A vital yet utterly neglected avenue for applying pressure on Syria's beleaguered President Bashar al-Asad is lurking in plain sight: that of cutting, or at least constricting, the economic, political, and security lifeline that connects his regime to Iraq. Pursuit of such an end should be the next step for U.S. policymakers.
Even as most of Asad's former Arab, Turkish, and other friends have pulled back their support in response to Damascus's brutal crackdown on protestors and reformists, Iraq has stood out in its continuing loyalty to the regime. On an economic level, Iraq is now doing considerable trade with Syria, with the annual figure at more than $2 billion. In addition, Iraq continues to host high-level economic representatives from the Syrian regime and business community. Moreover, Iraq is supplying Syria with urgently needed oil and, in late July, agreed to enact a major expansion of the pipeline network (ostensibly costing $10 billion over three years) for both its own and Iranian oil and gas shipments to Syria and Lebanon. The Iraqi government has reportedly even agreed to renew hundreds of millions of dollars in Saddam-era contracts with Syria, as a way of infusing cash into the coffers of Asad's cronies.
Political relations between Syria and Iraq also appear to be strengthening, with ministerial-level visits occurring -- accompanied by considerable fanfare -- in June, July, and August of this year. On August 25, the independent Baghdad online daily al-Nahrayn reported in its lead article that "following up on [Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-] Maliki's letter to Asad a few days ago," senior Iraqi officials are "shuttling between Damascus and Tehran as a tripartite security alliance begins to crystallize." While reports of such an alliance are unconfirmed, they have the ring of truth given other signs pointing in the same direction.
Official rhetoric from Baghdad has reflected this warming trend toward the Syrian regime. In May, Maliki publicly advocated reform in Syria, but under Asad's direction -- and kept conspicuously silent about the massacres committed by Asad's forces. By mid-August, language from the prime minister's office had veered toward the outrageous, parroting the accusation from Damascus and Tehran that Israel, rather than Syria's own citizenry, somehow held responsibility for Asad's dire situation. Other Iraqi leaders besides Maliki have demonstrated support for Damascus. In August, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani sent one of his deputies to confer privately with the Syrian leader, without voicing a word of criticism in public. Syria's official news agency was quick to trumpet this visit as a sign of unqualified Iraqi government support. And Iraqiyah Party leader Ayad Allawi, in a Washington Post op-ed otherwise urging greater U.S. support for Arab democracy (and lamenting Maliki's defects in this regard), made no mention at all of Iraq's own opposition to democracy next door in Syria.
Iraq has also distinguished itself for the worse, as compared with Turkey, with respect to victims of Syrian repression. Whereas the Turks have left their border open for Syrian refugees fleeing Asad's depredations, Baghdad has closed its border. Iraq has also failed to emulate its Turkish neighbor by inviting Syrian dissidents to organize on its territory, appear on its television stations, or meet with its officials. And unlike leaders in Turkey, as well as Riyadh and other regional capitals, senior leaders in Baghdad have expressed no impatience with Asad's bloody crackdown.
The Iran Factor
Underlying Baghdad's position on Syria is intense pressure from the Iranians. For example, Iran has recently ramped up its shelling of Iraqi border areas in the north.
While such actions are ostensibly directed against a handful of rebels from the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), they signal in reality Iran's ability to punish Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) if either strays too far from Tehran's policy preferences. Bolstering such an assumption, on September 5, Iran summarily rejected a ceasefire offer from PJAK and, in reaction, on September 7, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, reportedly canceled a visit to Tehran. On the Western front, one major Iranian newspaper warned on August 29 that Syria could export "warfare" to its neighbors if they turned against its regime; on the same day, another Tehran paper warned that Muslims would take to the streets in protest against a government that abandoned Asad. Even more ominously, the radical, Iran-allied Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced in late August that he was now standing up against the call for Asad's resignation "by the 'Leader of Evilness' Obama and others."