x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iraq worried that Syrian violence will spill over border

The crisis in Syria touches on issues Iraq continues to wrestle with and Iraqis are worried the violence will spill over the border.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syria's President Bashar Al Assad (R) welcoming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki at Al Shaab presidential palace in Damascus in 2009.
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syria's President Bashar Al Assad (R) welcoming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki at Al Shaab presidential palace in Damascus in 2009.

BAGHDAD AND DAMASCUS // Still struggling with an insurgency, corruption and political divisions on the home front, Iraqis are warily eyeing developments in Syria, fearful that any instability will cross the border and plunge their own country back into chaos.

"Regardless of what any of us think on a personal level, our main concern is that problems in Syria mean problems here and we do not need that at the moment," said an Iraqi political party official who deals with ties between the two countries. He spoke on condition of anonymity because Iraqi-Syrian relations have become a highly sensitive topic in Baghdad.

To the dismay of US and other western officials who have given billions of dollars of aid to Iraq, Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, last month firmly announced that he was backing his Syrian counterpart.

The crisis in Syria touches on issues Iraq continues to wrestle with: sectarian coexistence, problematic relationships with Iran, the United States and the Arab world, a violent insurgency and its need for economic growth.

While the fighting between Shiites and Sunnis that tore at the country following the US-led invasion of 2003 has abated, fears linger that it could erupt again.

With tensions high in Syria, and indications that sectarian murders have already begun in Homs, some Iraqis warn their own history could be repeated next door and may spill back over the border.

In Syria, members of the minority Alawite, Christian, Druze and Ishmaelite sects have been a strong source of support for the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad - an Alawite - and a continuation of the status quo. Iraqi Christians, who have endured Islamist violence, say their advice to Syrians is avoid war at all costs, and hope for political reforms.

"Syria is largely stable ...and I'd suggest it wants to stay that way," said Darreya Kanna, 58, a Christian who runs a shoe shop in Baghdad's Karrada district. "Bashar Al Assad means stability and that is the most important thing," he said.

Others see the uprising in Syria, and in particular the role played by influential Arabic-language satellite news channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabia, as part of a broader struggle for influence over the Middle East between Iran and GCC countries.

Syria and Iran have been close allies for decades, partners in the "axis of resistance", which supports Hizbollah and Hamas against Israel.

Iraq finds itself uneasily at the centre of a regional tug-of-war, trying to balance good relations with Washington and Tehran, the Gulf and Syria.

Mr Al Maliki's relationship with Mr Al Assad has been tumultuous. The Iraqi prime minister sought refuge in Damascus during Saddam Hussein's rule but, running for reelection in 2010, accused Syria of supporting Al Qaeda and Baathist insurgents who bombed government buildings in Baghdad, killing hundreds of people.

Iraq recalled its ambassador to Syria in protest and relations froze. Post-election, however, they soon thawed, with Syria, together with Iran, eventually backing Mr Al Maliki for a second term and helping him establish a ruling coalition.

Mahmoud Hassan, an MP from Mr Al Maliki's National Alliance bloc, rejected suggestions that Tehran had pressured Mr Al Maliki into supporting the Syrian leader.

"Our relationship with Syria is strategic. Their stability is our stability. We all stand with a stable and strong Syria," he said. "We do not want any issues that affect Syrian security, at the same time we hope they will find solutions that give stability and democracy."

The two governments recently signed trade and energy deals that Syrian analysts say could provide an economic lifeline for Damascus, which is coping with an embargo by western nations and Turkey.

"As long as one door is open, Syria will be able to survive any sanctions," a Damascus-based analyst said, on condition of anonymity. "If that door is to Iraq, we will always be able to import and export, and we will never run short of oil."

There are already indications that Iraq's different sects are divided over Syria. Although the issue is much more complex than simply saying that Iraq's Sunnis support Syria's Sunnis, or that the two Shiite communities are making common cause.

Iraq's Sunni community has accused Mr Al Maliki of applying double standards in his response to the Syrian and Bahraini upheavals. When Bahrain's Sunni monarchy suppressed a revolt by its Shiite majority this year, Mr Al Maliki, together with Tehran, was quick to condemn the crackdown - something neither has done with Damascus.

"The Syrian demonstrators are representing the Syrian people's demands for greater freedom and democracy and, while I support stability in Syria, I wish the regime there would negotiate with the protesters," said Tamim Al Dulaimi, a tribal sheikh from Baghdadi in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province. "If Bashar cannot give his people freedom, he should leave power."

Syrian officials have reported weapons smuggling from Iraq, suggesting Anbar tribes might be involved in arming their cousins across the border.

Sheikh Al Dulaimi insisted he only supported the principle of peaceful protests. "I do not support extremists or terrorists or smuggling weapons. These things will only create major problems."

In Baghdad, Nasir Al Rubaie, a Shiite professor at Mustansariya University, was adamant that Syria's protesters were not part of a regional outburst for democracy but Sunni militants.

"Iraq's jihadist movement is against Bashar Al Assad, and that's proof enough that the demonstrators are a front for [Sunni] extremists," he said. "It's simple; Saudi Arabia is pushing violent extremists in Syria to try to finish Bashar because he is a Shiite."

While US and European officials have been predicting the Syrian leader's days are numbered, Iraqis see little reason to believe he will be toppled.

Iraq saw its own, limited popular uprising in the summer, which was quickly stamped out by government forces. Iraqis also watched Tehran successfully quash a rebellion following the disputed 2009 presidential elections, leading them to see the successful revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia as anomalies.

"Assad is strong. He's not going anywhere," said Abu Haitham, 62, a schoolteacher in Iraq's Wasit province. "He has support from a lot of Syrians. He has a strong army and security force. He has Iran and Hizbollah at his side. I wouldn't bet against him. He will hold onto power."