Despite the ongoing violence in Syria, the United States would be wise to let Iraq support the Syrian regime.
As the violence in Syria has increased dramatically in recent months, much of the international community has condemned the Bashar al Assad regime and imposed sanctions designed to cripple the Syrian economy. The United States has played a key role in denouncing and imposing sanctions on Assad. Many Middle East states, even Turkey, have similarly taken strong positions against Syria. Iraq, however, has consistently supported Bashar al-Assad’s government throughout the uprising, taking a stance similar to that of Iran. While it may initially appear that the United States should put pressure on Iraq to oppose the Assad regime, the reality is that the United States would be better off giving the Iraqi government freedom to determine its own relationship with Syria.
The relationship between Iraq and Syria has historically been contentious. However, in recent years there have been moves toward rapprochement between the two countries for a number of reasons. The growing friendship between Iraq and Iran has impacted Iraq’s relationship with Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally. In the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2010, Iran encouraged Bashar al-Assad to support Nuri al-Maliki for another term as prime minister of Iraq, likely contributing to strengthened relations between Iraq and Syria, The fact that Iraq and Iran have articulated many of the same lines regarding Syria suggests that Iraq’s relationship with Iran might be a factor in its support of Syria.
Today, while other Arab states have condemned Syria and called for the regime to step down, Iraq has demonstrated its support. Iraq has not called for Assad to relinquish power, but instead has advocated gradual reform. The Maliki government has made moves to strengthen its economic ties with Syria since before the violence broke out this year and has been strengthening those ties since. This past summer, Iraq hosted a tour of Syria’s top government and business leaders, a visit that led to a new pact to increase bilateral trade. Iraq is now Syria’s biggest trading partner.
The Iraqi government also supports Syria because it fears that if the Assad regime collapses, violence could spill over into Iraq and cause further instability. Sectarianism is another important reason: Maliki is a Shia Muslim who spent years in exile in Syria before returning to post-Saddam Iraq. Quite probably Maliki feels a sectarian affinity for Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. Maliki and the Assad family both share a common fear of Sunni-led insurgencies.
Many U.S. policymakers think that after nearly a decade of American involvement, Iraq should support the United States by assuming a similar posture against Syria. However, there are important reasons why the United States should not put pressure on Iraq to do so. The American occupation and American influence have grown increasingly unpopular in Iraq. If the United States were to pressure Iraq to cease support of Assad, this would be seen in Iraq as an indication that the United States aims to exert long-term control over Iraq, thereby straining relations with the Iraqi government. American pressure on Iraq to change its stance vis-à-vis Syria would increase anti-American sentiment amongst the Iraqi population. The United States will maintain a diplomatic presence in Iraq even after American forces leave, and strained relations between Iraq and the United States will jeopardize the efficacy of diplomatic programs. Anti-American sentiment in Iraq could also put our diplomats in danger.
The United States is also anxious about Iraq’s support of Syria because it signals a deepening relationship with Iran. However fears of heightened Iranian influence should not lead the United States to tighten the reins on Iraq. Iran will undoubtedly hold some degree of influence over Iraq, but Iraqi leaders have no intention of handing their country over to Iran.
Iraq’s support of Syria is undoubtedly far from ideal. Its financial support will surely extend the life of the Assad regime while the bloodshed continues. But the United States must accept that Iraq will not cease its support for Syria. The United States must therefore continue economic sanctions against Syria without Iraq’s assistance. Pressuring Iraq to submit to American demands will strain our relations with Iraq and significantly compromise our leverage in the future. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said that Iraq no longer needs the protection of the American military. If Iraq is ready to defend itself, then it is ready to choose its own friends.
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