Syria: Spillover into Iraq?
Given Syria’s trade ties with Iraq, a post-Assad regime would be more likely to take on a role as mediator, advisor in Iraqi politics.
Shi'ite Muslims do Arbain observance, Iraq Photo: Mushtaq Muhammad/Reuters
Writing on his blog “Syria Comment,” Joshua Landis contends that “Iraq is seeing
much more spillover from Syria than Lebanon.” His premise is that “already in
response to the growing civil war in Syria, Iraqi violence has spiked and
al-Qaida is resurgent there.”
However, I contend that Landis is wrong on
several counts. Beginning with his premise, the notion that “Iraqi violence has
spiked” is based on a short term overview of trends of violence in Iraq, without
looking at the bigger picture. Indeed, this issue is a common fault when it
comes to media reporting on statistics of violence and civilian
For example, at the end of September, outlets like Reuters
reported that Iraq had seen its bloodiest month for more than two years, citing
a figure of 365 killed, supposedly double the toll from the previous
However, as Joel Wing of “Musings on Iraq” quickly noticed, the
media reports were simply basing themselves on government statistics, which have
consistently understated casualties to a large degree.
After all, the
leading “State of Law” coalition in government under the premier Nouri Maliki
emphasizes security for Iraqis as a key part of its political
An examination of the database of the Iraq Body Count (IBC),
which compiles figures based on extensive corroboration of media sources in
Arabic and English, will show that, in comparison with the preceding summer
months, September has hardly been out of the ordinary.
As of the time of
writing, the IBC records 372 violent deaths for September, while June, July and
August have 505, 419 and 398 fatalities respectively.
contrast strongly with the spring season, during which March, April and May
witnessed 347, 330 and 231 violent deaths respectively.
The point is that
these figures are part of the regular patterns in violence that have emerged
since the end of the sectarian civil war: that is, violence picks up in the
build-up to and throughout the summer, as insurgents step up their
If anything, the development of the Syrian civil war should
lead to the opposite of what Landis suggests: namely, a reduction in violence,
since it is apparent that many Sunni and Shi’a militants from Iraq have been
heading into Syria to aid the rebels or the Assad regime,
By attempting to draw a link with the Syrian civil war,
Landis overlooks the real problem of the growing sophistication of Iraqi
insurgent tactics. Indeed, analysts such as Hayder Khoei and Prashant Rao have
noted the increasing use of advanced technology among the insurgents, and their
improved ability to disguise themselves as members of the Iraqi security
This problem can in fact be tied to the US withdrawal, though it
was not an inevitable consequence of the American pullout, but rather the result
of poor decision-making on the part of the Iraqi government.
Knights pointed out in an interview with Joel Wing, after the US withdrawal the
Iraqi government decided to release some detainees who had been held by the
Americans. Part of the reason for doing this was undoubtedly an assumption that
now there was no longer an occupying foreign force on Iraqi soil, these
detainees would return to normal lives, perhaps also realizing that they could
not overthrow the government.
Yet the assumption proved to be mistaken.
Rather than reintegrating, a large number of them simply rejoined insurgent
groups like al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).
Driven by ideology, they had simply
bided their time while imprisoned, thinking about how to launch more
sophisticated attacks and becoming familiar with the operations of the Iraqi
The result, as Knights puts it, is that “AQI has
benefited from an unprecedented infusion of trained terrorist manpower.” This
therefore, and not the Syrian civil war, explains the claims of Iraqi and US
officials that AQI has bolstered its manpower with training camps in
What of the future? It is certainly true that many Sunni Arabs in
Iraq feel that their position will be strengthened if a Sunni-dominated
government replaces the Assad regime. Nonetheless, it is first important to note
that said Sunnis have not said they are intending to return to an armed
insurgency campaign against the Iraqi government.
Second, given the
severe damage to infrastructure in Syria caused by the civil war, as well as
problems of demography, internal displacement owing to climate change, dwindling
oil resources, and the presence of hardline jihadist factions that are at strong
odds ideologically with other rebel factions (among other things), a Syrian
government that succeeds Assad is likely to be extremely weak and far more
preoccupied with its own domestic problems – including a dangerous insurgency –
than supporting and empowering Sunni brethren in Iraq.
Third, even if the
Syrian government did have time and energy to focus on asserting the position of
Sunnis in Iraq, there is no reason to think that a post- Assad Damascus would do
so with armed support for insurgents who have already attained a high degree of
unpopularity, among all Iraqi communities, for their brutality.
contrary, given Syria’s trade ties with Iraq, a post-Assad regime would be much
more likely to try to take on a role as mediator and advisor in Iraqi politics,
similar to the way Iran tries to assert itself among the Shi’a
Finally, Landis’ own view of how Iraqi politics works is simply
based too much on an ethno-sectarian paradigm. He overlooks how the main issue
in the country today is not a Sunni-Shi’ite crisis, but the monopolization of
power under Nouri Maliki, who has built up a support base of many Sunnis in both
the judiciary and the armed forces.
Indeed, being Shi’ite is no guarantee
of securing the friendship of the premier, as illustrated by the fact that he
recently went after the Shi’ite head of the Central Bank Sinan Shabibi. This
move was not supported outside Maliki’s own state of law coalition, widely
perceived as a unilateral attempt on the premier’s part to accumulate greater
control of government.
In short, Landis is greatly exaggerating the
threat of civil war spillover from Syria into Iraq. Iraq is a country with its
own political and security dynamics that need to be taken into account before
hastily assuming a link between the Syrian civil war and supposedly growing
destabilization in Iraq.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg
Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford
University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org