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Edition 12 Volume 10 - March 21, 2012

How does the outcome in Syria affect Iraq?

Spillover from the Syrian uprising: three scenarios  - Akeel Abbas
Once the uprising in Syria started, ideological facades were blown away.

Nightmare scenario: change in Syria may be detrimental to Iraq  - Hamid Alkifaey
Old friction between the two countries has become even worse.

Iraq and the unpredictable Syrian trajectory  - Safa A. Hussein
The consequences of weakening Iran by weakening Syria would be disastrous for Iraq.

Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish issue  - Soli Ozel
If Syria remains intact, the emergence of trans-border Kurdish politics may be the most important consequence of the Syrian crisis.


Spillover from the Syrian uprising: three scenarios
 Akeel Abbas

How the uprising in Syria will effect Iraq depends largely on how events unfold in Syria--and on whom you ask in Iraq. So far, one sure effect of the Syrian uprising on Iraq has been its "clarifying" quality on the nature of politics in the new Iraq. Prior to the uprising, Syria was one lonely area where Iraqi politics did not follow its usual and frustrating sectarian lines of interpretation and alliance. Made up of a Sunni-majority people and ruled by an Alawite, Shiite-leaning minority, Syria was no ally to the ruling Shiites in Baghdad who resented Syrian harboring of conspiring Iraqi Baathists and its hesitancy to decisively curb the flow of jihadists and illegal arms into Iraq. Official Syria was also friendly to Iraqi Sunnis who were struggling against the paralyzing juggernaut of debaathification. Once the uprising in Syria started, these ideological facades were blown away, however, and Iraqi positions on Syria reoriented themselves along the lines of sect: Iraqi Shiites made known their sympathies to the Alawite regime in the name of stability, while Iraqi Sunnis sided with the Sunni majority in the name of democracy.

This sectarian realignment of positions does not augur well for Iraq and will likely deepen as the conflict in Syria intensifies. Should the regime led by Bashar Assad fall (which seems the more probable course of events), Iraqi politico-sectarian arrangements will be severely tested, if not disturbed, both for good and bad.

First, the emergence of a democratic post-Assad Syria would do a world of good for Iraq's stumbling experiment with democracy. The Arab country most similar to Iraq politically and socio-economically, Syria would serve as a good model for its eastern neighbor in how to overcome a totalitarian Baathist legacy in building a democratic structure of governance that genuinely respects pluralism, upholds equal citizenship, and avoids the appealing traps of sectarianism and religious dogma. Iraq's ethno-sectarian arrangements have so far stripped democracy of its true meaning, and a Syrian success at what Iraq has failed at so far would embarrass the latter's powerful ethno-sectarian patrons and inspire its weak democrats. These are two things that Iraq badly needs: a correct embarrassment and a good inspiration. Democratically-successful Syria can provide both.

Yet, post-Assad Syria might well go the other direction, following a roadmap not very dissimilar from Iraq's: a democratically-elected, religiously-informed, half-tolerant, Arab Sunni-majority rule heavily presiding over a multitude of restive minorities and non-confirming Sunnis. If one is to judge by the dominant trends of the "Arab spring", whereby movements of political Islam stand poised to hold the reins of power, this version of a semi-democratic Syria is the more likely one to emerge. In this case, Iraq's worst tendencies would accelerate and Syria would become another sect-based driver of conflict in Iraq.

Triumphant jihadists, buoyed by their role in overthrowing the Assad regime, would have fresh hope of repeating their success in Iraq. This could mean a renewed insurgency with an emboldened Saudi Arabia and a sympathetic Syria at its back, operating in the midst of an unopposing or nonchalant Sunni population that has increasingly grown disillusioned with the prospects of having a real voice in the new Iraq. The vicious circle would not stop here. Feeling threatened, the ruling Shiite elite, customarily unwilling to confront its own siege mentality and exaggerated Sunni-Baathist fears, would embrace a more assertive alliance with Iran as a regional counterbalance to the Sunni "onslaught". This set of circumstances basically means that Iraq would return to the 2005 run-up to its full-scale civil war.

Still, history does not need to repeat itself. A third more reasonable and less costly scenario is for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to "inoculate" Iraqi Sunnis against "unsavory" future Syrian influences. This means actively reaching out to the Sunnis to close "patriotic" ranks with them at long last. Unlike previous unfulfilled promises of Sunni inclusion, the government led by Nuri al-Maliki needs this time to quickly and clearly implement specific steps to this effect. Among other things, these include dismantling the debaathification mechanism that has unfairly targeted Sunnis, involving Sunnis meaningfully (not cosmetically) in national decision-making, improving the government's human-rights record where abuses have disproportionately affected Sunnis, and removing discriminatory practices that limit Sunni opportunities for employment in the security and armed forces in particular, and in other state institutions in general.

The cost of these steps is much lighter on the Maliki government than a new round of open-ended violence and instability, of which Iraq has already had far too much. These steps are also more conducive to the egalitarian and democratic Iraq that this government does not tire of speaking about.-Published 22/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org


Akeel Abbas is an Arab-American political analyst based in Washington, DC.


Nightmare scenario: change in Syria may be detrimental to Iraq
 Hamid Alkifaey

Syria and Iraq have been at odds for the last 50 years. Since the early 1960s, both countries have been ruled by two rival wings of the Baath Party. Both wings seized power in their respective countries via a military coup. This inter-party rivalry caused the two countries to be at each other's throats for most of this period. Both countries nurtured opposition to the other's regime. Bashar Assad's Syria hosted the Iraqi opposition in all its political and religious colors in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, while Saddam Hussein's Iraq hosted and supported the Syrian opposition, be they members of the rival Syrian Baath Party, pan-Arab nationalists or Sunni Islamists (usually members of the banned fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood).

After the fall of the regime in Iraq in 2003 and the coming to power of Syrian and Iranian-backed, and later American-supported, Iraqi opposition parties, one would have expected that the Syrian regime would back the new Iraqi government led by its former ally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was exiled in Syria for 15 years. But that didn't happen.

Instead, Assad's Syria facilitated the passage of (and perhaps trained and armed) hundreds of jihadists and suicide bombers that have crossed the border into Iraq since 2003. They spread havoc, death and destruction across the country, with Iraqi civilian casualties running into the hundreds of thousands. At the same time, Syria has given refuge to rank and file Iraqi Baathists who fled Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, launching frequent armed operations from Syrian soil into Iraq.

This old friction between the two countries worsened. The Syrian regime took active steps to destabilize the new Iraq for fear of democracy. Iraqi leaders continuously appealed to their former allies to halt the movement of terrorists and armed groups across the border, but this fell on deaf ears in Damascus, which had an interest in the failure of the new Iraqi experiment. Iraq's prime minister, fed up with false Syrian promises, filed a complaint against Syria at the United Nations and asked for an international enquiry into Syrian involvement in his country's security problem. He said he had strong evidence of Syrian involvement in major bombings that targeted the Iraqi foreign and finance ministries and left many casualties.

Al-Maliki tried later to appease the Syrian regime by sending several delegations to Damascus, one of them headed by him personally. He offered trade deals to woo the regime away from his archrival for the Iraqi premiership in 2010, Ayad Allawi. Maliki's success was only partial, but he did manage to hang on to his job.

All this happened before the "Arab spring", but by the time demonstrations began in Syria, everything had changed. Iraqi leaders stood strongly by the Syrian regime for fear of the alternative, which is perceived to be the ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslim Brotherhood that is hostile to followers of Shiite doctrine in general and critical of the American-backed Shiite regime in Iraq in particular. This stance of the Iraqi government is also in line with the policies of its other regional ally, Iran, which has been a backer of the Assad regime since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Many believe there is a religious bond between the Alawite-controlled regime in Syria, the largely-Shiite Iranians and Iraq's new leaders, but this tie is likely exaggerated. Shiite and Alawite beliefs are really quite different. The Shiites, at least, do not approve of Alawite doctrine and regard it as renegade. But both may share a common fear of a strong Sunni-dominated regime in Syria that they believe would be allied to their common rival, Saudi Arabia. Judging by what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, no one believes change in Syria will be democratic in the long term since it will bring to power a sectarian Islamic fundamentalist party. This very thought instills fear in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, as well as among religious minorities in Syria itself, including Alawites and Christians.

Given the above, regime change in Syria will have adverse implications for Iraq, especially after the position the al-Maliki government has taken towards the Assad regime. The new Syria--presumably Sunni-dominated--will certainly host and nurture an Iraqi opposition, especially one with similar political and sectarian leanings. With Iran increasing its influence in Iraq, and Syria newly fighting back against Tehran's efforts to undermine its regime using Iran's influence in Iraq, the latter will be a certain loser since it is able neither to hold back Iran nor to counter a possible Saudi-backed fundamentalist Syrian regime that is also supporting an Iraqi fundamentalist and nationalist opposition. This is a recipe for long-term instability in Iraq.

Is this scenario inevitable? Certainly not. But it's the nightmare scenario for Iraq and Iran, among others. The Iranians have proven themselves to be very pragmatic, especially while under international pressure over their nuclear ambitions. They could change alliances and establish good relations with the new Syrian fundamentalist regime, especially when it is bound to be weak and under threat from Israel. They have been allies of Hamas, which is the Palestinian version of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Also, with all these shifting alliances, Iraq has an interest in adjusting its position to have a normal relationship with the new Syria, especially when the new regime is weak and in need of economic help that Iraq and Iran could provide. It's a period of changing ties, although one thing is fixed: instability will continue to be the order of the day. -Published 22/3/2012 bitterlemons-international.org


Hamid Alkifaey is a writer and journalist. He was the first government spokesman of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and founder-leader of the Movement for Democratic Society. Currently, he is researching democratization at the University of Exeter in the UK.


Iraq and the unpredictable Syrian trajectory
 Safa A. Hussein

Iraqis celebrated the "Arab spring" that changed the regimes of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. But they are divided about the protests and uprisings in Bahrain and Syria. On the surface, it seems that this is merely a reflection of the sectarian divide in Iraq's society and politics, or of external influence on Iraq's politicians, be it from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or wherever.

But there are more important factors that shape Iraq's position on the Syrian crisis. In view of increasing popular discontent in Syria, its divided opposition, the loyalty of the bulk of the security forces, and the divided international community, the Syrian trajectory remains highly unpredictable. Here we look at a variety of possible scenarios, some with implications that present substantial risks to Iraqi national security.

The first scenario is an Assad regime without President Bashar Assad. Like what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, the regime saves itself by sacrificing the leader or leaders. This scenario is possible but not highly probable, given rising tensions between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority that dominates the regime.

In a second scenario, the regime attempts to manage the protests by force as was the case in Iran after the 2009 elections. Yet there are hardly any similarities between the two political systems, their popular support, and their security apparatuses. The regime has tried the security approach since the beginning of the protests, without success. Given the past year's developments, one might expect the violence to become bloodier and more prolonged. Yet the international community would not tolerate such bloodshed, nor would such a regime fit into the post-Arab spring Middle East. Thus this scenario would metamorphose eventually to one of the scenarios below.

A third scenario assumes military intervention like the NATO operation in Libya. But Syria is not Libya. Syria has a population density more than 30 times greater, leverage over Hizballah in Lebanon, and far stronger military forces. Hence military intervention would require a far more advanced operation than was the case in Libya and would risk high civilian casualties. In addition, should intervention take place, Iran and its allies would undertake potentially destabilizing action inside and outside Syria reminiscent of the cycle of violence in Iraq in the wake of the United States invasion. Intervention would also be welcomed by al-Qaeda in the hope that it would in turn incite popular uprisings that would open the way for the jihadists eventually to take power.

In scenario number four, the US, NATO and other allies create humanitarian corridors and/or designate safe havens guarded by the Free Syrian Army to provide relief to the Syrian population and dissident groups. The Turkish prime minister has suggested creating buffer zones for similar purposes. The problem is that the FSA is not capable of confronting coordinated attacks by the loyal Syrian army. If NATO sends peacekeeping troops, they can either be held hostage by the Syrian army or would eventually have to engage them in battle. NATO implemented a similar plan in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, but this did not prevent the massacre of thousands of Bosnians and eventually developed into a much larger military intervention.

The fifth scenario is arming the opposition, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have suggested. Though this may be the easiest course of action, it could cause regional spillover into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines. A divided Syria would become an arena for Iranian-Saudi struggle (reflecting Shiite-Sunni tensions). Syria would slide to the edge of civil war as Iraq did in 2004-2007. But with no decisive third party forces in the country as was the case in Iraq, escalation to full-scale civil war similar to Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s seems very probable. The main side-effect of such a scenario is that the majority of the rebels would become increasingly radical, allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Syria. This in turn would determine the shape of post-Assad Syria.

The US, Saudi Arabia and other countries are weighing whether they can weaken Iran geopolitically by weakening Syria--via military intervention, arming the rebels, or creating secure zones. The consequences of such policies would be disastrous for Syria's neighbors and specifically for Iraq. The most significant regional jihadist presence lies across the Syrian border in Iraq. Syria supported these insurgents from 2003 to 2007. The consolidation of Iraqi government power has greatly weakened but not eliminated them. If extremists dominate the post-Assad government or if Syria becomes a failed state, then the risk of a jihadist revival in this area threatening the stability of Iraq would be very real.

That is why Iraq hopes to find a solution in which reforms lead to peaceful transformation of the regime in Syria without a security vacuum or prolonged violence. The current effort by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy for the Syrian crisis, could be the basis of such a solution. It would save thousands of Syrian lives during the transformation process and save more lives of Syrians, Iraqis and others in the aftermath.-Published 22/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org


Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he serves in the Iraqi National Security Council.


Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish issue
 Soli Ozel

Syria, as always, is more than just Syria. The outcome of the deepening civil war or the violent fragmentation of the country will have a bearing on developments in the region, particularly for neighboring states.

The strategies chosen by the regime to fight off the challenge against it have intensified sectarian divisions. A prolonged civil war that further consolidates these divisions is likely to engulf neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, both of which have had their own sectarian calamities, and put pressure on Jordan and Turkey and possibly Israel. On the other hand, the fate of the regime and the future course of the country will also be determined by the geopolitical games that have intensified in the wake of the American withdrawal from Iraq.

As had often been the case in the past, Syria is at the center of a strategic power play that pits Arab countries, Turkey, the United States and Europe against Iran. Russia, in turn, seething with anger after what it considers to be a double cross in Libya, is using its power and ties to the regime to sustain President Bashar Assad and family in power.

The all-important contiguity between Iran and Syria and, beyond that, with Hizballah in Lebanon, is secured by the Iraqi government's support of Assad. Such choices on the part of the Iraqi leadership help deepen the sectarian dimension of the geostrategic game and increase the pressure on all regimes in the region where religious minorities exist and may be restless.

So far, the picture suggests that the Syrian regime can deploy enough violence to have the strategic upper hand on the ground. As long as Iran continues to back it and Russia does not withdraw its protection, the incentive for the regime to accept a mediated solution or a plan to leave power is very weak.

This configuration and the weighing in of Tehran and Moscow, with Beijing tagging along, have thrown Ankara off balance. Turkey invested heavily in the Syrian regime in the past decade; arguably, Syria was the centerpiece of Turkey's much vaunted "zero problems" principle in its regional foreign policy. Now, this principle is in tatters. In fact, since the departure of the Americans from Iraq and the failure of Turkey's efforts to convince Assad to reform his system, Ankara's relations with the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria are highly problematic to say the least.

After the effort to convince Assad proved futile, Turkey estimated (wrongly it now seems) that the regime did not have much staying power. Convinced of this prognosis and desiring to hold the moral high ground, Ankara toughened its stance and rhetoric vis-a-vis Damascus. It supported the opposition, allowed it to organize inside the country, settled refugees in camps and hosted the commander of the Free Syrian Army. After last ditch efforts in August failed to change Assad's ways, Ankara began to strongly condemn the Baathists and cut all dialogue, albeit while keeping its embassy open.

Soon it became evident that Turkey had a soft spot for the Muslim Brotherhood among the groups that make up the hapless Syrian National Council. Long insistent on presenting itself, a secular country, above the fray in sectarian issues, Turkey ended up being accused of siding with the Sunnis in Iraq, too, by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. With its position diametrically opposed to that of Iran in both Syria and Iraq, Ankara's relations with Tehran also soured. This tension had already been building up as a result of Turkey's inclusion in NATO's missile shield and the deployment of the radar for this system in the Turkish province of Malatya.

Given their long shared border, Turkey will be part of any plausible development concerning Syria. Recently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey was considering the creation of a buffer zone inside Syria. Given that this would mean an infringement on Syrian sovereignty and that Turkey is against international military intervention and is reluctant to intervene militarily itself, how the buffer zone would be protected is not clear. Nor is it clear where the legitimation for such a move is going to come from or whether the backing of the self-selected "friends of Syria" would suffice.

The issue of the buffer zone also brings to the fore one of the most downplayed issues related to developments in Syria and one that ties Syrian developments to those in Iraq. Since the Iraq war, and now with the unfolding events in Syria, the region's Kurdish issue has become truly transnational.

Already in Iraq, the Kurds enjoy a near independent stature in their autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Ironically, after years of writing off the Iraqi Kurdish leadership as simple tribal leaders, Turkey has established the closest of ties with the KRG. The Kurds have emerged as Turkey's natural ally in Iraq, its most important trading partner and investment destination not just regionally but globally, and a partner in containing the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) whose stronghold is the Kandil Mountains inside the KRG.

Now, Syria's Kurds have finally emerged as part of the picture nationally and regionally. Assuming Syria does not break up, it is highly likely that Syrian Kurds will enjoy more rights than they ever had before. What makes this interesting is that Turkey's nemesis, the PKK, enjoys a fair degree of popularity in the KRG and is politically very strong among Syrian Kurds. Therefore, whatever the future status of Syrian Kurds in the new Syria, an element of trans-border solidarity and perhaps cooperation will flourish. This should increase the KRG's power and influence and pit it against the PKK's presence in Syria.

As Idrees Muhammed, an observer of Turkey's foreign policy, notes, "Should Syria's Kurds be granted rights, while not replicating the situation of Iraqi Kurds, they will certainly enjoy a better life. . . . Turkish Kurds will feel themselves further oppressed by state-inspired obstacles to greater freedoms and, encouraged by their co-nationals, will be motivated to obtain greater Kurdish rights." In other words, it would be much more difficult to contain the Kurdish problem in distinct countries as a national issue. If regional sectarian strife does not break out and Syria remains territorially intact, this emergence of trans-border Kurdish politics may be the most important consequence of the Syrian crisis.

Under such circumstances, the Turkish government ought to be careful about the kind of buffer zone it wishes to establish. As Gokhan Bacik from Zirve University warns, Turkey should make sure that the zone's borders are not drawn along ethnic or sectarian lines.-Published 22/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org


Soli Ozel teaches at Kadir Has University and is a columnist for Haberturk newspaper.




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