Such threats from abroad and at home are effective because Iraq is weak, unstable, preoccupied with its own serious internal problems, and of course sandwiched between Iran and Syria. So pervasive are Iraqi fears of Iran's pressure that many Iraqi officials privately worry that, if Asad does fall, Tehran will double down on its intervention in Iraqi affairs to compensate for the loss of its Syrian ally. In the words of Baghdad political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari, "Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, is a main player in Iraq, so taking a different stance...might negatively affect many joint files between Iraq and Iran."
Beyond Iran's influence, several factors contribute to Iraq's anomalous pro-Asad stance. The most benign is concern over the fate of the million-plus Iraqi refugees still in Syria. Another is the personal debt owed by both Maliki and Talabani to the Syrian regime for sheltering them during the Saddam era. More substantive, perhaps, are Iraqi fears that Asad could exercise his proven ability, even now, to send still more Baathist, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists into Iraq if Baghdad turns against him. Looming over the entire scene is the huge uncertainty about what might happen after Asad falls, including the possibility that a cross-border campaign of revenge may occur if a Sunni-dominated regime prevails.
Actual sentiment by Iraqi leaders and citizens, however, reveals a possible split from public statements out of Baghdad. Many Iraqis are quietly cheering the Syrian people in their efforts against the Asad regime. And in private conversations with the authors, held both in the United States and Iraq, senior Iraqi officials took strong issue with their government's support for Asad.
As of early September, some of these divisions on the Syria issue have begun to surface, with anti-Asad views coming mostly from a handful of Sunni Arab leaders. For example, the prominent parliamentarian Usama al-Nujaifi, who as recently as last February made an official trip to Damascus to court Syrian leaders, has now denounced Asad's acts of repression. And on August 12, the chairman of Iraq's Sunni waqf called on "the Syrian army to stop killing its compatriots." A few other Sunni Arab figures have publicly echoed this message. On September 7, the maverick Iraqi politician Mithal al-Alussi spoke even more sharply, accusing the Iraqi government of secretly supporting the Asad regime.
Such voices may be new to emerge, but they are not alone. This past May, extensive discussions by the author in Iraqi Kurdistan revealed the private hope of most leaders for Asad's downfall. And within Iraq's cabinet itself, dissenting views have become vocal enough that, on August 24, President Talabani was moved to declare his "wish that the brother ministers would unite their statements" so as to avoid a "fuss" with any of Iraq's neighbors. The divisions suggested here offer precisely the basis for beginning to constrict Asad's Iraqi lifeline.
U.S. Policy Implications
Admittedly, this conundrum in Iraqi-Syrian relations comes at an extraordinarily delicate moment, as the United States and Iraq try to negotiate a new security partnership in the face of a year-end deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. The United States is understandably reluctant to overload an already precarious package with demands regarding Syria. Moreover, it is becoming apparent that Iraq's overall foreign policy will henceforth go its own way.
The cause of pushing Iraq to reverse its support for Syria is not lost, however. Discreetly, but energetically, U.S. officials should lobby their Iraqi counterparts to distance themselves immediately from Syria's dictator. Such an effort should focus first on those officials who are known to be privately receptive to such a vision. In addition, Washington should enlist the support of Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, some of which may be willing to offset the loss in Iraqi trade with Syria. And, finally, Iraq's oil pipeline to Syria might be disrupted; it has already been sabotaged at least once, on May 12.
Looking a bit farther into the future, the United States should try to put Iraqi leaders in touch with figures in the Syrian opposition, while perhaps noting that Iran is reportedly already doing the same. Though official Iraqi support for anti-Asad elements is too far-fetched to contemplate any time soon, at least such contacts might help allay Iraqi concerns about the implications of switching to a more neutral stance for now. Nor is it premature to suggest that U.S. support for Iraq's border security with Syria in a post-Asad era should become part of existing discussions about long-term security cooperation.