As 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.

A 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.

From the 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.

Iraq 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 Syria.

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 this.

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 in 2010.

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 Iraq.

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.

While 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.

Following 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 Iran.

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 Hamas.

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 down it.

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.

Whether the 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.

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