BAGHDAD: The crisis in Syria is threatening to rupture Iraq’s precarious sectarian divide, which some say may re-ignite into a civil war.
Wedged between Syria’s greatest ally, Iran, and its greatest foe, Turkey, with its own volatile ethnic makeup, oil riches and fresh out of years of civil strife, Iraq is desperately clinging to a neutrality on the Syrian crisis.
That policy is being increasingly put to the test as players from across Iraq’s fragile political spectrum begin to take sides in a war of increasing sectarian dimensions.
“This situation is not going away,” said U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Joel Rayburn, former U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq, now at the National War College.
Fighters from across Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurd communities have crossed from Iraq into Syria to assist their compatriots in Syria.
Sunni fighters from Iraq’s Anbar province, where familial and tribal affiliations span a porous border, openly told The Daily Star they are assisting mainly Sunni fighters battling President Bashar Assad’s forces with money, men and weapons.
Syrian Kurds are being trained to fight alongside other Kurdish forces by Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan government against Free Army and Assad forces.
And Shiite fighters, encouraged by clerics in Najaf and northern Mosul, are reportedly being sent from Iran and Iraq to Syria to defend Shiite shrines and fight alongside Assad’s regime, dominated by members of the Alawite sect.
Iraq has maintained an official position of neutrality on the crisis. It abstained from an Arab League vote to impose economic sanctions on the country, has opposed calls to arm the opposition and rejected Western demands for Assad to step down.
From his Baghdad office, Ali Musawi, chief adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Iraq is committed to a political solution for “necessary changes” in Syria.
“We are on the side of change – change that must happen in Syria,” he added. “Gone is the time of hereditary rule and the monopoly of power by one party.
“There are no red lines in this process,” he said when asked whether that could include Assad’s departure.
But accusations are rife that Maliki is pursuing a sectarian agenda to consolidate Shiite power in Iraq and that the crisis in Syria is pushing Iraq closer to Iran’s orbit.
Facing a revived Sunni insurgency that has killed hundreds of Shiites inside Iraq this year alone, and without the cover of recently departed American troops, Maliki is wary of a Sunni-led state in Syria that could join forces with the Sunni opposition at home.
Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, whose Iraqiya parliamentary bloc reluctantly entered a power-sharing agreement with Maliki’s Dawa Party and is now facing multiple death sentences in absentia on terror charges, has accused Maliki of stoking sectarian tension.
Mass arrests of former Baathists and Sunnis accused of terrorism are frequent, along with allegations that Maliki is stacking parliamentary bodies, the army, and security institutions with Shiite sympathizers.
Hamed Obeid al-Mutlaq, an MP with the Iraqiya bloc who sits on Iraq’s parliamentary security and defense committee, said sectarian strife is a direct result of Iranian intervention.
“The best way that the government can avoid these consequences is by not taking sides with the Syrian government, but by being neutral and fair,” Mutlaq said. “We must not comply with Iranian pressure to stand by Assad. We must have a good relationship with the Syrian people because I believe the Assad government will be finished eventually.”
Iraq has agreed to ship millions of dollars of low-cost oil to the Syrian regime, a move widely interpreted as tacit support for Damascus.
The U.S. has also publicly accused Iran of using Iraqi airspace to transport weapons to Syria, a charge Iraq denies.
Iraq recently signed – then reversed – a controversial $4.2 billion military deal with Russia, Assad’s other chief ally and main arms supplier. The deal is under review.
Iran also recently announced it has begun construction of a $10 billion gas pipeline to Syria that would partially traverse Iraq.
Musawi insisted Iraq’s economic deals are separate from its stance of political neutrality, adding that the government opposes sanctions that affect populations.
Challenging accusations of sectarianism, he said “irresponsible” Gulf states and Turkey were “spreading extremism” in the region and challenged “anyone to prove that Maliki has exceeded his constitutional rights ... while these [terrorist] groups have tens of violations of the law.”
“There is a difference between trying to monopolize power and trying to restore power and stability from chaos,” he said.
He said Maliki’s security forces were making concerted efforts to bolster security and intelligence capabilities to combat what he described as a “legitimate threat,” but said Iraq “needs support from neighboring states.”
Rayburn said Maliki’s motivations on Syria were a combination of “sectarianism and pragmatism.”
“They have made up their mind that the outcome of a Sunni Syrian state would result in the transport of Sunni jihad through their borders,” he said. “That is their overriding concern, second is Iranian pressure.”
Maliki and Assad make awkward bedfellows. Maliki went to the U.N. in 2008, ironically accusing Assad of inciting sectarian violence in Iraq through facilitating the movement of Sunni extremists the other way across its border.
“When the Syrian regime was acting as a Sunni power in Iraq, they opposed it. Now that Assad is behaving as a Shiite power in the region, propped up by Iran, he is tolerable to Maliki,” Rayburn said to explain what he described as an “explicit reversal in policy on Syria.”
But, Rayburn said the policy was counterproductive and could lead to further sectarian division.
“Maliki sees a Baathist resurgent plot everywhere and they need to purge it.”
“The threat is not zero. The fact that Al-Qaeda and others can do this – the bombings and all of that – means there is some level of support for them in the Sunni community.”
“But they are doing it because they feel like Maliki is sidelining them and consolidating power.”
Political analyst Ibrahim al-Soumaydaie said he is “terrified we are on the brink of a new civil war.”
“Arab ... monarchies are trying to push the bad Arab Spring to Iraq. They are trying to remove the Shiites from the region.”
He said he feared that may “push” Baghdad to take preemptive action by “taking total control of the security forces and tacitly supporting Shiite militia to confront Sunni insurgents.”
Moreover, he said there was a danger Kurdish forces may align with Sunnis in confrontation with Baghdad.
Government troops and Kurdish Peshmerga forces clashed last week in the disputed northern oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
“It is a very dangerous situation. The sectarianism here in Iraq is deeper than in Syria. When someone triggers the sectarianism here, no one can stop it,” Soumaydaie said.