Al-Maliki Plays Regional Power Games in Syria

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In a speech on the occasion of the opening of the World Youth Festival in Baghdad on the 12th of August last year, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki described the Syrian revolution as a fire, ignited either by ignorant haters or by external wills for the purposes of their own policies and interests. However, this was in stark contrast with his views on the war waged against his country in 2003 by foreign powers without an international mandate and without a popular uprising having taken place.

It was this war that enabled him to return from exile in 2003 to later become the Prime Minister of the country. In earlier declarations in 2012, al-Maliki said “It has been one year and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime did not fall, and it will not fall, and why should it fall?” He went on to say that overthrowing the Syrian regime by force would aggravate the crisis in the region. After announcing his defection from Assad’s regime last year, Mahmoud Suleiman Haj Hamad, the Inspector General of the Central Financial Monitoring Commission within the Syrian Prime Minister’s office, revealed in interviews to Arab channels that the Syrian regime had received 28 million Euros in financial aid from the Iraqi government to pay the Shabiha (regime thugs) who have participated in quelling the protests.

The declarations of the Iraqi prime minister together with the financial and the diplomatic support that the Iraqi government is providing to the Syrian regime demonstrates hypocrisy on two fronts. The first is that despite the fact that Nouri al-Maliki and his government staff once fought against a dictator who oppressed Iraq for more than thirty years, they are, in a contradiction of their previous principles, criticizing the revolt of the Syrian people against a brutal regime of the same dictatorial nature. The second is that Iraq had repeatedly accused Damascus in the past of letting Sunni insurgents and arms transit through Syria in order to carry out attacks inside the country, especially during the brutal sectarian conflict that erupted after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, the best rule to remember in Syrian-Iraqi relations is that there are no perpetual friends or perpetual enemies. So, how has this relationship shifted from hostility into cooperation within the last decade and what factors lie behind the Iraqi stance on the Syrian revolution?

Although both countries share a long border and cultural links, and have been ruled according to a similar Ba’thist ideology to a certain extent, relations between Iraq and Syria have been characterized by mutual suspicion and hostility during much of the last half century. The Sunni-Shiite difference between the Syrian regime and that of Iraq since the 1970s was to have serious implications for the relationship between the two countries. This was illustrated when Hafez al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite minority that is considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam, sided with Iran against Iraq, which was ruled by Saddam Hussein – a Sunni.

The Shi’a majority in Iraq (some 55 percent) has finally assumed power thanks in large measure to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. However, the American invasion of Iraq was seen as an imminent threat to the Syrian regime especially after suggestions that the US should go to war with Syria following its military success against its neighbour. Syria has tried to ensure that Iraq does not serve as a base for the U.S. interests in destabilizing its political order. It has tried to rid the country of American influence – particularly of American military personnel – to the greatest extent possible. Syria has aggressively used its patronage networks, economic ties, aid money, and military support to various factions in Iraq to achieve these goals. The Syrian regime has encouraged the influx of foreign fighters (mostly Arabs from neighboring countries) to enter Iraq and assist the insurgency. Many of these fighters were Wahhabi fundamentalists who saw Iraq as the new “field of jihad” in the battle against US forces.

The Syrian tactics have proved to be a success to a great extent. U.S. public opinion was tired of an endless, defensive war, in which 4,421 had been killed and more than 32,000 had been wounded in action. In 2008, the American and Iraqi government signed the U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement which stipulated that all American forces should withdraw from Iraqi cities by 30 June 2009 and from Iraqi territory altogether by 31 December 2011. These events have heralded a new a relationship between the two regimes that have seen more economic benefits in their cooperation. Syrian-Iraqi relations have experienced remarkable developments in recent years and the reciprocal visits between the two countries have led to a number of agreements on economic cooperation including an agreement for resuming pumping of oil through the Syrian territories which was suspended in 1982. This new relationship has paved the way for the creation of a Shiite crescent from Beirut to the Arabian Gulf, presided over by Iran.

The Syrian revolution was considered as a blow to the Shiite crescent and Iran’s regional influence. The Syrian opposition argues that there are sectarian roots for Iraq’s support of the Syrian regime and that there is a connection between religion and politics in this stance. It is no secret that Nouri al-Maliki spent most of his life from 1979 until 2003 moving between Tehran and Damascus until US coalition forces invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam’s regime in 2003. During those two decades, he developed close ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Syrian officials whose help he sought in overthrowing Saddam. Iraq’s Shiite-dominated leadership is extremely worried about a victory by Sunnis in Syria which is likely to give further impetus for Sunnis to resist the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad given the long borders between the two countries, especially in the Sunni-controlled provinces of Anbar and Nineveh.

There are already some indications that Militant Sunnis from Iraq have been going to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad for months. On the other hand, Iraqi Shiites, mainly from Jaysh Al-Mahdi, who are trained by Iran, have increasingly been travelling to Syria to fight the Sunni-led opposition. Encouraged by their Sunni fellows in Syria and dissatisfied with the policies of Nouri al-Maliki towards the Syrian revolution, tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis massed along the major western cities in Anbar, Salah al-Din, Baghdad, Nineveh and Diyala.

In a recent protest in Iraq, protesters shouted to Maliki that they were a free people and that he should learn a lesson from Bashar, a reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, Nouri Al-Maliki did not learn his lesson well when he went along with his fellow Shiites in Syria and Iran in their goal to spoil a popular peaceful uprising in its initial stages. Had he decided to side with the Syrian people and their legitimate demands, based on pan-Arab nationalism and not sectarianism, a new chapter in the history of the Middle East might already have begun.

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English

Haian Dukhan

About Haian Dukhan

Haian is from Palmyra in Syria and is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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