Metternich in Baghdad

No, America hasn't "lost" Iraq. But a dangerous realpolitik is the new normal in Baghdad.

Jason Reed - Pool/Getty Images
Jason Reed - Pool/Getty Images

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in March on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was little doubt that he would raise the issue of Iranian flyovers to Syria, which the United States suspects are being used to funnel weapons to the Syrian regime. Convinced that external support gives Syrian President Bashar al-Assad false confidence that he can prevail over rebel forces, Barack Obama’s administration has repeatedly tried — and failed — to persuade Maliki to deny Iran Iraqi airspace. (In exchange for halting the flights, Kerry offered Iraq a role in any international negotiations about a post-Assad Syria.)

The Iraqi prime minister’s apparent intransigence has lent credence to the idea that the United States has somehow "lost" Iraq. A more accurate characterization would be that, following the end of the U.S. occupation in 2011, Iraq is simply reasserting its regional role — bridging external realities with internal interests.

The new Iraq is no longer just an observer or victim of the whims of regional gamesmanship; it is now a player in that game. But as the recent surge in sectarian violence has demonstrated, domestic concerns are never far from the surface — and they bear directly on the country’s foreign-policy calculus.

In April, deadly clashes between government forces and demonstrators in the Sunni city of Hawija set off a chain reaction of retaliatory attacks across Iraq that threaten to plunge the country into the kind of sectarian war it experienced between 2005 and 2007. The month of April was the deadliest since June 2008, with 712 Iraqis killed, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. Just this past week, more than 200 people were killed, as Shitte and Sunni neighborhoods and places of worship were targeted in a cycle of sectarian violence reminiscent of the civil war period. Today, the scenario of two, adjacent civil wars along sectarian lines is becoming a growing reality.

Today, Iraq’s fragile and nascent political system is overheating, with internal and external pressures reaching unsustainable levels. The country’s traditional coolants — the psychological effect of the U.S. military presence and war fatigue among the general population — have disappeared and worn off, respectively. At the same time, new forces are propelling the country toward conflict: "The peaceful demonstrations are over," a Sunni tribal leader in Hawija warned recently. "Now we are going to carry weapons. We have all the weapons we need, and we are getting support from other provinces."

With a sectarian storm brewing in his own country — as well as one across the border in Syria threatening to turn up the heat — Maliki’s concerns have grown considerably since September 2011, when his government signaled that Assad should step aside and make room for a political transition. Now, as he weighs America’s requests to halt Iranian flyovers, he must consider what the victory of a mostly Sunni Syrian insurgency would mean for the balance of power inside Iraq.

To be sure, Maliki considers Assad neither a friend nor an ally. Although the Alawite sect to which Assad subscribes is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Baghdad has long viewed Damascus with deep suspicion, seeing it as a facilitator of the Sunni insurgency within Iraq’s own borders. Assad has also meddled directly in Iraqi politics, even attempting to prevent Maliki from winning a second term as prime minister in 2010. In July of that year, for example, in the midst of Iraq’s post-election political stalemate, Assad relayed a message to Tehran from Maliki’s archrival, Ayad Allawi, requesting support for an alternative compromise candidate. The Iranians, of course, rebuffed Allawi’s request, but only after Maliki became the inevitable choice did Assad finally bite his tongue and back the incumbent.

Against this backdrop, many observers view Iraq’s tacit support for Assad as the result of external pressure and emblematic of declining U.S. influence and the superiority of Iranian clout. But though fighting in Syria has indeed situated Washington and Baghdad on opposing sides in a regional proxy war — with Iraq siding with Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah — Maliki’s foreign policy is not the product of Iranian arm-twisting. Rather, it reflects the regime’s interests, which given the heightened sectarian environment, happen to dovetail with those of Iran. Maliki has many reasons to fear Assad’s ouster, and for now he’s simply bandwagoning on Iran’s efforts to prop him up.

In many ways, Maliki is like any other Arab leader — paranoid, conspiratorial, sensitive to criticism, and, most especially, aware of threats to his rule and credibility. He is not governing Iraq, but ruling it — and he’s bent on surviving at whatever cost. During his tenure, Maliki has proved to be a man of many biases and few principles. Nationalism and sectarianism, for example, are not political ideologies to him, but political tools. He plays the anti-Kurdish card when he needs to be an Arab nationalist, and he plays the anti-Sunni card when he needs to be regarded as the Shiite guardian. Maliki’s supporters "are not motivated by a shared ideology," writes Iraq scholar Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn of the National Defense University. "They are driven, instead, by the acquisition and holding of power, and above all are deeply committed to keeping Prime Minister Maliki in power," he writes.

Since he consolidated power in 2008, Maliki’s doctrine has been about maintaining the primacy of the regime. As he stands atop the political pyramid, his minimalist aim is to preserve the status quo, neutralizing potential threats that could undermine his authority or Iraq’s Shiite political order. But given the highly uncertain regional and political environment — compounded by pervasive distrust, weak national institutions, and a political culture that is colored by a history of coups — Maliki has been compelled to go on the offensive (purging the country’s security forces of political rivals and installing his own loyalists in key government positions). If he does not make a power grab, his enemies will.

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With the U.S. military no longer an occupying power, Maliki’s doctrine of regime survival now must be projected beyond Iraq’s borders. For the prime minister and his cadre of loyalists, the neighboring civil war in Syria represents an existential threat to the regime — one with security, political, and strategic dimensions.

The security threat posed by the Syrian conflict is the most immediate, as anti-Assad forces have signaled their intention to carry on the revolution outside Syria’s borders. The formation of countless armed Sunni militias next door has aroused considerable fear in Baghdad — and rightly so. After ridding Syria of Assad, these insurgents could potentially turn their attention and Persian Gulf resources on Maliki’s regime in Iraq. As Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s minister of transportation, warned in February, "Presenting money and weapons to al Qaeda [in Syria] by Qatar and Turkey is a declaration of armed action against Iraq.… These weapons will reach Iraqi chests for sure."

The threat is already on Maliki’s doorstep. Sunni insurgents in Iraq are currently attempting to merge Iraq and Syria into a single sectarian theater of war. The recent joint venture of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Jabhat al-Nusra — the most effective rebel group fighting Assad in Syria — hints at the potential for a transnational sectarian cause aimed at removing Shiites from power.

But it’s not just al Qaeda branches that unite the threats on either side of the border. The weak national identity and artificial borders of both countries — byproducts of the fall and breakup of the Ottoman Empire — have laid the foundation for a growing nexus between the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. As Middle East scholar Kenneth Pollack recently wrote, "The fact that many Sunni Arab tribes span the border simply adds fuel to that fire: the Shammaris, Dulaimis, Ubaydis and other tribesmen of Iraq are glad to help their cousins across the border fight the Shia regime in Damascus."

Today, sympathy for the fellow Sunnis fighting a Shiite ruler can be seen expressed throughout Sunni demonstrations in Iraq, as flags of the Free Syrian Army are raised and celebrated in Iraqi protests. Rumors about the formation of a so-called "Free Iraqi Army" in Anbar province — aligned with its Syrian counterpart and waiting to carry out a revolution in Iraq — have only deepened Maliki’s paranoia. Should the Assad regime collapse, the prime minister has few illusions about what would happen: "The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq," he said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

On the political front, victory by anti-Assad forces would threaten Maliki by invigorating his domestic political rivals. The prime minister’s opponents privately admit that they are waiting for the downfall of the Syrian regime and preparing to channel that momentum toward pushing Maliki out with a no-confidence vote. Maliki has survived such attempts in the past, but he will certainly be more vulnerable if the Syrian regime collapses.

At the very least, Maliki would like to see Assad remain in power until after the 2014 parliamentary election, when he will be seeking a third term as prime minister. Maliki is far more vulnerable today than he was in the run-up to the 2010 general election, when his campaign focused on ending the U.S. military occupation and improving security in Iraq — both of which are obsolete slogans for this election cycle. It will be fear, not success, that drives his reelection bid. Not only has the prime minister alienated potential political allies by repeatedly failing to follow through on deals, but he has grown increasingly heavy-handed, deploying his security forces to sideline opponents and sparking large demonstrations against his rule.

Going into the 2014 elections, the Iraqi leader is looking at establishing a cross-sectarian coalition with Sunni Arab nationalists who have grown discontent with their fellow Sunnis’ cooperation with the Kurds. But an early Syrian rebel victory could easily upend Maliki’s efforts by healing divisions within the opposition. Were that to happen, Maliki’s political survival would be very much at risk.

Finally, Assad’s ouster represents a strategic threat to Maliki’s regime because it promises to upset the regional balance of power. Since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has struggled to assert sovereignty over its internal affairs, leaving the country exposed as a sectarian battleground for regional competition to play out on. Lengthy efforts by the United States to reintegrate Iraq back into the Arab fold, moreover, have produced only superficial results. Sectarian barriers to trust have limited the scope and depth of cooperation between Shiite Iraq and Sunni Arab leaders, who view Baghdad as an extension of Iranian power.

Politics in Iraq is not a game played by Iraqis alone. As Assad’s attempt to meddle in Iraq’s last government-formation crisis demonstrated, regional power politics weigh heavily on the domestic political process. Today’s emerging Middle East map is not only unfavorable to Maliki’s regime, but also to Iraq as a Shiite-ruled state. The rise of a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus would align the new state with Iraq’s regional adversaries. While Sunni Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood are being empowered across the region, Iraqi Shiites are experiencing the fears of hostile encirclement.

In Shiites’ traumatized psyche, the return of Sunni hegemony is always a near reality. Without confidence that the Arab world has definitively accepted Iraq as a Shiite state — forever immune from outside efforts to reinstall a Sunni political order — that fear will play a dominant role in Iraq’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, fear about what comes next is prompting many Iraqis to question why the United States is apparently siding with terrorists (and al Qaeda) against a secular regime. It is one thing for Assad to fall as an indigenous outcome; it is another for the United States to be perceived as siding with one sect in what is essentially a sectarian civil war.

The prospect of Syria becoming a hostile actor aligned with regional adversaries is a scenario taken seriously in Baghdad. Indeed, Iraq’s recent international arms purchases were motivated, at least in part, by the desire to build up defense capabilities in the face of an increasingly volatile regional environment.

But it goes beyond defense. Should Assad’s regime crumble, it is in Baghdad’s interests that any future government in Damascus be weak and dysfunctional — hunkered down with internal crises and unable to stir up trouble in Iraq. Just as Saudi Arabia and Iran attempted to keep post-Saddam Iraq weak and divided, Maliki’s government won’t likely play a constructive role in post-revolutionary Syria.

To the extent that Baghdad has flirted with diplomacy in Syria, it has advocated a power-sharing agreement to replace the existing one-party system. In other words, Maliki does not want a majoritarian system to emerge in Damascus. Ironically, he hopes Syrians will adopt the same model of government he has worked for years to undermine in Iraq.

But as the insurgency has grown more radicalized, Iraq has lost confidence in the prospect of an inclusive governing coalition in Syria. This outlook has left Baghdad with no realistic alternative but to support efforts that prolong Assad’s survival, hoping for the best while delaying the worst. Today, Washington does not have the credibility to sell international talks as a venue for getting outside actors, particularly Iraq, to buy in and alter their calculus. For Maliki, taking up Kerry’s offer would be nothing short of a leap of faith — one that could very well lead to his own demise.

Ramzy Mardini is an associate at the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago Twitter: @RamzyMardini

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