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Syrian Conflict Casts Long Shadow Over Iraq

Uncertain allegiances and fears of spillover.
By Laith Hammoudi
  • Demonstration in Iraq's Anbar province in support of the Syrian uprising, February 2012.  (Photo: Iraq Revolution)
    Demonstration in Iraq's Anbar province in support of the Syrian uprising, February 2012. (Photo: Iraq Revolution)

With no resolution in sight, the conflict in Syria is causing all sorts of headaches in neighbouring Iraq, where a Shia-led government is concerned at the prospect of regime change while its Sunni Arab opponents back the rebels.

Caught between the Iran to the east and Tehran’s ally Bashar al-Assad to the west, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is finding its loyalties severely tested.

The official stance is that Baghdad is not backing President Assad but wants any power transition to be peaceful.

Realities on the ground and in the wider region make it harder to sustain a studious neutrality. According to AP news agency, US officials suspect the Iraqis of quietly allowing Iranian arms to cross their territory to bolster Assad’s military.

For their part, Iraqi security officials have expressed concern at what they say are covert arms shipments heading both ways, to anti-government forces in both Iraq and Syria. There are fears that the porous border between the two countries could blur the lines of conflict, as shown when over 40 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqis died in an ambush by Sunni insurgents this March. The incident took place in Iraq’s western Anbar province, close to the frontier.

In Baghdad, some believe the rise of sectarian attacks at home is linked to the rise of hardline Sunni militants in the Syrian rebel movement. For those who take this view, the nightmare scenario would be if Assad was overthrown and al-Nusrah became the dominant force in Damascus.

“We are not on the side of the Syrian regime,” Hakim al-Zamili, who sits on the Iraqi parliamentary committee for defence, told IWPR. “We support the Syrian people in their demands for reform. But we are against the use of violence for regime change, because the collapse of the Assad regime and extremist rule in Syria would threaten Iraq’s newborn democracy.”

Zamili warns that such an outcome would inevitably mean renewed sectarian war in Iraq.

“The extremists don’t deny that their ambition is to incorporate Iraq into what they call the Islamic State of Sham and Iraq,” he said.

As evidence of the direct link between militant groups, Zamili pointed to the weekly demonstrations held in Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces, which he said bore striking similarities to Syrian rebel tactics, even down to the custom of according similar names to each Friday protest.

Political analyst Nabil Salim takes an opposing view, arguing that the Iraqi protests are not inspired by events in Syria, but are instead about dire social and economic conditions at home.

“The Syrian conflict has no effect on Iraq in any way,” he insisted.

Salim argues that the very fact that insurgent activity remains at a high level in Iraq undermines claims that Iraqi paramilitaries have been slipping out of the country to join up with anti-Assad forces.

If the Shia-led government in Baghdad appears reluctant to see Assad go, its Sunni opponents are broadly sympathetic to the rebels. That might seem natural given their respective political and religious alignments, but it was not always so.

From the time Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 until late in 2010, the Iraqi government frequently accused Assad of fomenting unrest in Iraq and providing safe haven to insurgents, especially but not only to Baath party members. Over the same period, Iraqiya, the main Sunni parliamentary bloc often defended the Syrian government on the grounds that it was housing and feeding large numbers of Iraqi refugees.

Conflict in Syria has effectively switched those two positions.

Another effect of the fighting has been to reverse the flow of refugees.

Sectarian violence in the years after 2003 prompted tens of thousands of Iraqis to go to Syria. The head of the parliamentary committee for displaced persons, Liqaa Wardi, says there were 143,000 Iraqi families in Syria at the beginning of 2011. She says about 100,000 individuals have returned to Iraq since the Syrian unrest began.

Iraq itself has become a destination for Syrian refugees, although Wardi is critical of the way this has been handled, with the Iraqi authorities sealing border crossings and allowing only women and children into the refugee camps.

“That policy has increased the suffering of refugees as it separated families,” she said.

As of April 28, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said there were just under 138,000 registered Syrian refugees in Iraq. The vast majority were in the Kurdistan region, with just 6,800 in Anbar province.

Laith Hammoudi is IWPR’s editor in Iraq.


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