran.

What Riyadh has not yet sorted out is how to go about implementing its tough-talk strategy, as Iraqi Shia groups continue to consolidate their power in Iraq and boost their alliance with Iran.

At first glance, it appears that the kingdom will rely on its new-found alliance with Turkey to create a Sunni foothold in Iraq that will give Riyadh a second wind to assert its traditional political practices towards the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

This will largely depend on whether Turkish troops will be allowed to participate in the battle to retake Mosul and if Turkey will be able to maintain its military presence in northern Iraq following the retaking of Mosul from IS.

On Monday, Iraqi forces began a major offensive to take back Mosul from IS militants. The initial operation aimed at closing in on the city, already bombarded from the ground and the air, before a final assault on the militants’ last major Iraqi stronghold.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said that only Iraqi army troops and members of the national police force would enter Mosul, effectively dealing a severe blow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to send Turkish troops into Mosul.

The rhetoric of the Turkish assertiveness in Mosul has attracted criticisms at home and abroad, and it will certainly not help to achieve stability in Iraq or the region. It would, therefore, be surprising to analysts if Saudi Arabia considered an alliance with Turkey as its best choice in Iraq.

That leaves the question of what political and strategic assets Saudi Arabia has that it can use to influence the situation in Iraq without shooting itself in the foot.

For years, the oil-rich kingdom has used its financial muscle and connections with some Iraqi politicians, tribal leaders and religious figures to try to establish a foothold inside Iraq and counter Iran’s mounting influence.

This cheque-book diplomacy in Iraq has not helped to make any breakthroughs, though, and it has even fuelled sectarianism and further empowered Shia groups in Iraq.

Iraq’s expected victory in Mosul will raise hopes that IS’s demise could be closer than many had thought. As the victorious groups, the Shia political factions and the Iran-backed Shia militias will most certainly be emboldened and will increasingly operate as the country’s main military and political forces.

Unquestionably, the Shia triumph over IS will further boost the influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival, in Iraq.

The Saudi-Turkish alliance, which aims at changing the rules of the game in the proxy wars in Iraq, will most probably undermine Riyadh’s campaign to achieve influence in Iraq and will make its efforts to protect its core national interests even more difficult.

The fundamental national interest for all states is survival, and without a stable, peaceful and friendly Iraq threats to Saudi Arabia’s survival, also challenged in Yemen and Syria, will be dangerously unbound.

One sensible move would be for Saudi Arabia to acknowledge the mistakes in its Iraqi policies and start reaching out to all Iraqis and to the Baghdad government in a humbler and more realistic way.

It should also make concerted gestures to help rebuild the country following its devastating war against IS.

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