the Assad regime in Syria fights for its life, it is important to remember that
it still possesses a considerable number of assets. Perhaps most important among
these is the fact that its regional allies have not abandoned it. As has been
made clear in recent days, both the Iranian regime and its Lebanese client
Hezbollah are sticking with their troubled Ba’ath colleague in Syria. But the
list of President Bashar Assad’s friends does not end with these two.
third local addition to the roster of influential players still backing Assad is
the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.
Maliki’s backing of Assad is
of significance beyond merely the Syrian context. It is an indication that
Shia-led Iraq is drawing closer to Iran.
This is taking place
simultaneously with the gains made by Sunni Islamism in a variety of Arab
countries as a result of the upheavals of 2011. The direction in which Maliki is
moving Iraq reflects an emergent reality of sharpened sectarian divisions in the
increasingly Islamized political landscape of the Middle East.
outset, the Maliki government refused to join in the growing chorus of
international and regional Arab condemnation of Assad’s brutal methods. While
the Saudis, Tunisians, Kuwaitis and Bahrainis rapidly withdrew their ambassadors
from Damascus, the government of Iraq made do with expressions of mild hope that
Assad would “quicken” the pace of reforms.
The position of the Iraqi
government has remained constant. As the bloodshed in Syria increased and the
Western world called for the isolation of the regime, Maliki entertained a
high-profile delegation of Syrian officials and entrepreneurs.
abstained on the vote in the Arab League to suspend Syrian membership. Baghdad
abstained in the same forum in late November on the vote to impose sanctions on
Iraq, together with Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, has made clear
that it does not consider itself obligated by the sanctions. There are fears
that Iraqi and Lebanese cooperation with Syria to circumvent the restrictions
will empty them of all content. Certainly, the Syrian regime is banking on
Iraq is Syria’s second-largest trading partner (after the EU). It
accounts for fully 13 percent of Syria’s total trade – a value of $5.3 billion
Maliki’s steadfast support for Assad is particularly striking
because it is in stark contrast to the situation that existed until very
recently. In 2009, Baghdad cut off relations with Syria. Maliki was furious at
evidence that Assad had sponsored bombings in Baghdad. The Assad regime had also
been a strong supporter of the Sunni insurgency against US forces in
Now all this has changed. Maliki, who managed to form his second
coalition after elections in 2010, is one of the few remaining Arab allies of
the Syrian regime.
Why? The keys to understanding the Iraqi shift are the
imminent departure of US forces from Iraq and the long political game that the
Islamic Republic of Iran has been playing in both Iraq and Syria.
the US and its allies were engaged in military activity in Iraq, the Iranians
were pursuing an altogether more subtle strategy.
This involved the
sponsorship of political movements and the amassing of political power and
influence for use on the day after the US pulls out of Iraq.
elections, Maliki was only able to form his government – after months of
wrangling – because the Iranian-backed movement of Moqtada al-Sadr chose
eventually to back him.
This took place after Iran brokered a deal
between Sadr and Maliki. Negotiations for the deal took place in Qom, in
Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Qods
Force, and Muhammad Kawtharani, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah member, were
instrumental in brokering the agreement.
In other words, Maliki is able
to rule because he is in coalition with an Iranian proxy.
There is an
economic factor alongside the politics. Iranian firms have invested heavily in
reconstruction projects in Iraq. In July, 2011, for example, a contract was
signed for the construction of a 2,500-kilometer gas pipeline that will carry
Iranian gas along the breadth of Iraq to Syria.
Add to these political
and economic elements the seismic shock of the Arab upheavals of 2011, which are
benefiting Sunni Islamist forces in country after country, and it becomes easier
to understand Maliki’s interest in moving closer to the Shia regional alliance
led by Iran.
Acquiring Iranian patronage involves helping out other
clients. One favor deserves another.
Assad, a key member of the club, is
in trouble. So, against all the odds, the Iraqis are getting on board with the
task of trying to preserve his regime.
There has been much reporting in
recent weeks of Hamas’s scramble to extricate itself from the Shia alliance led
by Iran and to relocate itself with the currently embryonic Sunni Islamist bloc
that looks like it will be the main legacy of the Arab Spring. Iraq appears to
be traveling in the opposite direction, its motivation a mirror-image of that of
Iraq is about to return to full sovereignty. As it does so, it is
also about to present the region and the world with an entity of a type
previously unknown in modernity – a Shia-majority Arab state under Shia rule. In
a Middle East region in which Islamic politics is moving ever closer to center-
stage, it is therefore not surprising that a Shia-ruled Iraq should choose to
align itself with the regional bloc led by Iran. The Iranians skillfully
prepared the pathway. The logic of events make Maliki more than willing to walk
The assistance that Maliki’s Iraq is currently affording its
beleaguered former arch-enemy in Damascus should be seen as a type of entry fee
into the Iranled regional alliance. The Iraqi prime minister has evidently done
his accounting and decided that the price is a fair one.
replacement of Saddam Hussein’s regime by a Shialed Iraq now aligning with Iran
was worth the loss of 4,478 US lives and an investment of $750b. is of course an
entirely different calculation.